What Does the Font Say?

If you are doing your own graphic design, particularly for book covers, it’s important to understand a little bit about what your font choice is saying. (It’s best if you understand a lot, of course, but as long as you understand enough to pick the proper examples to work from, you’ll do okay.)

The first thing to note is that a default font—the first font your word processing program goes to—is a really bad idea. Not only does it indicate that you put little to no thought into your work, such a font has been used in so many places that its signaling value is null. (I will use the term signal or signaling to indicate the way that a font “feels” to a reader. Some fonts will “feel” like fantasy, or like romance, and those fonts are sending a certain signal.)

The second thing that is important is that the font be legible. even down to a small size. If you’re selling a book on Amazon, the book image is little more than an inch across. If a reader can’t squint a bit and get an idea of what the title is, it will influence their decision to buy negatively.
a block of text that is well-nigh illegible

It’s also considered a good idea to not pick a font face that has been overused. The website Papyrus Everywhere shows examples of the overuse of Papyrus, from homeowner’s associations to organic products, from touring companies to churches, and the end result of this font face being used everywhere is that the font no longer has a useful signal. It’s almost as ubiquitous as Times New Roman, the default font on Microsoft Word. And that means that nobody knows what it’s standing for, except that it’s overused.

So let’s talk about signaling. Some font faces have been used for particular things so much that they have a feel of that venue. For instance, Trajan is the movie font.

It doesn’t tell you the genre of movie, but it does signify that this is a movie that you’re seeing advertised.

When you get into books, each genre—and sometimes even sub-genre—has its own particular style of font faces that say “This is a book of this particular genre.” Not only that, but the signal morphs over time. The fonts that were used twenty years ago are not considered today, and that may even be true of the fonts used just a couple of years ago.

To illustrate, I’m going to use the covers for author Elizabeth Moon. She has more than a quarter-century’s worth of work in at least two distinct genres, and many of her earlier books have seen reprints such that you can compare font choices as they have evolved over time.

Sheepfarmer’s Daughter is the first book in a fairly well-known trilogy by Moon. You can see that in the first printing, there was some custom work done with the font in order to get that arched style in the title. The second cover uses the same artwork, but has gone to more recent font styles—and the author’s name has gotten larger as she is now well-known and a sales point on her own.

Oath of Gold is in the same series. You can see the use of the same fonts in the first cover, but the second is from a different reprint than my earlier example. It’s fairly recent. Note the slight flare to the letter ends—not full serifs, but enough to keep it from being a sans-serif font. Fantasy fonts have serifs or semi-serifs; science fiction has sans-serif fonts almost exclusively.

If you squint hard at the original 1990 cover of Surrender None (sorry; it’s the biggest I could find), you can see that all of the fonts are serif and that all are capitalized.

Personally, I’m amused at the swordsman pose in the second version, which so closely mimics the one on the original cover of Liar’s Oath. Neither swordsman has much of anything to do with the text, but we’re talking signals here, not accuracy.

Elizabeth Moon also writes science fiction. Here are a couple of her titles with variant covers.

What does each choice of font imply to you?

As one final note on font choice, I am going to refer to an article by Fontcraft about choosing alternate fonts. An alternate font is one that looks similar to the one you want, but has different design elements and isn’t as widely used.

I can’t say it better than they have here: “Once a font reaches the level of overexposure you begin to see other, better and more appropriate fonts being passed over because designers have an unconscious impetus towards the look which has become established for the genre they work in, or they are just lazy and say “hey, this is a horror movie, let’s just use the font that was used on The Craft” […] Good fonts get neglected and fonts of questionable quality get entrenched and become tediously overused.”

Even Elizabeth Moon got a Morpheus-variant font. (That N. That horrible, horrible N.)


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