Fonts are … funny things. On a computer screen, software can take the drawings of letters and slant them to make italics, or make each line thicker to make bold, or both. But for print, that doesn’t work well. For the fonts you can use for your book, you will need the standard font (called regular, text, or Roman), the italic version of the font, and possibly the bold and bold italic versions. There are fonts that include a small caps version – you shouldn’t use those in your text unless you have a font that includes it, because the design of small caps is actually different than just the regular capital letters at a smaller size.
For the text of your book, I recommend a serif font that’s designed for readability: something from the Humanist, Garalde, Didone, or Transitional families. For titles and headings, a paired sans-serif font is my choice. But that brings up several questions – among them (and first of all), what the (bleep) am I talking about?
For body text, you’re looking for a font that has little counter-strokes at the end of each line (called serifs). That helps give a sense of connection between letters in a word. For titles and headings, look for a font without those serifs that looks well with the text font you’ve chosen. And how do you know what goes well? Well, my method is to ask Google: type in the name of the font (as specifically as you can – Libre Baskerville is different than Baskerville Old Face) and the word “pairings”. The web is full of designers that want to show off their sense of style and taste, so they talk about this stuff. Steal their ideas and pick one that looks good to you.
Remember, you’re looking for a font that:
- Has the variants you need (text, italic, bold, etc.)
- Is easy to read in large blocks
- And is licensed for commercial use at a price you’re able to pay.
Fortunately, there are web sites that specialize in Open Source or Creative Commons fonts, so you’ll have what you need in no time.
Principles for choosing fonts:
- Stick with distinct, defined roles: each font should only be used in its own sphere in your design. (In other words, don’t use the same font for the title, text, and chapter headings.) (But you could differentiate them by weight – light, medium, bold, heavy – and size and by using italics.)
- Contrast font weights and point sizes. Each role should be distinct by font size and weight.
- Choose similar x-heights. Fonts that go together generally have the same proportion of capital letter height to lowercase letter height.
- Contrast distinct with neutral. Highly quirky fonts need a neutral partner to avoid clashing.
- Don’t mix moods. A font with a formal approach should not be paired with a casual font.
Nice Details: there are lower-case numbers. If your chosen font has them (not all do), use “Oldstyle” numerals in your text, because they flow much better in reading. If there are decorative glyphs (called “fleurons”) in your chosen font, consider using them sparingly to mark scene changes instead of three asterisks. Fractions are available in some fonts that are properly designed instead of hacked together with the forward slash – if you need fractions, use those instead. Each one of those is a mark of a properly designed book, and will increase the confidence your readers have in you, their entertainer.
I know that it’s trendy right now to put body text in sans-serif fonts, but that’s not a wise choice when you’re trying to convince your readers that this is the best experience they could spend money on; serif fonts make reading body text much easier then sans-serifs. That advice works much better for websites, where the text is shown on a screen with much lower resolution than a book. You’re picking a font for paper, not a computer screen, so I really advise sticking with traditional serifs for the text.