How to Choose a Hand Lettering How-To Book

I have to confess the book publishing industry has me a bit overwhelmed. When one coloring book—Basford's The Secret Gardentook off in 2013, it's sky high sales spawned hundreds of copycat titles (some less than stellar in quality) and the ubiquitous coloring book movement was launched. Publishers are at it again, this time with the burgeoning art and craft of hand lettering. Everything from books about chalk board lettering to casual calligraphy and more. It feels like Pinterest blew up and splattered all over the library.

Is it helpful to have so many choices? Guaranteed sales are a boon for publishers but don't guarantee quality for the buyer when it's a bandwagon push to publish.

What You Don't Want

At Thanksgiving, while visiting relatives, I stopped in at a favorite local bookstore for some Christmas shopping and took a look at their lettering section. There was Hand Lettering 101: An Introduction to the Art of Creative Lettering. And ooh, it looked appealing, with those glittery gold dots on the cover and chunky gold spiral binding.

One good look inside however and it went back on the shelf. Hand Lettering 101 was over one hundred pages of little instruction with much white space, and largely blank paper. The title leads you to think you're getting instruction, where it is more a glorified sketchbook for a hugely marked up price. No amount of gold binding makes up for lack of substance. 

Apparently the publisher was so dismayed by the negative reviews on Amazon, they made free instruction pages available online to counter the criticism. A hastily brought out new edition includes these updates and this sounds more appealing, but I feel that something produced that hastily is lacking. The original Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book, incidentally, had a similar issue: terrible paper. Any marker bled through the page and complaints soon brought an upgrade. I suppose that hiccup didn't stop the coloring book juggernaut.


In my sporadic browsing I'd been looking in small independant bookstores and trusted myself to their judgement. However, I know they can't stock many titles in their need to stay solvent. How could I choose from the many offerings springing monthly off the press? I decided to do what only a true bookaholic would do and dive in to the heap and do some research. All for your benefit, of course. No shopping would result. Well, not much.

Back home and the exceptional Minuteman Library System let me borrow twenty or more titles, all published in the last three years. Once they'd trickled in, ordered from multiple branches across Greater Boston, I stacked them up, looked them over, and pondered their differences.

Hand lettering can appear to be a daunting task, but when you break it down to the fundamentals, it’s simpler than it seems. ... Calligraphy is about perfecting the motions of your pen. Lettering is essentially drawing.
— C.S. Jones

First, Ask Questions

But in the meantime, I realized that I need to know myself more than I need to know the parameters of all those books.

Before choosing any particular book, ask yourself some questions about yourself and what you need from an instruction book.

  1. Do I want a workbook-style book that combines instruction with practice space? Or am I looking for instruction alone and I'll-provide-the-writing-paper, thank-you?
  2. Am I interested in one specific style or technique, or do I want an overview of many?
  3. Do I want examples of projects I can apply the learned lettering to, or just the lettering itself?
  4. Do I want examples from the work of multiple artists? Or to concentrate on learning from just one practitioner?
  5. Am I really going to do this?! Or does buying it make me feel more creative and that will do? Could I spend money on supplies and just look online for instruction?

Remember, if you're a beginner ... will you really want to practice at your worst in your expensive book? Do you want to be bombarded with different things to learn and way more projects than you'll ever get to? Do you want to be overwhelmed by the works of many when perhaps one gentle path will launch you more successfully? 

Or are you energized by a multitude of examples and an array of ideas? Are you longing to jump in and mark up that springy new book and fill its pages with at least a start at learning?

Answering these questions before your senses tempt out your wallet might help you choose more successfully.

Two to Start

I'll take you on a tour of what I found, starting with these two titles next week. And dear beleaguered art book publishers, just trying to make an honest living, first you overwhelm me with volume and now your long titles worry me a bit. Don't you employ editors?! 


See you next week! In the meantime, you might also be interested in the lettering posts featured below.

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  • If you'd like me to review a specific book you're pondering or have a must read suggestion, do let me know in the comments and I'll see what I can do to get a copy.