There is a certain mantra that I’m going to repeat throughout this entire series. That mantra is: think. Think about your interior. Think about your cover. Think about your fonts. Think about how the overall appearance of your book is going to be perceived by the reader. Think about the impact that any change in or variation to the current design will have on that perception. Take some time. Make it count.
First stop: Font choice.
Times New Roman and Arial are used for manuscript submissions because they are generic. That’s the point, to bring all the manuscripts an agent or editor reads to the same level so they can be judged based solely on the content quality. The ability to follow posted directions and standards also serves as a warning sign for the dreaded Super Special Snowflake Syndrome.
That said, once it hits the shelves or the internet, you do not want your book to be generic. You want it to be distinct. Memorable. Interesting. This is why Arial and Times New Roman are poor choices for your interior text and horrible choices for your title and/or cover text.
Pick up the closest book to you and open to a random page. You will notice that it is probably not set in Times New Roman. You may not be able to recognize what font it is, but if you hold it up to a screen full of Times New Roman, it will not look the same. The fonts were chosen specifically for this book.
Check the copyright page at the front – often, it will list what font the book was printed in. The two books nearest to me happen to be The Hunger Games and Zombies vs. Unicorns, both of which are set in Adobe Garamond. Garamond is a good standard font to use for body text because it looks really good in book form and melds well with lots of different title fonts. Since it can be used with so many different title fonts, it’s easy to get a unique feel from a book set in Garamond without sacrificing readability.
Be aware of the implications of your fonts. Know what “serif” and “sans-serif” mean and what they communicate. For the most part, sans-serif fonts like Arial are best used for titles or “quick read” books that are meant to be easily scanned; a serif font makes the reader slow down a bit and consider the words more carefully.
Your goal in choosing a body text font should be readability. As a result, there's not a lot of room for playing around there. The title fonts, for your cover, title-page and chapter titles, are the place where you really get to have fun. Cover titles especially.
Look at that book you picked up again. See how the title is presented on the cover. You’ll probably notice that the title seems to have been specifically designed for the cover that it is on. This is a good thing. Far too many self-published books look like this, where the title has been carelessly slapped on over the photo chosen for the cover. It’s clumsy design, and it doesn’t look good.
We’ll go into cover design later, though. For now, just keep it in mind while choosing a font for your cover. In addition, keep in mind that while this is the worst possible place to use a generic font, the only thing worse than that is mixing font types. Your title and author name do not need to be in the same font (and they certainly should *not* be the same size) but they should be the same type of font, either from the same family (as in the Lucida collection) or the same style (script, serif, sans-serif, etc.)
Be aware that different kinds of fonts also have different implications, in titles especially. As a general rule, sans-serif font titles look modern and sleek, while serif fonts are dignified and traditional. Script fonts, the good ones at least, give a sense of traditionalism or femininity – they’re great for fairy tales, chic lit and romance novels, but not for dystopian futures. When using them for historical fiction, be careful not to use one that’s too modern. Likewise, blocky fonts, especially sans-serif, communicate an impersonality that’s good for science fiction, dystopian and action novels, but would look horrible on Bridget Jones’s Diary.
For the most part, your interior title fonts – chapter titles and the like – should match the cover design. It gives the book a feeling of cohesion and continuity. We’ll get into detail about establishing that when we look at interior design.
All that said, you don’t want to go to the other side of the font choice spectrum either. There are many inappropriate fonts that serve a very specific function and should not be used elsewhere. Do not print your book in Comic Sans. Do not use overly dramatic fonts, such as Chiller or Jokerman, especially not for your body text. Fonts meant to communicate a foreign language – such as Arabic, Japanese, or Hebrew – should probably be avoided just to prevent conversion issues.
Also, be aware of how the fonts look in different file formats, and make sure your chosen fonts are available on all the computers that will be working on the book. I know that Amazon’s Create Space uses .PDFs, which preserve the font choices, but if the service you’re using wants a different format, you should make sure that they support the fonts you want choose.
Do a little research and figure out what fonts go together and don’t. There are some font families, such as Franklin and Lucida, that are specifically designed so that the family members can be used together easily. A little effort can go a long way.