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Text Fonts: Book Design Choices Don’t End With The Cover…

by Richard Sutton on October 28, 2015

typeslugsI had a conversation with a client today regarding their choices for the font chosen for the text of the body of the novel being produced. While I can certainly understand how a writer doesn’t want to extend the production questions and decisions beyond those most immediately important, I think it’s all too common for the decisions about the inside of a book to take a back seat to the cover. It’s certainly the less exciting part of the creative process of bringing a book to market. Since most writers work in Word or one of the various compatible software suites, the choice of text type can seem to be just an automatic kind of thing. Just a one more default fill-in. In my own experience, however; the choice of the font used for text can be critical to the success of the book. It’s an important consideration that I think, really deserves its own segment of the entire book marketing process. Here’s where my thinking begins: a book is a consumer product. In order to make it appealing on the shelf (online or in a bookstore) it needs an effective cover (product packaging) to attract and hold the potential buyer. However, the design of the book itself ventures into an area so constantly exploited in modern product marketing — the idea of user friendliness.

Product engineers and designers spend a great deal of time insuring that the typical target consumer’s experience using their product will be enjoyable. Hopefully, good enough to generate a word-of-mouth recommendation and/or a repurchase of future offerings. For a publisher, the user friendliness of their product can be enhanced through the selection of an easy to follow page layout, easy to locate Tables of Contents, glossaries and other reference material and a well-targeted text font. Choosing the right text font can make sure your reader will be grabbed by your words, not by their struggle to read them. Legibility is a critical component of a successful, well-designed book. Taking the time to effectively tailor the text font to your target reader goes a long way towards making the reading experience seamless and transparent, even fun, rather than the chore we all remember from High School Textbooks.

With the arrival years ago, of rapidly rising paper costs, many publishers found that text font selection influences the page count significantly. Since then, reducing their costs has become a very important consideration when producing a print book. Text is often set in small sizes and in slightly condensed (squeezed) fonts that can make it very hard for an older reader to enjoy. As Independents through, we have an opportunity to actually produce a better product in print than many publishers can afford to do. Since most of our books are produced Print-On-Demand, we have the luxury of making sure our text is as legible as possible. We can take extra steps on finessing the text font decision to produce a much easier-to-read product. Giving our readers that kind of user-friendly reading experience can bring them back for the latest book and help spread the word.

Like every designer I do have several favorites. These have been arrived at through years of trial and error and the nuance of typographic design, itself a subject of a great deal if information and detail. If you’d appreciate knowing a bit more about the subject, there are volumes written about it. I posted a mini-course on the subject a couple of years back, which may also help fill-in some of the blanks. But my choices for a specific book may not work for your book, your readers or your overall design, so rather than provide a checklist of fonts to try, I’d rather provide a way for a writer to learn to trust their eyes and find fonts that work perfectly for their readers. It takes a couple of extra steps, but they are not hard to accomplish and the payback will be worth it.

Step One, consider the genre and style of your book. Your text font selection should be narrowed down to those fonts that support and enhance the story. For example, setting a period story with a modern, san-serif typeface (no feet) might not be the best idea. Actually, most newer serif type fonts are especially nuanced and “hinted” for print legibility and often, in the right context look better on the printed page than an equally legible san-serif font. In the same way, there are brand new fonts specifically designed for onscreen viewing rather than the reflective viewing that occurs off a print page. They are designed for the screen and should be used for your eBook formats while different font choices can optimize your print pages. This leads into step two… trial by reader…

Step Two involves setting up and printing a couple of dummy pages from your manuscript in the actual book trim size. 5×8 is a good approximation of page size for an eBook. The page should not be a heading page, such as a chapter head or break, but be a page from within a chapter. Next set your margins up for the ones you have found to be easiest of the eyes from your own reading. If you are using a header, add that in as well as page numbering in the position you prefer. Now try out different type fonts for the selection of text. I recommend using fonts that are supplied native in your software, or if you wish to purchase a specific font you have seen in existing books you enjoy reading, do so, but realize that you may need to embed the font in the document you will be eventually uploading for production if the producer doesn’t own a copy of that font. In my own decision process, I print out several identical pages in different type fonts, trim them down, then offer them to my trusted Beta Readers for their opinions. This isn’t an editing issue. It’s a step to help decide the easiest reading presentation, so it can be a part of your testing after your manuscript is edited and ready for the marketplace.

How to deal with the results? It’s simple enough. If everyone you submit the reader samples to has a differing range of opinions, then you can feel safe that your choices are equal to your readers, but if you find agreement on specific samples either pro, or con, then you have information that should help you decide. After you’ve done this a few times, you’ll train your own eyes as to how your readers perceive fonts and eventually you’ll find your favorites. Your books will be significantly more user friendly than the books produced without this extra consideration. The time you spend with your first few books, experimenting with text fonts, will never be wasted, and will save you on production costs in the long run.

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As always, your questions and opinions matter to me, so if you have something to add, don’t hesitate to post it in a reply…

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