Picking Fonts for Your Self-Published Book

by Joel Friedlander on June 13, 2012 · 28 comments

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One of the first and most basic questions you need to answer if you’re going to be creating your own book design is: What fonts should I use?

Since the beginning of the so-called desktop publishing era in the 1980s which was boosted by computers’ new ability to show accurate graphics in “what you see is what you get” displays, millions of computer users have become familiar with fonts.

Ever since, computers have come bundled with fonts. This single fact is responsible for the overwhelming popularity of both Times New Roman and Arial, and that has had mixed blessings for creators and consumers alike.

Since the “default” font is usually set to Times New Roman or Arial, these fonts have spread far and wide, whether they were appropriate for the jobs they were asked to do, or not.

The Problem with Defaults

Computer engineers can be forgiven for putting these fonts in a premium position. After all, they wanted to make sure even a user who had no knowledge of or interest in fonts would still get a good, or at least an acceptable, result.

But there are problems with that approach, too. Times New Roman, for instance, is a font originally designed under the supervision of Stanley Morrison in 1931 for use in the Times of London newspaper.

Its efficient set width and other internal properties of the design were intended to be readable in the narrow columns of a newspaper, not in the more ample environment of a book.

Arial is a copy of Helvetica, probably the most popular font in the recent history of typography (and the only typeface I know of to have an entire feature film made about it) is wonderful for many uses. But it’s not really intended for readers in the United States, who are unused to seeing entire books set in sans serif fonts.

Better Solutions for Your Font Needs

Luckily, as computers have become more powerful and users more sophisticated about typography (the art of designing with type) there has also been an explosion of new fonts from lots of new designers.

So it might surprise you to find out that by far the best fonts for use in books are the oldest.

Or, if not the oldest, the fonts based on the oldest designs for fonts, those that originated in the very beginning of book printing in the late 15th century.

In fact, probably the best fonts for book design are from a family of type designs we call “oldstyle” so that will give you some idea what I’m talking about.

Recognizing Oldstyle Fonts

These fonts were based on the writing of calligraphers, the scribes who, before the invention of printing, were responsible for making copies of books by writing them out.

Oldstyle fonts have characteristics that show that origin, and which make them ideal for book composition. (For a more complete discussion, check this link to oldstyle fonts.)

There are three identifying characteristics to oldstyle fonts:

  1. Tilted axis–If you look closely at a round letter like an “O” or “C” you’ll notice there are thicker strokes and thinner ones. In oldstyle fonts, the axis of these letters is tilted, so that if you draw a line through the thinnest parts, it will be slightly off-center. This imitates the way the scribes would naturally write with a square-tipped pen.
  2. Moderate stroke variation–Look again and you’ll see that the thin and thick strokes, although noticeably different, do not vary all that much. In other words, the thick strokes are thick, but not hugely so. This is also due to the way a square-tipped pen creates a varying stroke as you create each character.
  3. Rounded or bracketed serifs–Serifs are the little bits of strokes like the “legs” on an “i” or the ending strokes on letters that look strictly decorative. These serifs are also due to the scribes, and the way their pens would leave a tiny flourish when they finished a stroke. Serifs help letters stick together as words, and that helps readability quite a bit.

Fonts That Work in Books

Okay, so now you know how to recognize oldstyle fonts, how is that going to help you? Let’s take a look at some of my favorite fonts for interior book design, and you’ll see.

