November 11th, 2019

Book Covers 101: Tips for Typography

by Melinda VanLone

I’ve posted several articles here at WITS covering the tone and type of image needed for different genres of book covers, but images are only part of the overall cover puzzle. There’s something else on the cover that’s pretty darn vital…the author name and the title.

Fitting text into an allotted space is both an art and a science, one I’ve spent a lifetime perfecting. That sounds daunting, doesn’t it?

So here’s the thing…it doesn’t matter as much as you think it does.

Don’t get me wrong, the topography needs to be good. Solid. Professional. What I’m saying is it’s easier to achieve professional looking text on a book cover than it might seem at first glance. Here are some basic guidelines:

Free fonts are free for a reason.

It’s easy to get lost down the rabbit hole of free fonts available on the internet. It’s fun when you first start to explore the possibilities, but over time it quickly becomes overwhelming. There are just so many! And a lot of them look great on the display, but then when you download it and try it out, they don’t look as good. If you don’t know the difference between kerning and leading, then choosing some of those freebies might send you into a disappointment spiral. Often they need a lot of work in InDesign or Photoshop to get them to look right. If you have access to Adobe TypeKit, that’s an excellent way of getting quality fonts for commercial use (and yes, you are commercial) without spending any additional money.

Speaking of Commercial...

Licensing is important. If you downloaded a font from a freebie website, be sure to read the fine print. Most often the license they “give” you is a personal one, meaning you’re free to use it at home on something like your child’s science fair project. If you intend to sell your book, you need a commercial license. Every foundry is different in how they license, and the last thing you want is to come up against a lawsuit because you made a lot of money using a font you didn’t pay for. If you buy a font from a professional foundry, be sure you purchased the right license for your needs. If you aren’t sure, ask them. Save the license you get with the font purchase for future reference, just in case.

Classic fonts are classic for a reason. 

One way to ease the stress of cover design is to realize that the subtle differences between different fonts are, well, subtle. Unless it’s a specialty display font, it’s a lot of tiny tweaks to a basic form. There’s no need to spend hours worrying about which is “just right.” At icon size, nobody will see those tiny differences.

When in doubt stick with classic, tried and true fonts and be more creative with their size/placement/treatment instead. You’ll look professional, and spend a lot less time in the font mines trying to choose. Here are some solid choices for book covers.

Less is more.

On a book cover, with such limited space, you really don’t need more than two fonts, no matter what genre you’re targeting. A good rule of thumb is one font for the title, and another for the author name (or the same font for both).

Use variations of either for any other text…subtitles, log lines, etc. If it’s a good font, and not a super freebie found somewhere in the murky depths of the internet, it will have multiple faces, from ultra fine to ultra black, for all your design needs.

Serifs are classy but pesky.

Serifs are those little bits that stick out from the main part of the letter, and they’re what makes a classy font look classy. Serif fonts are used for interior layouts of books because they are easier to read. But on a cover, with all the colors going on behind it, serifs can get lost, leaving weak text struggling to be seen. If you do go with a serif font, be sure to choose one with sturdy, solid flourishes rather than thin, reedy ones unless you’re making the text super sized.

San Serifs can be clunky.

San serif fonts lack those delicate little flourishes that serifs have so they stand up well on colorful or cluttered backgrounds, and are more legible at smaller sizes. They can, however, look a little less formal, and are surprisingly harder to read in long blocks of text.

Don’t be shy.

Since this is a marketing piece, you have to remember exactly what it is you’re selling. The book? Yes, but no. What you’re really selling is you. That means what you really want the customer (reader) to remember is not the title of your book…it’s your name!

There are varying genre conventions for the size of the author name but the general rule of thumb is, if it’s not a children’s book, then get that name on there big and proud. I always make sure I can read the author name at icon size. The more often customers see your name the more you seem familiar and the better that name recognition works on down the line.

Titles are nice, but…

It’s not nearly as important to be able to read the book title online as you might think. Every online vendor puts your cover image right next to the catalog book title and description. It’s almost never pictured alone. That means the customer glances at the image, then their eye flicks over to the text next to it. Meaning as long as you have an overall great hook, the actual legibility of the text is secondary. (I realize that typographers everywhere are probably throwing rotten fruit at me right now.)

Match your genre.

If you’re using a special display font for the title, be sure to choose one that more or less matches the genre of the book. It should work with the background image, not fight against it. A pretty handwriting font works great on romance covers, but looks horrible on thrillers. It can create a disconnect for the reader if the feel and tone of the font doesn’t match the tone of the image and the intent of the overall design.

