Indie Authors: Designing Books and Choosing Fonts

Indie authors are sometimes called authorpreneurs, because they have to act like entrepreneurs and make all the decisions about their books. This includes how to design books. And one of the most important design elements is typography.

Butterick’s Practical Typography has a great overview of what constitutes typography and why it matters. Keep in mind that spacing, indents, alignment (according to a report, Sermon on the Font, unjustified text can impair comprehension by 40%), headings, color, quotes, and serif and san-serif fonts all count.

Choosing fonts can be especially important. According to the book Type and Layout by Colin Wheildon and Sermon on the Font, the right font can affect a reader’s comprehension of text. Serif fonts are better for body text (paragraphs, etc.) because they make it easier for readers to recognize words and read faster. San-serif fonts make text look more modern, but should be used only for headings. Also, all-caps and bold words reduce reading comprehension. The sermon ends with a nice wrap up of what to keep in mind:

Use a serif font for body text. Column width is important—20 to 60 characters per line—about 3.5 inch lines with 12 point type is good.

Don’t print in bold. Bold print reduces comprehension by a factor of two! Italic sections are OK though, not much of a penalty.

Extra credit

Text should be black on white or light tint—light tint (10% at most) is OK and attractive to readers. Use only one space between sentences.

Put the headline at top—flow content from top left to bottom right. Brightly colored headlines attract readers—but hurt comprehension—67% comprehension score using a serif font drops to 27% with spot color

Headline kerning—adjusting the letter spacing—can undermine legibility. Slightly condensing headline spacing (70-90%) is good

No periods at the end of headlines.

In reflowable ebooks (usually novels and other mostly text books), readers have the ability to change the size and font style of the words, which makes designing ebooks fairly straightforward. BookBaby advocates sticking to one font in 12-pt, using 14-pt for chapter headings.

But in some cases, you may want to embed specific fonts. For example, choosing the right font for a book cover is also important. Or maybe you want to show a quote from a letter and use a font that looks more like handwriting. For non-fiction books, you may want to use a font to display charts and graphs. And for fixed format ebooks (usually children’s picture books), you will want to choose a specific font that reflects the tone of the story. One cool font is FF Chartwell, which converts numbers into simple graphs.

In all those cases, when choosing a font, make sure it is either OpenType (.otf) or TrueType (.ttf). These are file formats, and for ebooks, generally .otf is preferable. If you need to convert a font, you can try out Online Font Converter.

If you have an idea of what font you want to use, but can’t remember the exact name, use Identifont. Otherwise, it helps to look at a lot of samples to get a feel for what you want (warning, there are a ton of fonts out there, and it’s easy to spend hours looking). When publishing, you need to make sure you have a license to use the font. In the March/April 2014 edition of the SCBWI Bulletin, Sara Rutenberg has an excellent article, “Font Licensing,” which goes into detail on what to look for in a license. Although some fonts are paid and some are free, almost all fonts have end user agreements with certain restrictions, so it’s important to always read the fine print so you know if you can use a font for commercial use or if you are only allowed to use it for personal use.

To help keep costs down, here are three articles that recommend fonts you can use for free:

Lastly, if you want a fun way to learn about fonts, try out Mashable’s “18 Insanely Addictive Font Games.” According to the article, “Knowing how to use fonts to build character in your design is a powerful skill, and exploring the history and use of typefaces, as well as typographic theory, can help.”

Thoughts? Please share in the comments!


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