So last week we talked about book cover rules, and I briefly touched on fonts, among other things. I didn’t want to dive into any of the rules, since that post could easily have become a book (a short book, but still) and that’s not the point. Today, I’m going to dig into fonts, at least enough to get the interested started. A good font choice can make a book cover sing to the potential reader like a siren to the sailors. A bad font can repulse them like the sleaze in front of a dive bar. Since we want to seduce the reader and that process begins from their first glimpse of a book, we want to put some time and energy into selecting the right elements for the cover.
I’m going to use dafont.com as a teaching tool for this post, since I find it a handy spot for finding fonts that suit my designs. However, there are other places to find fonts – if you have a favorite, feel free to leave it in the comments! First things first: can you use that font? I’m not talking about it being the right font for your book, that meshes with the art and signals the genre to the reader. I’m talking about intellectual property and licenses. In the comments last week Amanda brought up the risk of using a font without a commercial or public domain license – you could get sued. You, the author, since most people aren’t going to try and go after a book designer (and some authors don’t acknowledge who did their covers, because they are afraid their cover artists will get poached. No, that’s not a joke, but I digress). Besides that, the ethical and moral thing to do is always the right thing. And I shouldn’t have to put them in that order, but I do. So you have choices. Find a font that is free for commercial use, in public domain, or buy a license for commercial use. Check the wording of any licenses carefully – some have a limit on how many times you can use them, and I don’t know about you, but when it comes to an ebook, I’m not sure how many copies are going to sell. Could it go over a 10,000 piece limit? Certainly. The other thing to look for, as we were warned in the comments the other day, is more esoteric wording like ‘cannot be used for ‘hate speech” which is really difficult to define, and good luck proving that one in court, but you don’t want the time and bother of dealing with it to begin with. Avoid that one like the plague, and any others designed by that person, too.
If you are using Dafont, they have a handy feature, as you can see above, where you can filter your search to only come up with the licenses you want. That way you aren’t looking at fonts you can’t use. I normally start out with the first two buttons there: public domain and free. If I can’t find something useful, I’ll move on to donation or shareware, but with those you get into some oddly worded licenses, so I don’t like to spend the time reading through tons of them. YMMV. I also do like to throw a little money at artists whose work I use, which you can do with a donate button on Dafont.
Now that we are sure we can legally and morally use a font, let’s move on to other selection criteria.
Font and design could easily consume a lifetime of study. Ok, that might be a slight exaggeration, but not much. I’m going to do something I rarely do, and direct you to Wikipedia if you’re interested in the origin, history, and details of fonts. Or suggest that a book might be in order. Thinking with Type is three dollars for the ebook, very reasonable for a textbook. However, I know most of you are just trying to create a decent book cover, not delve into the esoterica of design, no matter how delightful a rabbithole it is.
You want to keep a few things in mind, then, as you select a font. You want to look at style, weight, and kerning right off the bat. Weight refers to the line width in general – think bold, or chunky, for heavier weights. A book cover font should usually be a heavy weight font. If you look at the bottom exemplar above (which I would not recommend on legibility alone) you’ll see that it’s a lightweight font and will be harder to read at thumbnail. Keep the thumbnail requirement in the forefront of your mind, especially if you are working, as I am, on a large monitor!
Style is the big one. Dafont helpfully has categories that include Sci-fi, comic, Western, fantasy, and so on. However, I’ve discovered that a font from one category there can be used effectively elsewhere. So take a look, more closely, at the covers of the best sellers in your sub genre and pay attention to the fonts there. This will help guide your choices to cue readers that your book is, say, a romantic comedy rather than a hard-boiled thriller.
Kerning is how the letters line up horizontally. If they do not match up properly, you can wind up with some interesting and unfortunate effects. For examples and probably a giggle, check out the subreddit devoted to bad kerning. With the oddball fonts we like to use on covers, this can be a concern. Always have a look at your words before you release – and preferably, have a friend or two look at them as well.
And that’s the thing I’ll leave you with today: have someone else look at your work before you call it finished. Don’t tell them anything about what you’re trying to do, just show it to them and ask them, ‘what does this make you think of?’ then step back and really listen to what they are telling you.
So this is just a quick couple of examples I threw together for you guys to pick apart in the comments. I didn’t want to use real covers!
(Header image is “Puzzlebox” by Cedar Sanderson)
Check that font at different sizes, too. Some only really look good within a limited range, and beyond that either become unreadable or the flaws start jumping out at you.
And it’s not just smaller that gets hard to read. I really wanted to use Mistral for a headline, but that much above print size it starts looking odd and difficult to make out.
Excellent point. Also, proportionately to the cover is important. Tiny text for title (and you should know better with author name!) is hard to make out.
