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The Best Typeface for Your Book


July 2, 2020

Not All Fonts are Equal

When choosing the best typeface for your book, you will want to consider how you will use it and if it performs well for your purposes. Fonts (also known as typefaces) are small applications that work within other applications to render type. Not all computers have the same fonts, and not all fonts are equal, and even when fonts have the same name, they may be different. 

Typefaces are intellectual property and are not licensed to copy from one computer to another unless allowed under the font license agreement. For more on how this may affect you see Who owns the source files?

What do You Look for When Choosing the Best Typeface for Your Book?

Some applications function better than others. The same goes for fonts. Some fonts have poorly designed kerning sets; kerning is the spacing between letter pairs. Some fonts have kerning pairs that are more esthetically pleasing. Other fonts may PDF poorly or refuse to be output on many printing devices. Still, others may add junk when using soft returns.

While many of these problems usually happen with display fonts and not text fonts, it is wise to test-drive your font before committing. I even had a font go bad midway through a project. My computer started freezing every time I scrolled to a page with the font on it. It took me days to figure out what was wrong. It never occurred to me that the font was the cause of so much grief. A poorly designed or damaged font can affect your computer’s performance and cause crashes, freezes, and other usability problems.

5 things to consider when choosing the best for your book

1. Do you need a complete font family?

For books, you will usually want a typeface that includes a roman (also known as book or regular), bold, and italic; sometimes, you may require a bold/italic version of the typeface. You may also want a condensed version of bold, roman, and italic. Often a typeface may not have a bold/italic version. Your software may let you style a word in italic, without the italic version installed. But without it, there is no certainty that it will be available when your book file exports to a PDF file. The words you selected to display as italic may be substituted with another face or just not styled as you intended.

2. Does your typeface include all the characters you need?

Some typefaces come with language-specific ligatures and accents. Other faces may also include mathematical symbols and fraction sets, which may be crucial in your book. I designed a book once where there was a chapter in Navajo. The only font I could find at the time to handle the unique Navajo alphabet was Times Navajo. I decided to design the entire book in Times to accommodate the Navajo chapter.

When testing fonts for other languages, you will want to test drive and review them carefully. For instance, in Vietnamese, accent marks stack above each other. A font that does not render Vietnamese well may stagger the accents. If you are not familiar, you may overlook the issue until it is too late.

3. Examine all the letterforms.

What you find may surprise you. I had an inconvenient surprise when the face I chose for a Spanish/English bilingual art book had a crazy question mark. It was a beautiful Adobe typeface, and at the time, it was pretty spendy. While I designed the book, I discovered that the upside-down Spanish question mark looked more like a right side up question mark.

If it had been an English-only book, it would not have been an issue. It would have looked like a graphically creative interpretation of a question mark. But since Spanish uses upside-down question marks at the beginning of questions, it became confusing. Everyone that reviewed the book proof asked why I swapped the marks. In the end, I had so many people question the question marks that I had to swap all the end marks for the beginning marks. In hindsight, this may not have been the best face for the job.

4. Are you also making an ebook?

If you are also making an ebook, it is good to keep things simple: stick to one standard typeface like Times, Garamond, Arial, or Helvetica. But also be aware that ebook users can change the face to whatever they prefer, so books with special characters or ornamental bullets will not translate well to ebooks. 

5. Serif or sans serif?

Historically, serif typefaces are considered easier to read. In particular, for print books or books with lots of text. It was thought that the unique features of serif text aids in subconscious recognition. The serif features provide intuitive clues and make it easier for our brains to process. However, this perception has changed more since people read more from screens, where the resolution is lower. In this environment, sans serif faces often perform better than serif fonts, especially when scaled smaller.

I still lean toward serif faces with print books, mainly because I find it more comfortable to read when used in large text blocks. Using serif typefaces for body text is a convention I have grown accustomed to, and I can only assume that others have too. But younger readers, those who grew up reading from screens, may find sanserif easier to read. Either is acceptable depending on the line lengths, space between lines, how decorative the serifs are, and how open and compressed the letterforms are.

By now, you have probably gathered that all typefaces are not equal. And to choose the best typeface for your book is more than finding something that looks nice. If you are working with a designer, one of the first things you may want to do with them is choose the typeface(s). Some designers have favorite typefaces they prefer using. You may want to start there.

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