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Blog > Book Design – Posted on July 8, 2020

What is Typography, And How Can You Get It Right?

Typography is the art of arranging text in a legible and visually pleasing fashion. It’s not to be confused with typesetting, which describes the technical process of getting text onto a page.

From the lettering on a road sign to the flourishes on a Coke bottle, we see typography at work everywhere. Books, of course, are no exception. Whether you’re looking at the layout or the cover, typography makes our favorite stories both readable and memorable. That’s why every indie author should keep it in mind when thinking about book design.

Why is typography important?

Typography encompasses far more than choosing a font — and there’s a lot more at stake, too. Done right, it’ll draw readers’ eyes and get them to click “buy” on your product page. But if you phone it in, it can make your book stand out for all the wrong reasons, resulting in a sloppy-looking volume that’s a headache to read.

What Is Typography? | Richard Ljoenes's book cover designs feature interesting typography

These cover designs by Richard Ljoenes emphasize interesting typography

Want to learn more? Here are four reasons typography is crucial for an indie author to get right.

1. Clear typography lets people access your story

What is Typography | Petya Tsankova's book interior design uses clear typography

Petya Tsankova designed this page layout for Brushstrokes in Time, by Sylvia Vetta

If you say the words “book typography,” most authors will probably think of the title emblazoned on the front of their masterpieces. But before we start judging books by their covers, let’s take a look at the most important part of any volume: the text itself.

One of the less glamorous functions of typography is making a text easier to read. Clean and consistent type allows the reader to disappear into your words. Bad typography, on the other hand, diverts attention away from your writing, to the way it’s arranged on the page.

Worst case scenario, you might use a typeface that doesn’t pass the basic test of legibility. In that case, your readers will end up squinting at the page, using all their brain-space to decipher your words instead of enjoying them. Odds are, they’ll stop reading long before the book is done.

2. Beautiful typography draws readers’ eyes

Now, let’s talk about covers, an area where bold and beautiful typography can really shine. If you’re an indie author jostling for attention in a crowded marketplace like Amazon, an eye-catching title can make a reader zero in on your book.

If you’d like to learn more about the principles of book cover design, we’ve got a detailed guide here. But for now, it’s important to know how crucial typography is to a beautiful, compelling cover.

What Is Typography | Claire Brown uses color and type to create eye-catching cover designs

Claire Brown’s cover design makes use of various typefaces to create visual interest.

Choosing the right typeface for your book cover requires you to think beyond mere beauty. In addition to visual appeal, all the text on your cover needs to be:

  • readable
  • appealing at thumbnail sizes
  • genre-appropriate

Even the most gorgeous font won’t cut it if it’s illegible, confusing at thumbnail dimensions, or suggestive of, say, high fantasy when your book is a contemporary romance.

3. Distinctive typography helps distill your brand

A cover with appealing typography can do more than pique interest at a glance — it can also create a powerful impression that makes your book stick in readers’ minds. Adorn your cover with memorable type that perfectly encapsulates the feel of your story, and you just might find yourself with a brand on your hands.

What Is Typography | In YA series like Goosebumps, Hunger Games, and Percy Jackson, custom typefaces abound

If you want proof of typography’s branding power, just think of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. What comes to mind? Probably the distinct, drippy typeface splashed across its covers. The Goosebumps font works because it pinpoints the series' genre and sensibility — creepy and gross, but still kid-friendly.

There’s also The Hunger Games, with its bold and blocky sans-serifs suggestive of Soviet propaganda posters. See them, and you already have a hint you're in for a dystopian tale.  Percy Jackson, meanwhile, uses antique, heirloom-looking lettering to reference the series’ roots in Greek mythology.

What Is Typography | Some standalone books like The Fault in Our Stars and The Little Prince use iconic typefaces

But of course, distinctive typography isn’t just for book series. The Little Prince, for example, stands out with its whimsical cursive, which captures the book's fairy-tale innocence. And The Fault in Our Stars, with its chalky, handwritten-looking title, evokes the adolescent turmoil at the heart of the story.

4. Professional typography makes your book seem worth the money

We’ve talked about the role typography plays both on a book’s cover and within its pages. Now, let’s look at how those two elements work together to create a powerful impression of professionalism.

What Is Typography | Both cover designers like Tomas de Almeida and interior designers like James Pople use typography

Cover design by Tomas de Almedia and interior design by James Pople

To potential readers, your book’s design — typography included — is a proxy for the time and care you put into making a quality product. Say they see a lazy Times New Roman title on your cover, or leaf through your pages to encounter Comic Sans. That might make them think you’ve cut corners everywhere, including in the writing.

If you’re serious about getting your book typography right, give some thought to working with a professional typographer. Look for an expert with the artistic vision, design chops, and publishing experience needed to find — or handcraft — your book’s palette of fonts.

What Is Typography | Designers like Ashley Santoro use lettering to create beautiful type

Reedsy designers like Ashley Santoro use lettering to create eye-catching illustrations

On the Reedsy marketplace, this process is simple since you can browse the portfolios of professional typographers for free, to find someone with experience designing for your genre.

