What self-publishing taught me about fonts, readability, and UX
By Sarah A. Ruiz
When I wrote my first book, I spent a lot of time revising and editing it. When I wasn’t giving my book time, I was giving it money, paying my editor friend to proofread it and my graphic designer friend to create the cover. But none of this surprised me.
What did surprise me was how much time and energy (and money) I spent trying to find the perfect font.
I had no idea that I had to pick a book font. I’d just assumed the paperback version would come with one, the way a car comes with keys. I was wrong.
Despite being an avid reader for most of my life, I’d never given book fonts much thought, beyond laughing at jokes about Comic Sans and Papyrus. I’d heard of writers launching Kickstarters so they could buy unique fonts for their books, but I didn’t think that was necessary for Choose Your Weapon. Surely some font that already existed would work. After all, it was my story that mattered, not the letters themselves, right?
The Times of My Life
Unsure where to start, I asked my cover designer Tracy K. Greene for font advice. She suggested I use a serif font because “serifs are the easiest fonts for the eye to read in paragraph form.” I then Googled phrases like “best serif book fonts,” “best serif book fonts self-published,” “best serif book fonts self-publishing 2013,” etcetera, and decided that Times New Roman was a safe, dependable bet. It was a popular font for a reason.
I changed the font in Scrivener, then went through PDF export hell, making sure there were no single words left on any page tops. (Ideally, I would’ve avoided widows and orphans altogether; but when you’re doing things yourself, sometimes you get tired.) I fiddled with font sizes and page margins, trying to find a middle ground between a high page count (which meant a heavier and more expensive book) and crowded pages that looked like the fine print on a software update.
I ordered two test copies of my book, just to make sure Times would work. I only needed one book to make the decision, but if you’re paying $20 for overnight shipping, why not throw in an extra $4 book?
As it turns out, disappointment can be delivered overnight. I almost cried when I saw $28 worth of Times New Roman-printed pages — pages filled with tall, thin, boring-looking letters. In the lines that spread out to fill the justified text, the space between letters became alarmingly visible.
“Times New Roman looks self-published,” I told a friend.
“Why is that bad?” they replied.
I explained that the font looked bland. Inelegant. DIY, but by someone who didn’t know WTF they were doing. It wasn’t an ugly font; it just didn’t look enticing to me, and my first book needed to be as enticing as possible.
But Times wasn’t the only free font out there. So I did some more Googling, saw a lot of praise for Garamond, and set about exporting and re-checking the pages for lone words. There went a few more hours and another $28.
A Miss and A Hit
If Times New Roman was sensible but dull, Garamond was its flashy impractical cousin. Maybe it looks lovely in books from high-quality printing presses, but my print-on-demand publisher made the letters pale and tiny. They weren’t unreadable, but neither were they easy to read, and that might’ve frustrated younger readers. Why choose a font that could limit my book’s appeal?
I took a deep breath, checked Google one more time, and said good-bye to a few more hours of re-checking pages and another $28.
A day later, I started saying a phrase I still utilize when a last-chance effort works: “Palatino or GTFO.” It wasn’t a perfect font — I found it a bit too angular, and I didn’t like the non-curly quotes — but it balanced heft and readability. On the pages of my book, Palatino looked dignified while remaining practical. It would do, and it would do pretty darn well.
Kindles and Nooks and iBooks, Oh My
While creating self-published paperbacks forces you to think from a design and UX, creating e-reader books requires none of that…almost. Because e-readers like Kindles give their users so much control over font type, font size, line spacing, and screen brightness, all I had to do was make sure my chapter breaks were there and weird line breaks weren’t.
As with the paperback test copy process, I performed a round of quality control on all the e-reader formats of my book. I even did UX testing by asking friends to skim through the book on their different digital devices, checking for anything out of the ordinary. Thankfully, my digital books were issue-free.
But I had a good reason to double-check. One of my favorite authors had recently issued an older book as a Kindle download, and every other line was broken into a new paragraph, even when they weren’t actually new paragraphs. Some of the reviews warned about this, but I figured it wouldn’t impact the reading experience that much. Oh, it did. When I read, I hear the lines in my head, and reading this book was a stilted, frustrating experience.
Even with all the customization options available on an e-reader, a design problem within the text can ruin a book for a reader. I’d spent three years writing my first book, and I didn’t want to risk alienating an audience over a formatting issue.
UX Marks the Spot
In 2014, nearly two years after publishing my first book, I released the sequel. In 2017, I published the final book in the trilogy. (Yes, they are available in paperback and Kindle formats!) And while I’m not sure when I’ll publish my next book, I still think about the UX lessons I learned from self-publishing.
Even today, I feel like I’ve been let in on a magical secret: the hidden language of fonts. When I look at customer-facing websites and printouts for work, I try to channel the designer, wondering about their decisions for fonts and why they selected the ones on the finished product. Every time I see that a familiar logo has changed, I note how the new font makes me feel, wondering what mood the designers intended it to conjure.
I also have a profound respect for the people who design everyday items, especially those that can ensure or destroy safety. Street signs are a great example. A few years ago, I noticed that some street signs in my neighborhood had changed. I loved the new font and found it very easy to read. Suddenly, street signs with the older font looked suboptimal in comparison. They felt crowded, as if the letters had been stuffed uncomfortably into a narrow box.
As frustrating and expensive as my journey to find the right book font was, I’m still grateful for all I learned along the way. I now have so much respect for the letters and quotation marks that comprise our print world. The tiny items that once seemed so simple are now rich with nuance and complexity. I do admit that I still don’t love Comic Sans or Papyrus, but I feel more empathy toward people who have emotional reactions to them, both for and against. I know all too well how much someone can love a font — or hate it.