Books Front Matter

What’s In a Font? Why Text Selection Matters

One of the most crucial, yet often overlooked, components of book publishing is typography and font choice. Font choice can affect your book’s readability and the reader’s emotional experience. Ironically, if you choose correctly, no one will notice; choose incorrectly, and everyone will. But with the thousands of font choices available today, how can a publisher determine the best one for a particular book?

Typography is typically defined as the art and technique of arranging type. It is much more than the design of the letters and characters, which is called the font or typeface. In addition to font, typography includes other characteristics such as point size, spacing, and line length. Every font, letter, and character arrangement affect the look and feel of your book’s pages and play a part in determining how a message is conveyed. That being said, font choice has the biggest effect on the overall appearance and tone of the book’s text.

There are five basic classifications of fonts: serif, sans serif, script, monospaced, and display. Of these, only serif and sans serif are important for book interiors. Serif fonts, which have the finishing strokes that extend from the stems of a letter, are typically considered to be easier and quicker to read because of the distinctiveness between letters.

Other people say the reason serif fonts are easier to read is because they’re what we’re most used to seeing in books, periodicals, and other lengthy print pieces. And some sans serif fonts are definitely more legible than some serif fonts. It’s important to compare individual fonts for readability and not just choose a serif font because it’s the most common.

The science of picking fonts for your book

With the thousands of fonts available, it can be daunting to try to pick the perfect one for your book. Here are some general characteristics of fonts and when and where to use them. This can go a long way in narrowing down your choices.

  • The top priority for font choice is legibility and readability.
  • Consider subject matter and audience (e.g., non-fiction content might use a more traditional font; fictional content might use a more modern font).
  • Serif fonts, such as Times New Roman or Cambria, are usually preferred in long passages of text because the serifs help the eye travel along the line quicker.
  • Sans serif fonts, such as Arial and Verdana, may be a good choice if you want your book to exhibit a more liberal or modern design approach. Sans serif is often better for text in charts, graphs, and diagrams because the simple letters are easier to read in smaller text sizes.
  • Different fonts give a different tone of voice to a book’s pages. A pure, sleek geometric sans serif font that uses geometric shapes as the backbone of the letter (e.g., Europa or Futura PT) feels slick and modern — great for a technology or architecture book. A fashion title is more likely to prefer the classic and elegant high-contrast serif typefaces.
  • Contrast means the variation between thick and thin strokes in each character. High-contrast fonts, such as Bodini, convey dignity and elegance, whereas low-contrast fonts are solid and uniform, making a strong, powerful statement. In general, very high-contrast and very low-contrast fonts are often illegible at smaller sizes.
  • Fonts can convey trustworthiness. Readers are more likely to believe information set in a serif font such as Baskerville than a sans serif font such as Helvetica.
  • Know your audience. For example, a children’s book needs a simple, standard font that beginning readers can decipher, whereas teens or technical audiences prefer a more modern, edgy typeface. For a senior audience, a clean, simple sans serif font is most legible — but larger type is even more important than font choice for this audience.

open books

Ensure that the font fits the medium

Typography for electronic or mobile versions of your book will be different than for your printed book. You need to ensure that your font is legible and performs well on all required platforms.

  • Serifs are generally small and thin, so they often appear distorted on digital screens. Sans serif fonts are clearer and crisper, and thus are easier to read — even on small, hand-held display screens.
  • In general, larger fonts are easier to read than smaller fonts. Most experts agree that 16-point is the ideal size for reading text online, because after accounting for reading distance, it is about the same as reading typical 10-point printed text.
  • For reading text on a mobile device, 14-point is the optimal size.
  • Fonts on the web are similar to printed fonts as far as the emotional response they convey (i.e., use a sans serif font to inspire trust; use a traditional serif font to convey dignity and elegance).
  • Embed all fonts to ensure a consistent look even on devices that don’t have the fonts used in your electronic book.
  • OpenType scalable vector graphics (SVG) fonts, initially intended for web-based design, are starting to appear in printed works — but these fonts aren’t supported in PDFs and don’t always import properly into InDesign and other print publishing programs.

Never assume that your font choice will provide the look and feel you desire — always test rigorously. Check each font at different sizes and weights, italics and bold, and whether your combination of fonts works well together. To ensure the best outcome, be sure to test your electronic book on different devices and browsers.

Although readability is the primary concern when choosing a font for a book, there are many other things to consider. When the proper choice can make or break a book, it’s important to learn all you can about the subtle differences in various fonts and how they may affect the reader experience. When in doubt, try it out. Or consult with someone knowledgeable about fonts and typography in publishing.

Contact your Sheridan representative for a consultation to discuss how Sheridan can streamline your publishing processes.

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