The term ‘free fonts,’ to some, is a warning sign. To those less knowledgeable of type design and usage, caution is definitely a good idea. There are a lot of not-very-useful free fonts out there — especially not useful for printed text, which is going to be our main concern here. We can also find many that are quite good and entirely suited to printing out a book. For those who remain wary, we can point to a couple of free typefaces that come from a completely trustworthy source — Adobe. These would be Utopia and Source.
Minion and Myriad are not included in this; though quite nice fonts and bundled with various programs from Adobe, they are not exactly free. They can be used in many projects but not as the typeface for a print book or magazine (without paying). Not that one couldn’t embed them for use in print-on-demand and probably get away with it. I don’t see much point in that — one can find plenty of alternatives. Minion and Myriad are also, perhaps, a little too familiar, a little too common, though not to the extent of Times, Calibri, Arial. We all know not to use those, right?
Utopia has had an on-again-off-again status as a ‘free’ font. There is an official paid version, with the most recent refinements. There are also free versions — completely free to use as one wishes — that Adobe donated in the past. Utopia has somewhat of a resemblance to Baskerville, but simplified a tad for early computer and printer use, and with features that also suggest ‘Modern’ typefaces of the Didone sort. The original development statement called for Utopia to serve as a general purpose office font, rather as Times New Roman has over recent decades. I would say Adobe’s font is definitely preferable to Times.
And could certainly be used for all the same tasks — correspondence (if one still prints it), papers, resumes, etc. It looks good; one might even say ‘classy.’ I would note, however, that a nice text-oriented Baskerville (Libre Baskerville, e.g.) would do as well. Utopia is also a serviceable book font. It may not be a first (nor even second) choice for fiction or poetry, but one could do far worse for nonfiction use.
The Source family from Adobe is totally free, free to download, free to use as one desires. It includes sans and monospaced fonts but, for books, we are interested primarily in Source Serif. Source Sans is a decent ‘Gothic’ style of font but was designed more with user interfaces in mind than printed text — which is not to say it can’t be use in that capacity, just that it does not shine in it. The monospaced Source Code is geared for writing code, primarily (as opposed to a typewriter-style font).
Source Serif Pro (to give the typeface its full name) is inspired by the Eighteenth Century designs of Fournier. This is the period of Caslon, but the two are only distant cousins. One might accurately describe Source Serif as a ‘utility font,’ suited to a variety of applications. There are certainly other excellent free alternatives in this category, such as Charter.
But Source Serif might be a tad more attractive for novel text than some of these. Its bloodlines show, so to speak. Our next title to be released at Arachis Press, the science fiction novel ‘Alienese,’ (by Oliver Davis Pike) is set in Source Serif. But, as with Utopia, it should be a good choice for nonfiction too. If one can’t (or doesn’t want to) lay out money for something like Adobe Caslon, Source Serif is certainly a decent alternative.
Both free typefaces are easy enough to find with a quick internet search, and easy to download and install. You just might find one or both useful.