If you like the shape of a font and it doesn’t scale, you at least know what to look for in the search.
The “Hot Mess” cover looks like it should be a music album cover. All the spiky bits in the font make me think heavy metal.
The “A Christmas Miracle Cover” better feature cyborgs in a post-apocalyptic desert. Either that or Roy Batty has come back as replicant Santa Claus.
Abbadon is a variant on ‘medieval’ which is what manny metal bands base their typography on, so good eye.
Lol! Well, you know, these might make for Hilarious story prompts. I should make up a batch and offer them to people who leave great story starts in the comments… that’s a heck of a contest!
Fantastic is about Little League. Beautiful Script—I’m not entirely sure, but it’s a book that has Italy and good food in it. Friendly Schoolmates isn’t any current genre that I’m aware of. Brooke Smith is the author name on some chick lit. Calling Heart is some modern teen romance novel. Bonita isn’t a book, but it’s probably on the menu of a Tex-Mex restaurant. Richela Kids is in use by elementary school teachers for wall decorations. Sophistica is on some ill-judged boutique food label. And Drop Stay is used by someone who thinks they’re being clever but everyone else thinks it’s annoying.
Drop Stay and Brooke Smith are chick-lit fonts, or modern light romance (in Germany). Possibly contemporary lit-fic, but neither one is readable from across the room.
Yes, I do get up from my chair and back across the room to try to read the fonts. If I can read them there, then they will probably work in thumbnail. Even so I’ve been surprised on occasion. Luckily, it was a free font I was using to play around with on GIMP.
For the sizes I use, at 25% zoomed out usually is equal to the rough thumbnail size a cover ends up in Amazon.
That’s the same thing I do when I’m working on a cover in photoshop.
I save the image as a jgp and then look at it as both a Large Icon and an Extra Large icon
Fun, isn’t it? And your last one made me snort.
Friendly Schoolmates is a humorous ghost story for children.
For a “mildly horrible warning,” take a look at the thumbnail cover on my post tomorrow. Good font, lousy kerning.
With apologies to Monty Python, and to Cedar….
The Popular Font for the Liberation of Literature approves this post.
The Literary Liberators’ Popular Font denounces it.
And while “readable” and “conveys right genre” are your top considerations — “refrains from clashing horribly with the art” is a good idea.
Also, remember that the length of the title will affect the size of the font, and so the readability.
Finally, fonts come with a default distance between different lines. You can, and may have to, adjust that.
Mandatory XKCD: https://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/kerning.png
Why does someone even bother to make a font and put it up on a sharing site, then put a license on it that tells people they can’t use it?
Not sure? I suspect they want you to buy a license, but some I’ve seen don’t even offer that as an option, which is frustrating and means I’ll just move on to a similar one.
A better method I’ve seen is to put up a well done font with a free for commercial use license, which encourages for purchase work. Or including fonts in a bundle for purchase.
Having a good readable font in comics is necessary too. I had 3 of “Girl Genius” books ready to buy in my wish list. Then I came across the font the goons talk in. Once or twice on a page, it was readable. But half a page of goon speak, I quit reading the web comic and removed all the Girl Genius products from my wish list.
Have you seen the novels? I found them quite fun, and they are typeset in normal book fonts!
I’ve actually picked books based on font choice. I’m loving steampunk choices, and faux-Victoriana, so anything that makes me think of that is worth a borrow from the library. It’s a “clarity of signal” thing, much like art is. (If we’re talking classic fantasy, Michael Whelan was a good choice for me because the editors who picked him generally picked novels that I liked, but Darrell K. Sweet was worthless because his art ended up on books I liked AND books I hated.)
Michael Whelan’s art generally signaled a book I’d love. Luis Royo, on the other hand, was on a few fairy tale redone covers whose books I loved, and on fantasy books that I hated. Worse, I occasionally forgot the bad fantasy book – and then I’d be drawn like a moth to a flame by the cover art again, only to be disappointed when I started reading and went “Oh. This.”
Still love Luis Royo’s art!
Anything with a Trina Shart Hyman cover is aces.
I’ve started browsing through the “Sci-Fi” category. Why, please, do people think “I’m going to make this font really BIG” and then make each letter wider than they are tall?
I suppose that if all your titles are four letter words…
at or assume you want something that screams “Star-Trek clone!!”
Perhaps they do. There’s a market for Star Trek stuff.
Ugh! (Half-way through sci-fi) I’m just using Jokerman on everything and be done with it!
Very helpful post. I need to check out DaFont (I’ve mostly used Urban Fonts)as I’m still not completely happy with Medrano. The font I love can’t be bought. It’s page is littered with posts asking if anyone has contact info, so the poster can throw money at him.