Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Good Grief, I'm a Font Nerd

I came to that (possibly sad) conclusion yesterday after spending most of the day trying to decide which font I'll use for my novel, Leonard the Great: Dragonfriend. As I've mentioned before, when you self-publish, you have to do everything -- including formatting and choosing the font for the interior pages of your book. There are very talented professionals in traditional publishing whose only job is to do just that so you know the importance the big guys attach to this part of the publishing process. They're called Book Designers and they (the good ones, anyway) live for their craft, delighting in choosing just the right font for a particular book. Check out this cool little collection of video shorts from Penguin to get an idea of what I'm talking about. These folks are passionate!

While I'm not as energized by the subtle differences between Arial, Helvetica, or Georgia, I did totally key in to the importance of font choice. A lot of the pros use pricey custom fonts with names like Minion, Bembo, and Gotham that are purchased from font or type "foundries." These days custom fonts are largely designed at corporate entities like Adobe or Apple, but a surprising number are still created by much smaller companies and individuals. To give an idea of the costs involved, Adobe currently lists their "Font Folio 11" (with over 2300 fonts) for $2599.00. An individual font like "Adobe Caslon Pro" currently costs $169.00. Why so expensive? I'm guessing it's because the designers not only had to create individual numbers and letters for each font in its "regular" form, they also had to do their complete alphabet in italics, bold, bold italics, and so forth. That's a lot of design work.

A large publishing company can justify dropping that kind of cash to make their books look "just right," but that's definitely out of my league. The good thing is that even the lowly Microsoft Word foundry has a fairly impressive array of fonts to choose from -- for free (well, not technically, but you know what I mean).

Conventional wisdom holds that large blocks of printed text are easier to read when in "serif" form. With a serif font (Times New Roman, Bookman Old Style, etc.) you get letters with little flourishes or "semi-structural details," a letter with "feet," for example. Sans serif fonts (like the aforementioned Helvetica), on the other hand, have none of these embellishments and are considered easier to read on your computer screen because of their simplicity. Side Note: This blog's composition font (what I see when I'm writing it) is serif but its display font (what you see when reading it) is sans serif. I have no idea why Google does it this way.

Since I was choosing the text font for a printed book (which includes the Kindle edition with its "virtual ink" technology that, even though it's digital, is seen by your eyes as a regular printed page and not a "screen"), I stuck with the numerous serif fonts available. I formatted my novel in a 6x9 configuration (the eventual "trim" or final size), single spaced, and "justified" on both sides. I have to say that it was no small thrill to see my little manuscript properly formatted for print -- it looked just like a "real" book! Next I did "select all" and applied the serif fonts to the manuscript pages, one at a time. Wow! Talk about cool. Yes, it was about this time that the "font nerd" term came to mind.

The differences were subtle yet impressive. MS Word's default font is "Times New Roman" and using this one, the manuscript came out to 248 pages. Because of seemingly insignificant attributes like letter size and spacing between characters, other fonts dropped it down to as low as 234 or pushed it all the way up to 309! I had done a little internet hunting to see what fonts professional book designers and other self-pubbed authors were using and if those fonts were listed in Word, I gave them a shot.

I chose eight serif finalists that seemed to offer visual appeal and that elusive "readability" factor. If you think I'm making too big a deal about this, think about the times you may have had difficulty getting through a book even though you were enjoying the content. This usually happens to me with sci fi paperbacks from low-end publishers who end up reducing their fonts to the smallest readable size possible with minimal spacing between characters, sentences, and paragraphs. They do this to save money as more pages means higher production costs, but the end result is a high degree of unreadability that sometimes makes it seem like I'm looking at a solid page of side by side letters rather than words and sentences. That's what readability is all about -- a pleasant-to-look-at font on a properly formatted page.

The finalists included Book Antigua, Goudy Old Style, Bookman Old Style, Georgia, Century Schoolbook, Baskerville Old Face, and Palatino, but, ultimately, I went with Garamond (created by sixteenth century type designer, Claude Garamond), 12 pt with 1.15 spacing between lines. Here's a sample:
"Leonard felt that he had truly lost his mind when he found himself jumping over the bridge wall and sliding down the muddy banks of the Smellet River toward a very large dragon that he really didn’t know at all."
As you can see, it's a "friendly" font with good spacing between individual letters/words and a high degree of readability. I really like it.

Should this post be taken as an expert treatise on font selection? Heck no! I basically stumbled around until I found something that worked for me. But if you're an independent author who's having to design your own book's interior, I do hope that you'll give font selection the attention it's due.

By the way, after all that exploration and experimentation I decided to see what font was used in the Harry Potter books since they have the same target readership as Leonard. 12pt. Adobe Garamond! I'm not sure how Adobe's Garamond differs from Microsoft's (enough to be proprietary, obviously), but I couldn't tell the difference and as far as I'm concerned, what's good enough for Ms. Rowling's little trifle is good enough for mine!

Got any font or formatting love to share? Leave your thoughts and tips in the comments.
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