Self-Publishers Start Here: Understanding Fonts & Typography

by | Aug 10, 2010

In my recent blog redesign I added the “Start Here” categories on the left sidebar to make it easier to find articles with basic information about self-publishing. Each introduces a stage on the journey to publication with links from the archives of TheBookDesigner. This is the fourth in the series, and I hope you find something in these articles to enjoy and profit from.

Understanding Fonts & Typography

The design of your book has a critical part to play in how readable it is, how well it communicates the ideas you’ve taken such effort and care to write.

Whether you’re designing the book yourself, or hiring a professional book designer, it pays to understand the basic building blocks that books are made of: type fonts and they way they are arranged on the page—typography.

After deciding on the size of your book, the next big design decision is picking a type font for the body of your book. Although many classic book typefaces look similar they can have a sizable affect on the overall look and readability of the page.

Here are some articles that will give you a little background in book typography:

5 Favorite Fonts for Interior Book Design
3 Great Typeface Combinations You Can Use in Your Book

There are thousands of type faces avaialbe for digital typography, most of which are available for download at various type foundries on the web. But very few of these fonts are used for books.

Classic Book Typefaces

Most of the typefaces we use for books are classic typefaces, either oldstyle or transitional designs. The designs of these typefaces trace their roots to the very infancy of printing, in the years when printing with type first spread from Germany thoughout Europe.

It was in Italy that the earliest type designers and book printers created many of the letterforms that influence us today. You could say that our culture has grown up, grown literate, and grown learned through the agency of these typefaces, and I think that’s one of the reasons they have such a firm place in our cultural history.

Here’s an article I wrote for Self-Publishing Review that will give you some idea of the kind of history embedded in our typefaces:

Deconstructing Bembo: Typographic Beauty and Bloody Murder

Typography on the Book Page

When you start designing and laying out your pages in whatever program you’re using, you want your book to look professional. You can do this by conforming to standard conventions and making good choices.

Here are some articles that deal with the makeup of book pages:

Elements of the Book Page
5 Layout Mistakes that Make You Look Unprofessional
The Title Page
The Poetry of the Typography of Poetry
Book Page Layout for a Long Narrative
The Typographer’s Curse: Automatic Leading

The Coming of the EBooks

Behind the self-effacing practice of book design lies the history of the printed book, and all the marvelous innovators and printers who came before us. While we don’t yet know how far books will travel away from the classical models that have ruled book design for centuries, we can be sure that digitization and the evolution of ebooks will change typography forever.

Now we’re just seeing the beginnings of what will eventually become a robust capacity for typographic design. Caution though, it may be a bit rocky getting there:

Apple iPad Typography: Fonts We Actually Want
iPad’s ePub: The “Book” of the Future?
Books on the iPad’s iBookstore

Your book is taking shape now, starting to look like the book it will become. Tasteful and readable typography will do its part to help make your book stand out from the crowd. As your book moves closer to completion, you’ll move on to our next topic, Making Print Choices. Onward.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Paul Brookes

    I guess the problem here is that the average self-publisher doesn’t know enough about typography and Word’s advanced functions (and is also unlikely to buy new typefaces), so books are always going to look like standard office documents.

    On the other hand, they may not be willing to pay a designer to lay out a book.

    I wonder if, in many cases, it would be good to encourage people to learn something like LyX (a WYSIWYG editor that outputs Latex)?

  2. Michael N. Marcus

    When I started designing websites about 15 years ago, the strategy was to view a new site with multiple (MANY!) browsers, different monitors, different screen resolutions, on both Mac and PC, to make sure that the site would work for everyone.

    Then WebTV came out.

    It so badly butchered my formatting that I simply decided that if a potential shopper was so stupid or so broke that he or she was using WebTV instead of a real computer, I didn’t want the business.

    Today I have a pretty good idea how sites will look based on what I see on my own monitor using IE. I sometimes check Opera, Firefox, Safari and Chrome, and an iPhone and iPad–but NEVER WebTV.

    Michael N. Marcus
    — Independent Self-Publishers Alliance,
    — “Become a Real Self-Publisher: Don’t be a Victim of a Vanity Press,”
    — “Get the Most out of a Self-Publishing Company,”
    — “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),”

  3. Deb Dorchak

    Ahhh…great post to start the day with. Thanks, Joel.

    One thing I’m finding with digital formatting is the lack of versatility when it comes to typography. Having to simplify everything down to just the most basic of formats is frustrating when you really want to use something more aesthetic than Times Roman or Arial. It’s like the beginning days of web design where the choices were limited.

    There’s also very little control over how your book is going to show up in the various readers. Again, as with websites and all the different browsers, I have several different programs to help me see how the final book might look on the different platforms.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Yes, there is a remarkable similarity to early web sites, and with good reason, since HTML is at the base of both.

      Yet I’ve recently seen several EPUB ebooks that seem to get it right more of the time and don’t look like they’ve been through a “meatgrinder” to get converted.

      Of course, as a print designer the whole idea that you will lose control of what the book looks like, even what font the user will read it is, is a bit disheartening. But I think this is transitional and as the tools improve, so will the books.

      Thanks for your comment, Deb.

      • Deb Dorchak

        So very true, we’re starting over again, aren’t we? So far the one format that looks the best is Kindle’s .mobi files. Very nice and clean. The .epub is a little trickier since it’s open to more devices.

        But! We’re the ones on the front lines developing all this stuff and eventually we’ll get it refined. It’s going to take traditional print designers and coders to work hand in hand to clean it all up.

        I think overall it’s not a matter of which is better, but how we can make both mediums work for us. A tool is just a tool until you know how to use it effectively. I mean, sheesh, we’ve had the internet for how long now and so many people are just beginning to learn how to use it effectively for business?



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