When in doubt, stick with a classic font. They aren’t boring, they’re timeless. A classic font tells readers that the cover, and the story inside, are professional. That is the best hook.

Do you have a go-to font? What is it and where did you find it? Do you have any questions for Melinda?

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About Melinda

Melinda VanLone writes urban fantasy, freelances as a graphic designer, and dabbles in photography. She currently lives in Florida with her husband and furbabies.

When she's not playing with her imaginary friends, you can find Melinda playing World of Warcraft, wandering aimlessly through the streets taking photos, or hovered over coffee in Starbucks.

Her elementary fantasy series, House of Xannon, begins with Stronger Than Magic. And for more information on covers, visit BookCoverCorner.com.

Top photo credit: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

18 responses to “Book Covers 101: Tips for Typography”

  1. Terry Odell says:

    Years ago, my daughter gave me a logo and business cards as a birthday gift. She hired a friend to design it, and he used a font called Americana. I've used it on my website and on my covers for my name. For the rest of the covers, I've let my designers come up with fonts for titles, and I keep them consistent within series.
    When I was judging the Edgars a few years back, the books had a preponderance of all caps, block letters for titles and it was ... boring. They all looked alike.
    For my ebooks, I don't worry about the fonts for the interiors, because most e-readers allow the end user to choose what the like, so I upload in TNR. For my print books, I lean toward Cambria.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Yes, those block letters have been popular for a while. It's interesting how fonts ebb and cycle through the popularity chain. Cursive looking fonts were popular for a while and I rarely like those either.

    • Designers always have their favorite go-to fonts, which do seem to change over the years with the seasons. That's why I try to stick to classics...always stylish. Like nice black pants 😀 And you're right...it doesn't matter what font you select for an ebook file. The end user gets to choose what they see, which is the whole point of eBooks anyway. All of this only matters on the cover, or for print books.

  2. Laura Drake says:

    Thanks for this, Melinda. I’m getting 4 of my titles back from Harlequin, and this is going to get important for me, very soon!

  3. Thanks, Melinda, for making us think. Covers are so important to us...and our egos. Much like writing a novel, there's no ONE way to design a cover. Dang it. But we all stop in our tracks when we come across an effective cover. I've loved working with you in the past and look forward to collaborating with you on future projects!

  4. Julie Glover says:

    Wow, great info! And yes, I do have a question for Melinda about typography! Sometimes a font is compact or spread out, but changing the character spacing could help. Do you recommend that, or do you just pass over that font and find another one that works?

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I've always had this question too, Julie! She and Edwina are hanging out today (WITHOUT us...can you believe it?!) so she might take a bit to get to these questions, but I'm very curious about her answer to this.

    • Good question! I always work with the kerning to get the fonts spaces just how I like with a title, but I don't scale them horizontally if that makes sense? Because it can make the font look odd. For titles, I don't mind spending the extra time and effort to get that spacing exactly right and I do think playing with kerning and overlapping letters makes for some interesting effects on a cover. I would never go to that amount of work for interior text though. I use a solid font as-is for interior layouts. Cover titles are more art than text so more worth the effort 🙂

  5. janetsm says:

    Lots of helpful information. Thank you!

  6. ecellenb says:

    Great post! Fonts make a big difference in creating a mood for your cover and matching it to the story. An author friend found a terrific font for my early middle grade series but it was pricey, so we found a similar one and purchased the rights to use that one instead.

    Do you have a recommendation for an interior font that doesn't require so much tweaking for proper spacing between letters?

    • That's actually a really loaded question *grin*. First the short answer...I recommend Garamond Pro. It was designed for exactly that...large blocks of text. As for proper spacing between letters on interior text...that's a combination of factors that include kerning, leading, hyphenation and justification settings, and font. Garamond on its own without any odd settings anywhere else is always spaced well, and extremely legible which is, after all, what we're after. Justification is always going to make some lines a little wonky vs others, which is the price we pay for the legibility that comes along with justification. But if you're using InDesign to do the interior you can tweak the justification settings to make it more, or less, appealing. I never use Word for graphic production so I can't speak to whether it allows you to tweak those settings or not. I know you can't in Vellum...you must live with whatever they are using behind the scenes. It's a tangled web that your graphic designer can help you slice through. 🙂

  7. dholcomb1 says:

    make sure the kerning works, too

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