  • Garamond–There are many versions of typefaces known as Garamond, and this is one of the most popular families of fonts for use in books. A classic oldstyle font, Garamond is named for Claude Garamond, a publisher in 16th century France, and has given rise to many other similar typefaces like the also useful Sabon.
  • Caslon–This font originated with William Cason, one of England’s first printers and has been popular ever since. Caslon is one of the most widely-used typefaces for text and works very well in books.
  • Minion–A modern invention, Minion was designed by Robert Slimbach for Adobe Systems and has gone on to become one of the favorite fonts for book designers due to its regular color, interesting letterforms and the variety of weights and styles available.
  • Janson Text–Another Adobe font, Janson is based on a typeface created in the Netherlands in the 17th century, and our recent version was created by famed type designer Hermann Zapf in the 1950s.
  • Palatino–For a long time Palatino was the most popular oldstyle font of all, because it was included in the base set of fonts shipped with every new Macintosh, the original desktop publishing platform. Although it’s a beautiful font with some idiosyncrasies that designer Hermann Zapf included, I no longer use Palatino for books, exactly because it has been so over-exposed. But you might love it, so give it a try.

Putting it Together

Although these fonts have a lot in common, they will create books that look subtly different.

The best way to find out how your book will look and feel is to set some sample pages in each one. While you might have trouble telling the difference between a Caslon “e” and a Minion “e”, when you see a whole page with thousands of characters on it, they will look noticeably different.

I don’t think any one of these oldstyle fonts is more appropriate than the others for specific types of books. Much more depends on your skill as a designer, and the tools you’re using to create your book design.

Typesetting with a word processor is never going to give you the smooth color, sophisticated hyphenation, and fine control over your type that you can get with a professional-level program.

But by picking the right typeface at the beginning, you’ll ensure that your book can be readable and conform to long-standing book publishing practices.

And that’s no small thing.

More Articles on Fonts for your Book

5 Favorite Fonts for Interior Book Design
Square-Serif Fonts Pack a Typographic Punch
5 Great Fonts for Book Covers
3 Great Typeface Combinations You Can Use in Your Book
7 New Typeface Combinations for Book Design

Originally published in a slightly different form at CreateSpace. Photo by fontfont

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    { 19 comments… read them below or add one }

    Eyes May 30, 2014 at 2:57 pm

    Is Book Antiqua an acceptable font to use in a book as the regular text? Also, I’m using Big Caslon for the headings, and would like to know if that, too, would work.
    Thank you,
    Eyes

    Reply

    Pat April 11, 2014 at 6:40 am

    Good morning,
    A veteran friend has typed out a memoire, along with pictures set on a sky like background. I tried to scan it as JPEG and then as a PDF. Both use a lot of memory and for me, are difficult to manipulate. Decided to type it out.
    His manuscript font is much like old English, heavy with lots of curlicues …
    It’s also cumbersome to read. Obviously, he likes old style flowery fonts. Any suggestions? Would like something that will also be easy to read.
    Thank you,
    Pat

    Reply

    Anonymous July 17, 2013 at 6:00 am

    Can I know what font is used for the story text in the Alex Rider books by Anthony Horowitz?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander July 18, 2013 at 11:27 am
    Ritwik Ojha August 9, 2013 at 11:58 pm

    Yep, that’s Officina Sans. If you just open that copyright page, you will see that there is a line called ‘Typset in so-and-so-font.’
    Feels good to help.

    Reply

    Ritwik Ojha May 19, 2013 at 9:15 pm

    Uhm…Is Comic Sans MS a good idea for a book? I was planning to use Officina Sans CTT but then I saw that Anthony Horowitz had used it for his Alex Rider books, so I can’t use it. Another good font for a spy novel could be Agency FB, but its too small, and if you try it, a hundred page book will become an eighty page one. Please help me.

    Reply

    Ritwik Ojha May 19, 2013 at 9:15 pm

    Uhm…Is Comic Sans MS a good idea for a book? I was planning to use Officina Sans CTT but then I saw that Anthony Horowitz had used it for his Alex Rider books, so I can’t use it. Another good font for a spy novel could be Agency FB, but its too small, and if you try it, a hundred page book will become an eighty page one. Please help me.

    Reply

    John Jugenschild November 9, 2012 at 10:10 pm

    Joel,
    your article is so well formatted that it converts very nicely into a PDF, with bookmarked headings and all! Compliments. Thanks for all the tips, too. I’m about to embark on a series of works for publishing.

