How to choose typography for ebooks

What are the best fonts to use for ebooks? Writers who self-publish can get a shock when they publish an ebook with carefully selected styles and then view it on a Kindle to find their selected typefaces have been changed, sometimes dramatically.

The Kindle Fire has a font set comprising 12 typefaces:

  • Arial
  • Baskerville
  • Bookerly
  • Caecilia
  • Courier
  • Georgia
  • Helvetica
  • Lucida Sans Unicode
  • Palatino
  • Times New Roman
  • Trebuchet
  • Verdana

The Kindle Paperwhite adds Futura, but you wouldn’t use it unless you were sure your book was going to Paperwhite readers only.

The Kindle app for the iPad includes, depending on the version of the app, Baskerville, Caecilia, Georgia, Helvetica, and Palatino.

Problems with embedding fonts

You can also embed fonts in your book. This isn’t necessarily a good idea as many readers like to change the font on their Kindle to suit their own tastes rather than being forced to stick to your insistence of, say, single-spaced Verdana, which would give me a headache fairly quickly.

There is also the issue of legality as many typefaces are covered by licensing terms and conditions which do not allow distribution of the typeface. This is no problem with print books as the typeface is properly embedded into the file as, for example, part of a PDF.

Embedding is quite different with an ebook file as the font is included as part of the overall epub or mobi file which then pulls the font into the ebook when in use. The typeface could be extracted from the file, falling foul of the vendor’s terms and conditions.

Turning fonts into pictures

There isn’t any overriding reason to embed fonts in an ebook. If you want to get a different look by using an unsupported font for your chapter headings, for example, set the headings in the font of your choice, save them as jpegs and insert them as pictures.

This article aims to keep things simple and just look at the options offered by the Kindle Fire. I’ll also leave the question of typography on book covers and focus on interior formatting.

I’m using font and typeface to mean the same thing, In the original meaning, font is a subset of typeface but the meaning of the two terms has become intertwined.

How to use your fonts

If you’re formatting a novel, your choices are straightforward. You need a font for the main body copy and you need a font for chapter heading. You could use the same font for both or you could use two different fonts.

If you use two different fonts, then the general consensus of designers and typographers is not to use two serifs or two sans serif typefaces.

For example, don’t use Times for chapter headings and Georgia for body copy as two serif fonts like these do not look good together.

Also don’t use, say, Verdana for headings and Helvetica for body text as these are two sans serif fonts.

It’s best not to use any sans serif font for body text as they don’t suit books, whether they are printed or digital.

However, remember these are only general rules and there may well be times where two serifs look good together or you think a sans font is just right for your text. Feel free to experiment but bear in mind the basics.

Three top choices for ebook body text

My No 1 choice when it comes to picking a font for body text formatting is Georgia.

It’s a good, readable serif font that doesn’t impose itself on readers. The main aim with ebook typography is for the reader not to notice what font you are using. If you use a typeface that annoys readers or that they find even slightly difficult to read, then you are giving yourself problems.

My second choice is Baskerville.

This is often used in printed novels and although I feel it doesn’t look as good on screen as it does in print, it is still an excellent option.

My third choice is Palatino but I would be careful about using this as although it’s a good looking serif, it can be a bit wearing over the course of a book.

Some designers seem to like Caecilia but I’m baffled why Amazon included it in the Kindle. Perhaps they thought the early Kindles needed a slab serif like Caecilia as a legible option. It’s a nice enough typeface in its way but I wouldn’t use it for body text.

You might note that Times does not make my top three and that’s because it’s a poor font to use for books. Take a look at any professionally designed print book, you’ll never see Times used.

I’ve given three choices here, but really the only one I use is Georgia, which is reliably consistent and legible without any finicky adornments to divert the reader’s attention away from the text. It was designed for clarity on a screen and succeeds brilliantly in doing this, so is perfect for ebooks and it’s a rather lovely font as well.

