Friday, August 16, 2013


by Sheila Connolly

Recently I read that New York City will be changing the font on its street signs from Highway Gothic (which it has used since the beginning of city highways) to something called Clearview.

Per Wikipedia, "The FHWA Series fonts (often informally referred to as Highway Gothic) are a set of sans-serif typefaces developed by the United States Federal Highway Administration and used for road signage in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia, Spain, Venezuela, the Netherlands, Brazil, Argentina, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia and New Zealand. The fonts were created to maximize legibility at a distance and at high speed."

 New York chose to use the font in all-caps mode (sometimes considered "shouting" in Internet parlance).  Now there is a federal mandate that requires that those signs in all capital letters must be replaced with mixed case (upper and lower) signage.

When Highway Gothic was first used, there was no formal testing of the readability of fonts.  At least there was a consistency to the appearance of road signs, not only locally but also nationally.

 But now science has caught up with fonts, and early researchers found that Clearview is 16 per cent easier to read than Highway Gothic. If you're going sixty on a highway, you'd have an extra 1-2 seconds to respond, or a few hundred feet. Clearview may have less personality, but it's more legible, particularly from a distance.

The old (left) and the new (right)
Would that publishers would think the same way.  Certainly publishers have used a variety of fonts over the years. I've always enjoyed the little notes on the front or back pages saying that a book was printed in Boldoni Bold or some such, even while not knowing what the heck they were talking about. At least the publisher was proud of its choice. But by and large, these days mass market paperbacks are published in something that looks pretty much like good old Times New Roman. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because it means that to an average reader, it simply looks like "book" font.  They don't have to think about it.

But there's another twist (and please, editors and publishers, tell me if I'm wrong).  Mass market books, at least those from Berkley, are issued in a standard size and page length (check any Amazon listing)—304 pages (it was 288 pages for a long time).  This is because that size fits neatly, 48 to a box, and all boxes are the same size.

Now, the standard word count for my type of paperback—cozies—is anywhere between 65,000 and 80,000 words. This is a pretty wide range.  If you write long, as I sometimes do (topping out at 84,000 words), does the publisher change the page count? 

No. They change the font size and/or the line spacing, making it a bit harder to read. Now consider that most of our readers are women of middle-age or beyond, who may be having problems with aging eyes, and you wonder why the publisher is sacrificing ease of reading for shipping convenience.  Or driving readers to e-readers where the owner can adjust the font size onscreen.

Who wins?

1 comment:

Sandra Parshall said...

It's counterproductive for a publisher to make a book harder to read -- yet they seem to do it all the time. Ugly fonts on covers are also counterproductive, but I see a lot of them, including the fonts on my own books. I also see inappropriate fonts, such as fancy script on a horror novel. Alas, writers have no control. This is one reason why so many traditionally published authors say they love the creative freedom of self-publishing.