In print shop many years ago, our school’s newspapers and yearbooks were composed in raised type. Headlines were hand-set from individual characters—some carved in wood, others cast by a type foundry. Lines of text called “slugs” were formed from molten metal (an amalgam of lead, antimony and tin) on a Linotype machine. We protected our skin and clothes from metal splashes by wearing sturdy printer’s aprons or leather chaps.
Raised type was read upside-down and backwards. If errors were found, the slugs were reset. Discarded slugs went into what we called the hell pot, to be melted and recycled. This was long before the establishment of OSHA health regulations for employees (and presumably students) regarding exposure to fumes from hell pots.
A font is a set of a particular type design and size. Foundry-cast type fonts were housed in wooden drawers divided into compartments holding individual letters, numbers, and symbols. There weren’t always enough characters to go around, so designing with type was difficult. If too many typefaces were used, the layout resembled a kidnapper’s letter.
Today, one can download thousands of digital type fonts for free or for fee. If cast in metal, the fonts presently taking up a few gigabytes in a computer would fill a high school gymnasium to the rafters and spill out to cover the football field.
With all the typefaces now available to us, I’ve often wondered why so many self-published books are set in Times Roman, the default font in many computer programs. The Times family is designed for narrow newspaper columns, and isn’t pleasing to the eye when used for book text. And please, never set your text in sans-serif type. The serifs (those little “feet” on the characters) help guide the eye across the page. Choose a Garamond or Bookman or another easy-to-read face. However, it’s okay to set headings in a sans-serif such as Helvetica or Myriad, to contrast with your body copy. And for occasional special emphasis it’s okay to use a clean script or decorative face. One or the other, not both.
So—set text in a serif face, headings in a sans-serif face, and for emphasis use either a decorative or script face. Combining more faces than this will result in a kidnapper’s letter.
For ebooks, we’re limited to the type styles and sizes Amazon and other publishers allow. It makes no difference what style your original copy is set in; when the file is converted to MOBI or EPUB the sizes and styles will be reset. And no, you can’t have sans-serif fonts for headings, unless you convert them to JPEGs and drop them in place—a time-consuming job and difficult to align correctly. But with a little trial-and-error, you’ll be able to determine how the final typesetting will look, and make type size changes accordingly.
One other thing: Don’t make your columns too wide. Our eyes have a difficult time tracking wide columns of text and scanning their way back to the beginning of the next line. If the trim size of your book is under 6 x 9, and you’ve allowed from three-quarters to one inch of margin, you’ll have a column from four to four and one-half inches wide. That will work well. But if your trim size is larger, say 8.5 x 11, set your type in two columns with about a quarter inch between them. Your book will appear more professional, and the eyes of your readers will thank you.
Here’s a link you may find interesting: http://www.belltype.com/AboutType.html
Here’s an example of awkward text management. The book’s trim size is 8.5 x 11, with columns 38.5 picas wide by 9 inches deep, typeset in 10 point Myriad demibold, accompanied by technical graphs and other images scattered throughout. The content seems difficult enough to comprehend without having to deal with typography issues. Note how double spacing following the periods creates gaps in the text justification.