In all cases for body text, whatever font you choose, use the Roman, Regular or Normal style setting for the main body, picking out any individual words, phrases or sub-headings in bold or italics only as necessary. Italics, in particular, get tiring to read on a screen and should be used sparingly.

Choices for ebook chapter headings

If you use Georgia as your body text, then you should either use Georgia as your chapter heading font or a sans serif face if you follow the basic rule of not mixing your serifs together.

Your options on the sans front are:

  • Lucida Sans Unicode: a very nice sans serif face with a lot of character but there isn’t enough kerning (spacing between letters) between the r’s and the t’s for my liking and I don’t like r’s and t’s running into each other so I don’t use it a great deal.
  • Helvetica: a very safe bet, it’s the classic sans serif but it can be a bit boring and can look out of place in a novel. Consider whether it fits in with the character of your book.
  • Arial: a good alternative to Helvetica. It’s designed for the screen and is a reliable option.
  • Trebuchet and Verdana: both great typefaces in their way but not well suited to novels although they can be good for non-fiction ebooks.

So your choices would be narrowed down to: Georgia, Helvetica or Arial. You can’t really go wrong with any of these three.

What size should your body text and chapter headings be?

I always use 12pt (or px) Georgia for main body text with line spacing of 1.5 lines.

Line spacing, or leading, is very important. Setting type single-line-spaced doesn’t let the text breathe and makes it difficult to read, while I think double-spaced is too much space, one and a half lines is just about right.

A lot of non-fiction books also have space between paragraphs which works well, but I don’t consider it should be done for novels.

Readers can, depending on the device they’re using, increase or decrease the size of the text, change the typeface and increase or decrease the line-spacing, so all your work could be for nothing, but you’ve got to set a decent framework.

  • Make sure your body text is set as justified, which means each line is spaced out to give an even right-hand margin. If you set it unjustified (ragged on the right) it looks unprofessional and is difficult to read.
  • The first paragraph of each chapter should be full out, which means the first line is set flush on the left-hand margin.
  • All other text after the first paragraph of the chapter should be indented. Don’t make the indent too much, around two or three characters in is about right. I set the indent to 50 (tenths of mm). This indent should be applied to Left (1st line) only, with Left and Right remaining at 0. These settings differ according to the software you are using.

For instance, in Word, go to the Format/Paragraph menu, leave Indentation Left and Right at 0, and hold down the flyout under Special where you will see First line, which you can then set in the box on the right.

Set Styles for your body text full out and indented. If you are using Word, you can modify the Normal style, which is in the preset styles, to the specifications you want. All the settings can be accessed from the Format button at the bottom left of the Modify Style menu. After you’ve modified the Normal style for the full-out first paragraph, add a new style based on Normal and modify that one for indented body text.

Either 18pt (px) or 24pt is a good size for chapter headings and I always think they look good centred. Using Word, you can modify Heading 1 to your specification for chapter headings.

It also looks good to put some space between the chapter heading and the start of the body text, which you can do by adding spacing after the heading. You’ll find this in Word in the Paragraph/Indents and Spacing Option, where you will see an option for Spacing/After.

If you set your heading in 14pt and want three lines space after the heading then set the spacing after to 42pt. Don’t add three blank lines by using the Enter (Return) key as this won’t work out well with ebooks.

I’ve compiled a short slideshow guide to Setting Styles in Microsoft Word for Ebooks, which you can find in my article on Nine Ways to Self-Publish An Ebook.

As I mentioned above, some writers/publishers set some spacing between paragraphs but while this is good for non-fiction, it is a very personal choice for novels.

The best way on all these options is to try them yourself and see what you think. If you use software such as InDesign or Jutoh, you can produce your own mobi file and email it to your Kindle email account or download it and transfer it over to your Kindle. You can then view your book on your Kindle and check it over.

Try a few combinations of fonts and find what works for you, but keep it simple and don’t let the typeface come between the reader and the content.

Amazon adds Bookerly font to Kindle reading choice