Your Font Choice: How Much Does it Matter?
Choosing a font for your book can be a difficult task. It’s one of those things that most writers don’t really think about until they’re about to start writing. Then the questions start tumbling in. What font should I use? Should specific genres be written using specific fonts? Can you influence the subconscious of your readers with specific fonts and thereby increase the likelihood of them liking your book? All these questions usually result in some quick Google searches, which then deliver a number of alarmist articles desperately imploring you never to use Times New Roman for anything ever, along with a million other font-related faux pas.
As compelling as these articles are, reality is rarely so dramatic. Times New Roman will not make or break your book. Most people can’t even tell the difference between Times New Roman and Baskerville on printed paper. Nevertheless, fonts are important. There are certain rules of thumb which you ought to keep in mind. These are what we’re going to be discussing in this article. The goal is to make your self-published book look like a professionally published one, and there are certain tricks you can use to achieve that result. By the time you’re done reading, you ought to have a general idea of what you should avoid doing at all costs, and where you’re free to indulge your personal sense of aesthetics.
Font Facts: The Basics
You’re probably aware that there are two main font-types: serif and sans serif. We’ll discuss exactly what sets them apart from each other later on in this article. To start off however, just know that serif fonts have little protrusions at the ends of the letters, and sans serif fonts do not.
Generally, you’re going to want to select two fonts when creating your book: one for your body text, and one for your titles – both on the front cover and your chapter titles (if you choose to have any). The purpose of the former is to be as legible as possible, the purpose of the latter is to evoke the mood or spirit of your book. Having more than two fonts is not recommended, as it can easily get distracting, confusing, and detract from the overall legibility of your book. Whatever font you end up choosing however, you’re going to want to use a serif font for you body text, as they tend offer a more pleasant reading experience on paper. More on that further down.
Furthermore, it’s important to keep in mind that people have something of a collective memory. We associate certain sensory cues with certain ideas, concepts, or events. Fonts are no exception to this rule. For example, as you’ve probably heard before, people tend to associate sans serif fonts with “modernity” and serif fonts with “tradition”. This is of course a broad generalization, and reality is more nuanced, but this binary dynamic is a useful summary we can use to separate the look and feel of the two font types. For example, one would probably not use a serif font for the title of a sci-fi novel, much like one wouldn’t use a sans serif font to write a fantasy novel.
Generally, Serif fonts are considered the best for long-form texts like books. Serif fonts are known for having a little edge, vaguely resembling a foot, at the beginning and end of each letter. The serifs help guide our eyes by creating an imaginary line under the letters, making it easier for the reader to follow sentences and stay concentrated. The general consenus is that serif fonts tend to be easier to read on paper. Fonts that don’t have serifs (sans serif) are more commonly used on websites, where they are considered the more reader-friendly alternative.
Take a look at any newspaper, book or most magazines, and you’ll see they use Serif fonts. Chances are, if you were to open a book with a sans serif font, you’d think it looked rather odd. This isn’t to say that the interior of all printed books, newspapers and magazines look the same. It’s important to remember that Serif is a general category; there are hundreds of fonts that can be considered Serif. For example, the most commonly used fonts in newspapers are Times New Roman and Poynter, which are both Serif fonts.
Seeing as books are long-form printed texts, and keeping in mind the consensus regarding the legibility of serif fonts in print, we recommend you stick to a Serif font for the inside of your book. The cover, blurb and spine allow for more creative freedom, and we’ll cover them later in the article.
It’s also worth remembering that most e-readers allow users to change the font of the book they’re reading. In other words, if you’re worried about the legibility of serif fonts on e-reader screens, don’t be – e-book readers will easily be able to customize the layout of the text to their liking.
Which Serif Fonts to Use for Your Book?
First off, let us emphasize how strongly we advise against using gimmicky, stylized fonts for you body text. While they may capture the mood of your story, they are distracting and hard to read when used at length:
These stylistic fonts may work for your cover, assuming the title of your book is short enough. Make sure (and be honest with yourself) that the font adds something to your cover, should you choose to use a gimmicky font. Also, whatever you do – never use Comic Sans, Papyrus, or Jokerman – even if they’re your favourite fonts and fit perfectly with your vision. These fonts are the most universally hated typefaces on the planet, and nothing will dissuade people from picking up your book as quickly as the sight of these fonts.
Now, remember how we singled out Times New Roman as a source of controversy earlier in the article? Well, it’s time for us to denounce that font as well. As far as body text is concerned, we’d advise against using it. Not that there’s anything wrong with it per se, but it does have a bit of a stodgy air to it. While the reasons behind most font choices tend to be rather abstract, the emotional responses they can elicit in your readers are nevertheless very real. Times New Roman gives off a bit of a boring, stodgy feeling to those who care about things like typefaces, which is the last vibe you want your book to have. The fact that it was Microsoft Word’s default font for so long, and the standard broadsheet font before that, has ingrained it in our minds as “the boring font”.
