Topic: Kindle

Spruce up your ebook: Letter spacing, aka tracking

By Larry Clark | February 14, 2014

Sometimes you just need a little space. I recently finished an ebook project in which the print version was lovingly built with very specific typography. The typefaces looked great and all was right for the reading experience. But as anyone who knows ebooks and e-readers understands, styles don’t always match up. Fortunately, one small piece made sense to add: space between letters in the chapter titles.

The chapter titles of the book (Sinful Folk, by Ned Hayes) had small-caps in a font that I embedded in the ebook. The default looked cramped on e-readers. To do it justice, I added some letter spacing.

Chapter title with no letter spacing

Chapter title with no letter spacing.

Chapter title with 0.1em letter spacing.

Chapter title with 0.1em letter spacing.

To be honest, I’m not a graphic designer or typography expert. I could manipulate the styles, but I had to learn a few things about tracking, or letter spacing, along the way.

Use letter spacing where it makes sense

Why do this? In titles and subtitles especially, the font could look wrong, either smushed together or spread too far. Generally, condensed typefaces should be set tighter, while wider fonts could use space on the left and right.

When using caps and small-caps, text often appears too tight. Smaller size type and small-caps can really benefit from extra letter space.

Lowercase letters don’t usually need letter spacing. Famous typographer Frederic Goudy gets credit for the apocryphal statement “Anyone who would letterspace lowercase would steal sheep.” While that seems a bit extreme, you might find cases where letter spacing is necessary in lowercase.

How to use letter spacing

Use 5-12% extra letter-spacing, especially at small sizes, according to Practical Typography. In print, of course, one can do some serious fine-tuning. This is not the same as “kerning,” which affects specific pairs of letters.

For ebook purposes, you have to use the CSS “letter-spacing” property. (CSS guru Chris Coyier has an explanation of letter-spacing here.)

To convert tracking values to CSS, a general rule is tracking value of 1000 is equal to 1 em. A tracking value of 100 is 0.1 em.

Use font-relative values, like “em” or “rem” to allow ereaders to adjust proportionally when readers bump up or shrink text size. Pixels are another option (usually about 3px).

“Letter-spacing” does not change the default for the font. It adds to the space. So to condense the text, use a negative value.

Generally, a 0.1 to 0.3 em letter-spacing value (or negative equivalent) will give you the desired effect.

How far is too far with letter spacing? Depends on the effect you want to achieve, but try not to spread the letters far enough apart that another letter could fit between them.

Read more at Paul Baker Typography