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May 6, 2024
By Jami Carpenter
Choosing the right font is more important than you may think
In the throes of writing, we don’t usually think about the details of printing our books, but, once our storytelling is done, decisions need to be made, not the least of which is what font or fonts to use for our story content and chapter headings, back cover text, title, etc. (Technically, a font is a variation of a typeface, but today I’ll use font with my apologies to typographers.)
It’s no surprise that fonts come in different sizes, shapes, and styles. Does it matter which one(s) we choose? Well, yes. Those decisions can make a difference in the look and feel of our books. It’s tempting to choose a fun or unusual font so that our book stands out, but a font that is too creative can distract and even detract from the story. One of the biggest mistakes self-published authors make is choosing fonts that look less professional and more... well... self-published.
In simplest terms, fonts are of two distinct categories: serif, or letters with decorative flourishes, and sans serif, or straight-edged letters without strokes or “tails.” Serif fonts are easier on the eyes; the little strokes at the end of letters helps the eyes move across the page and are best for the main content. Here’s some information about the serif fonts most recommended for print books:

Garamond is one of the most popular families of fonts for use in books. A classic font, Garamond is named for Claude Garamond, a publisher in 16th-century France. 

The Caslon Font originated with William Caslon, one of England’s first printers, and has been popular ever since. Caslon is one of the most widely used typefaces for text and works well in books.
Minion is a more modern creation, designed by Robert Slimbach for Adobe Systems, and has become one of the favorite fonts for book designers because of its regular color, interesting letterforms, and the variety of weights and styles available.
Janson Text is another Adobe font, based on a typeface created in the Netherlands in the 17th century. A recent version was created by the famed type designer Hermann Zapf in the 1950s.
For a long time, Palatino was the most popular font for print because it was included in the base set of fonts shipped with every new Macintosh, the original desktop publishing platform. Though it has been overexposed, I still like it and use it frequently when formatting books for my clients.
That being said, many book designers have identified qualities of each font that work best for specific genres:
Baskerville for literary fiction
Sabon for romantic fiction 
Garamond for thrillers
Caslon for nonfiction 
Palatino for general interest 
If you hadn’t noticed, Times New Roman is not on this list. Originally designed for use in the Times of London newspaper, the font was intended to be readable in the narrow columns of a newspaper, not for the wider pages of a book.  
Now, you might ask, what about chapter headings? This is where sans serif fonts can be used; they are clean and capture reader’s attention. The sharp, straight lines are not suggested for long sections but are perfect for a few words. The most common usable sans-serif fonts are 
Arial, Verdana, Tahoma, and Calibri, which was the default headings font in Microsoft Word for the past 15 years—until the unveiling of Aptos about six months ago.
Fonts for e-books are a different “story.” Though electronic devices can be adjusted to readers’ preferences, certain fonts are still recommended for initial publication. These fonts are a bit “rounder”—Baskerville, Georgia, Bookerly—with Helvetica for chapter headings, which, in 2007, by the way, had a feature-length documentary made about it!  
Regardless of the font style you choose, you also need to set the font size. For print books, 11-point font size is the most appropriate for the body content, depending on the font chosen. Some publishers use 10-point, though never 12-point. According to a library association, large print editions can set font size at 16–18-point.
Chapter headings, of course, can be larger, though never so large that they are out of proportion to the body content. Again, depending on the sans serif font, 14–16-point is suggested most often.  
I am often asked about the use of words in bold, all caps, underlining, and italics. Let me be clear: never, never, never, and sometimes. Unless you are writing a science textbook or cookbook and need to emphasize a formula or a measurement, words in print books should not be in bold, all caps, or underlined. Though we rely on these styles for emphasis, they really demonstrate lazy writing; the words themselves should do the job.  
Italics, however, do have a place. They are useful with foreign words, though should be used only when the word is first introduced. Italics can also be used when a character (or individual in nonfiction) is thinking to him or herself. (I wonder what’s next, she thought.) This distinguishes internal thoughts from dialogue for the reader.  
Italics are often used with a change in narrator or time period, which signals to the reader that something has changed from the previous paragraph, page, or chapter. I caution you, however; too long a section in italics is tiring for readers. I have read several book that, while engaging and delightfully written, have considerable sections in italics that frankly exasperate me. I find myself relieved when the next chapter is in “regular” font style. Maybe you’ve had the same experience.
So how do you decide which fonts to use? The best way to know how your book will look is to create a sample page in each font and font size. While you might have trouble deciding between Garamond and Palatino in a word or two, you can see a difference and get a better feel for the typeface (font) on a whole page. Most important, keep in mind that the goal is to have the font and font size disappear—and let the words speak for themselves.
Jami Carpenter is a professional editor and coauthor of three nonfiction works about Las Vegas.