So, what fonts can you use then? We have two main font recommendations for the body text of your book:
Garamond is one of the most popular serif fonts to use for books. It was created in the 16th century by Claude Garamond. Since then the font has expanded and includes several variations, but in essence it remains the same easy-to-read Serif font:
A free alternative to the Caslon font, created in 1757 by John Baskerville.
Apart from Garamond and Baskerville there are several other serif fonts appropriate for books:
As you can see, these fonts are quite similar to each other. Each font has a distinct personality however, which is something you should keep in mind when choosing what to use for your body text.
The classic and timeless Baskerville, Garamond and Palatino give off the kind of gravitas you might want in a book of literary fiction, a thriller, or another “serious” genre. On the other hand, the softer and slightly more whimsical Sabon and Utopia fonts lend themselves well to genres like romance, YA, or perhaps fantasy. Lastly, the more rigid Caslon is very much at home in non-fiction and academic texts; should you not have access to Caslon, you can use Georgia, which is free and has a similar feel to it, though very much a different font.
These font and genre combinations are by no means set in stone – you should simply view them as our personal recommendations. The important thing to keep in mind however, is that they all share the common characteristic of excellent legibility. Additionally, they look good when used for long-form texts. As such, they can be used across all genres.
Which Sans Serif Fonts to Use for Your Book
Now that we’ve discussed serif fonts, it’s time to take a look at sans serif. As mentioned, sans serif fonts differ from serif ones in that their letters do not have any embellishments (serifs) – hence the “sans”. This gives sans serif fonts a modern, minimalist look which lends itself particularly well to screens, compared to serif fonts.
As mentioned, you don’t want to use sans serif fonts in your body text. However, they can be very well-suited for your cover, should you find one that complements the look and feel you’re going for. Furthermore, if you have your heart set on a gimmicky font which (as mentioned above) might be suitable for a cover, you’ll notice that most of them are sans serif. As such, the question is not so much “which sans serif font should I use for my book?” as “should I use a sans serif font for my cover, and if so, which one?”.
This is a tougher question than you’d think. In the end, it’s probably going to come down to personal feeling more than anything else. The most important thing is that the font you choose for your cover contributes to the emotional response you want to stimulate in readers. As mentioned in our article on how to design a book cover, you want to hint at the general mood of your book using the cover. The title font is a very important part of this.
Assessing every custom-made, stylized typeface out there would go far beyond the scope of this article. You can browse all kinds of quirky, artistic fonts at sites like fontsquirrel.com, but for now, we’re going to review some of the more standard options. Below are three examples of title-friendly sans serif fonts:
Created by the German Institute for Standardization in 1931, the bold, assertive Bahnschrift is a solid choice for something like a thriller. The weight of this typeface imparts a sense of seriousness, while its simplicity and legibility alludes to the modern time period in which most thrillers take place.
Gill Sans MT
Gill Sans is probably as close to a timeless sans serif font as you can get. Its classy, which is probably what made Penguin Books decide to use it for their reissued classics series. It does the job extremely well, presumably because of its ability to look good on most backgrounds without being too imposing. As such, it’s an excellent all-round choice for when you don’t want the title to grab too much of a passer-by’s attention (detracting from the cover art), or when you want an overall minimalist effect.
Montserrat’s airy spacing and light, carefree strokes brings our minds back to romantic summers and other rose-tinted memories from years gone by. It’s ideal for minimalist romance titles or nostalgic, sentimental period dramas. Montserrat is an open source font, so you can download and use it for free.
While these are three of our favourite sans serif fonts, there are of course hundreds more out there. Not to mention all the serif typefaces that also make for excellent title fonts. In fact, all the serif fonts discussed above would be equally appropriate to use on your front cover.
In addition, there are a number of more stylized fonts that are free to download and use. A quick Google search should yield plenty of results. If used sparingly, such fonts can enhance the aesthetic of a cover without being too distracting. Take one of our example covers for instance, where we used the War is Over font:
This particular example is meant to represent a mystery/thriller novel, though it is a bit of a caricature. Since the font is reminiscent of a classic Hollywood “Top Secret” stamp, the genre is underscored effectively. You’ll also notice that we stuck to our previous recommendation of using a maximum of two different fonts.
Get to it!
That’s it for our recommendations! We hope that the discussion in this article has helped kickstart your creative process. Keep in mind that the suggestions put forward aren’t set in stone by any means though! Context is king, and it’s difficult to make any sweeping stylistic statements regarding typefaces. There is one exception though: never use comic sans!
If you have any questions regarding the fonts you should use, or would like to make some suggestions of your own, sound off in the comments!