    Reply

    Esme Ellis July 19, 2012 at 3:07 am

    Hi Joel, Decades ago — feels like centuries – I was at art college and studied what was called in those days, lettering. I learned to carve letters and used a scrip pen and a Chinese pen and brush. What you say above about the ‘titled axis’ and serifs brought it all back. I learned to appreciate and value these aesthetic subtleties. Three cheers! Wonderful. Thanks for making these great fonts available to aspiring authors with taste.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander July 19, 2012 at 9:34 am

    A background in hand lettering will give you a much deeper appreciate of typefaces and especially the oldstyle fonts that derive directly from the pens of calligraphers. Thanks for your comment, Esme.

    Reply

    chris June 21, 2012 at 7:40 am

    Which of these fonts (and what size) do you recommend for the body text of a non-fiction (how-to style) book?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 21, 2012 at 9:28 am

    Chris,

    Over the years I’ve designed and produced many nonfiction books that use these fonts, especially the first four (I’m not that big a fan of Palatino, although it remains a good choice for many self-publishers).

    Although I’ve written many articles on type and typography, I generally avoid recommending specific type sizes because each book is very different, and that’s even more true for nonfiction than it is for fiction. But as a starting point, I usually begin with 11 point and adjust from there. You didn’t ask, but the leading (space from one line to the next) is just as important as your type size.

    Hope that helps.

    Reply

    Lillian Pierson June 17, 2012 at 10:27 am

    Joanne- Thanks so much for these recommendations! They made the finalization of my book just that much easier. I am going with Palatino because it seems easiest to read.

    Reply

    Maggie June 14, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    Michael:

    What lovely choices. Charlemagne is one of my favorites. Another is Serlio. Caps only, but utterly elegant.

    Maggie

    Reply

    Michael E. Newton June 14, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    I’ve settled on Minion Pro for the main text in my books. I think it works very well with my genre (history). Caslon would be another good choice, but I like Minion slight more.

    In my first book, I used Charlemagne for my chapter titles and headings because I also used that as the font on my cover. That font went very well with the theme of my book, so loved it as my headings. My last book, I went boring and just used the same Minion Pro for my chapter titles and headings.

    Not sure what I’m going to use this time. I might use Trajan on my cover, so I could stick with that for my chapter titles and headings. Is that a good combination? What other fonts go well with Minion Pro? (My next book is about Alexander Hamilton, if that helps with the decision.)

    Reply

    RD Meyer June 14, 2012 at 12:14 am

    What are your thoughts on multiple fonts throughout a book. I’m not talking about going wild, but two or three times to convey a different mood or make an emphatic point?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 14, 2012 at 4:00 pm

    My thought is to avoid it, RD. This is common in books done by do-it-yourselfers but not nearly as common in books designed by professional book designers. There are many ways to distinguish different voices or parallel text streams and, at least in my opinion, they are all better than switching fonts throughout the book.

    Keep in mind that it’s the language you use and your skill as a writer that’s going to “convey a different mood or make an emphatic point” and no amount of type tweaking will or should replace that.

    Reply

    Maggie June 13, 2012 at 7:03 am

    Ah, such a great way to begin the day. Thanks, Joel. I love articles like this, especially from someone whose judgment and knowledge I trust. May I add another favorite text font to your list: Sabon.

    (from Wikipedia):

    Sabon is the name of an old style serif typeface designed by the German-born typographer and designer Jan Tschichold (1902–1974) in the period 1964–1967. The typeface was released jointly by the Linotype, Monotype, and Stempel type foundries in 1967.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 13, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    Hi Maggie,

    Yep, Sabon is another one of my favorites. This article was written for CreateSpace, so I was trying to keep the choices to things DIY authors might realistically find practical. And Tschichold has to be a favorite for lots of us who love type!

    Reply

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