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What are the key typography terms to know?

If you want to take the guesswork out of your book’s typography, we recommend handing the reins over to a professional. However, for those determined to fly solo, there's some fundamental vocabulary to master first.

Here’s a glossary of important typography terms: consider it your cheatsheet to Typography 101.

Font vs. Typeface

Most people who don’t live and breathe typography are under the impression that these two words are interchangeable. In reality though, there’s a subtle distinction. When most people think of “fonts,” they actually mean typefaces.

What Is Typography | Font vs Typeface, Multiple Fonts Fall Under the Same Typeface

Baskerville is a typeface, but Baskerville Regular is a font.

A typeface is a set of letters, numerals, and special characters designed to look a certain way. Times New Roman, Baskerville, Calibri — these are all examples of typefaces. A font, on the other hand, is a version of a typeface, distinguished by its weight (i.e. light or bold) or style (e.g. regular or italic).

Serif vs. Sans-serif

Unlike the distinction between typeface and font, casual typography watchers probably know this one already. Just in case, a serif is a small, decorative stroke appearing at the end of a larger stroke in a character. Typefaces that feature these strokes, like Georgia and Garamond, are called "serif typefaces". On the other hand, typefaces without any serifs, like Helvetica and Futura, are called "sans-serifs".

What Is Typography | Designers like Sarah Whittaker often use serif fonts for literary and historical fiction

Sarah Whittaker’s designs for literary and historical fiction covers make use of serif fonts

Serifs are often considered elegant and old-world — you’ll see them on the covers of romance novels and historical fiction. Sans-serifs, on the other hand, strike readers as modern and bold. They’re associated with genres like sci-fi and thrillers.

What Is Typography | In these cover designs by George Saad, sans-serifs look modern and bold

George Saad uses bold sans-serifs on cover designs for a memoir and a thriller, respectively

Hierarchy

In typography, “hierarchy” refers to how type is organized on the page to convey the relative importance of different parts of the text. More important elements are highlighted to draw the reader's attention. In practice, typographic hierarchy means elements like, say, chapter titles are set apart from the rest of the text, perhaps by center alignment, a larger font size, a bolder font, or all of the above.

What Is Typography? | Phillip Gessert Makes Use of Typographic Hierarchy On This Works Cited Page

Designed by Phillip Gessert, this page layout shows typographic hierarchy in action, with various font sizes used to convey the relative importance of different parts of the text

You see typographic hierarchy at work on book covers as well as in book interiors. When you're looking at a cover, which part of the text generally draws your attention first? Probably the title. That's because it's generally been set apart by bigger, brighter, or more interesting type.

How can you choose the right typeface for your book?

Even after you’ve learned the lingo, getting your book’s typography right can present a challenge. After all, there’s a lot riding on your choices. If you are determined to handle the type selection yourself, here are a couple of checklists to follow — one for your book's cover, and one for the text inside.

What Is Typography | Professional designers like Ashley Siebels use typography in their work

Professional typographers like Ashley Siebels can help you out if you don’t want to do all your book typography by yourself

Book cover typography checklist

Make sure your book cover turns heads (without making readers shake their heads).

✅  Are you using genre-appropriate typefaces?

Take a look at the bestsellers in your niche on Amazon. Are there any prevailing trends in typographic selection?

✅  Is all the text on your cover readable?

Make sure your title and name (or pen name!) are easily legible. Is your font size large enough for the reader’s comfort? Is there enough color contrast between the text and background to see everything clearly?

✅  Does your cover look good as a thumbnail?

On Amazon, cover thumbnails are around 100 px across, sometimes less. Does the text on your cover look good and read clearly, even at small sizes?

✅  Are you making good use of typographic hierarchy?

The most important text on your title. Unless you’re already a household name, we recommend making your book title bigger than your name.

What Is Typography | Type-centered book cover design by Caroline Teague Johnson

Professional designers like Caroline Teagle Johnson know the ins and outs of typography

Book interior typography checklist

Check your book's interior for readable, professional-looking text.

✅  Are you using appropriate typefaces?

You won’t have as many typeface options for your book interior. But there are still genre conventions to keep in mind. Flip through published books in your niche. Do you tend to see serifs or sans-serifs? You may also want to consider what kind of typefaces predominate for print books versus ebooks.

✅  Is your text easily readable?

Try to preview your text in its published form, whether that’s an epub or mobi file, or a proof of your print book. Your computer screen can be deceiving, and you need to make sure the typeface you chose translates well to the book’s final form.

✅  Have you avoided unprofessional typefaces?

Some typefaces are perfectly readable, but still look sloppy or generic — not what you want for your book. Examples of fonts to avoid include the much-maligned Comic Sans, as well as MS Word standbys like Times New Roman and Arial.

Remember: typography plays a crucial role in making your book look polished. Invest some time and energy in getting it right, and you’ll give your readers an enjoyable experience — hopefully turning them into lifelong fans.


For typography designs like the ones you've seen on this post, find out more about Reedsy’s professional typographers.