Book Design tips #1 (Robert Denethon books) January 16 2016
Readability plus character - on the artistic balance of book design.
In the Gryphonomicon series I was aiming for an archaic, nineteenth century flavour. You see, while the gryphon novels are set in the distant past, 12,500 years ago, their footnotes, appendices and the general style of the books assume the conceit that they are Nineteenth Century translations of ancient manuscripts discovered during an archaeological dig. This is a picture of the archeological site, supposedly near Zonguldak near the black sea. (Clearly this is set in the alternate universe, the universe of Lilith, not this universe, but the universe Robert Denethon, the fictional author of his books, comes from in the world of the novels; i.e. this archaeological site does not exist in our world...)
Accordingly, using the software Fontographer I designed a font based on the typeface in a book by Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley (I forget which one, it wasn't Frankenstein) and also created a Steampunk style font for chapter headings and titles (both available here). These fonts, plus the hand-drawn illustrations, gave the flavour of a nineteenth century book to the hard copies of the book. For the Henry Lawson Hero of the Robot Revolution books I also included some hand-written letters, a gestetnered pamphlet, and some supposedly type-written documents. For all of these I created fonts.
I wouldn't recommend using embedded custom fonts in the epub version of your book however - not because I don't think epub and kindle versions might benefit from a somewhat more artistic approach, in fact, I think epubs are often unimaginative versions of books, when so many printed books are becoming more and more beautiful as works of art (see The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss) - but because the procedure of embedding fonts in epubs and kindles is rather problematic and results in a number of pitfalls, such as: the apple iBooks software does not display embedded fonts in some circumstances, kindles sometimes will not allow the reader to switch away from your custom fonts, and other ereaders are still somewhat inconsistent in their application of custom fonts. To be honest, at this stage it is wasted effort, and I am not certain people are actually looking for a work of art when they purchase an ebook. They more often are when they buy a physical book.
The main thing when creating a book is to make it readable. There is a very subtle art to font choice, kerning, paragraph styles, and so forth, that make this possible, and it is necessary to read it yourself as though you are someone reading the book for the first time, before you can be sure you have it right.
Adobe inDesign, which I use for designing my physical books, actually has many options that can help to make the book a work of art & readable at the same time - the features for font management in character and paragraph styles are really important to know about in this respect. My main piece of advice would be - make sure you fool around a bit! Try different things, improvise, make sure you save the version you've done before you make any changes, perhaps with a different name, then change the spacing. It's amazing what a difference small details of layout can make, such as making sure the bottoms of the lines of text on opposite facing pages are level with one another (something that can go wrong if you are using a different font for the chapter headings.)
I suppose for different people the balance between readability and character will be at a different point. But we all know what a beautiful book looks like for us, and this is what we all aim to produce.