How to Use the Magic Melding of Letters and Art to Sell More Books
Typography is more than letters spelling out your title. It’s the music to your lyrics. The frame for your painting. The signboard for your reader’s journey. Together with your title, author name, and cover image, the magic of type draws readers irresistibly into your book.
Typography evokes feelings. It adds tone, atmosphere, and the richness of history to the written word. Typography instantly identifies what the reader can expect without ever reading a word inside. Properly done, it confirms the book’s genre, and makes the promise of a polished, professional work. When used improperly, it can give the reader the impression that the work is amateurish and therefore they won’t trust the work to be worth their time.
Cover Art Wizardry
In general, a book cover design uses a maximum of two or three different fonts out of the hundred thousands available for commercial use. How do you narrow them down? That’s where font categories come in.
Above: Serif Title and Author Name
Choose display fonts.
Fonts designed for the outside of your book are display fonts. A display font is a category of fonts designed to attract attention and be easy to read at a large size. By contrast, a text font is designed for reading long passages.
Keep your fonts from picking a fight by choosing from contrasting categories—Serif, Sans Serif, Script, and Decorative. https://www.nickkolenda.com/font-psychology/
Below: Sans Serif Title and Author Name
Below: Script Title
Once you’ve chosen your font(s), guide the reader’s eye with a clear hierarchy in order of importance: title, author name, then subtitle, blurb, or tagline. The font categories take care of the contrast in structure and form.
Below: Decorative Title
Below: Unusual Direction
In The Non-Designer’s Design Book, Robin Williams describes how to use weight, contrast, size, structure, form, direction, and color to help the reader know what to read first, next, and last … until the cover story is told. The highest-ranking characters get the full treatment—generous font size, bold weight, intense color—and the sidekicks get the opposite. Extreme differences are better than sliding into murk.
When you’ve finished your cover design, take a tip from other publishing houses: hang it on the wall and see if it catches people’s eyes when they walk by. Did you nail your type? After a few days, you’ll know.
For a clear contrast, choose font sizes that differ noticeably from each other.
The Cover Design Studio recommends “three point sizes. One size for the … title (usually 48 or higher), a second size for the author name and subtitle (anywhere from 18-36 points), and a third for blurbs, promos, and descriptive text (usually 10-12 points). If needed, a fourth size can be used for less significant words in the title, such as the and of.”
Choosing fonts by genre
Sometimes your cover image will be spot on for your genre, but you’re still getting mixed reactions. The emotion, atmosphere, and history packed into every font might be conflicting with your cover image. The example covers in this article use the same two images, but they illustrate how typography changes the cover’s message.
The blocky san serif font in the first example signals the thriller genre. The title displayed in two directions adds drama—it feels like the action is coming at our heroine from all sides.
In the second cover, the same image is matched with a swirly, decorative script title font and the author name is set in a nicely contrasting sans serif font. The decorative script has an even thickness throughout. The contrast between the two fonts make the design look purposeful. This cover would work for the romance genre.
The last example with this image has a few subtle differences from the romance cover. The lightweight script font looks like handwriting. The title is the same size or even smaller than the author name. The author name is set in an important looking serif font in the same color as the title. All these clues hint that the story is about the author: it’s a memoir.
In the first cover with a sunset image, the font has an even thickness with no transition from thick to thin. The big, solid font hints at big action. It’s another thriller.
The same image gets a makeover with a red, slashy title font paired with a light gray san serif giving the cover a mood to match the horror genre.
In the final cover, the curly, script font for author name and title reframes the same image to make a cover suitable for a romance, or chicklit. A book you want to take to the beach with you.
Looking at comparable titles or the top books in your categories in online stores can help you identify current trends in your genre. Use the Font Squirrel https://www.fontsquirrel.com/ or What Font Is https://www.whatfontis.com/ websites to identify the font names.
For example, science fiction titles currently do well with bold, modern fonts. Cozy mysteries tend to mix handwritten and decorative fonts. Romance fonts might be script or decorative. Legibility is especially important for young readers, but there’s also an emphasis on fun, hand-drawn lettering. Thrillers favor bold, blocky fonts.
You can also choose appropriate fonts by focusing on a core emotion, a setting, or a moment in history. Remember to narrow your search to display fonts. Keeping track of the broader categories (Serif, Sans Serif, Script, Decorative) can remind you to choose diverse fonts that will complement each other.
Once you’ve done your research, you can make informed choices from the commercial fonts that are on offer. Some of them are free, but remember to check the license agreements for limitations around ebooks, print books, and merchandise. You don’t want to get your cover finished and find out that your chosen font won’t embed in the file.
Does your type need a matchmaker? Check out the suggested font pairs at Typewolf, Font Bundles, or Canva’s free guide.
The fine-tuning creates unity—like the soft pedal on a piano.
Once your well-matched fonts are arranged in a clear hierarchy, check for legibility and adjust the kerning and leading. Kerning is the space between letters and leading is the space between lines. A title with curved text or multiple fonts is a prime candidate for both.
What marketer and philosopher Seth Godin wrote in 2011 still holds true: “The choice of a typeface, the care given to kerning and to readability—it all sends a powerful signal … you’ve just told people how they ought to think about you.” Or about your book.
As a busy author, it may feel like too much trouble to learn about type. Understanding a few key principles will make it easier to communicate with a cover designer (or create a workmanlike cover), set the right expectations, and attract the right readers. Learning to express your style with type won’t hurt your social media posts or website either.