elf: Computer chip with location dot (You Are Here)
elf ([personal profile] elf) wrote in [community profile] ebooks2012-04-26 11:32 am

Basics of "why ebooks look different"

Print books are a page-based layout medium. What the producer puts on the page is what the receiver sees, barring exotic technological interventions. (Colored filters for dyslexic readers, magnifying lenses, complex projectors that put the content up on a large screen... whatever. Those aren't how most books are read.)

Ebooks, on the other hand, are a tagged-language medium. What the producer creates is the suggestion of format; what the receiver views is filtered through hardware and software to display something like that intent. In order to make reflowable text, able to grow or shrink or display sideways in the device, the creator can't decide exactly where the line breaks go, how deep the margins are, and how many words fit on a page. The exact appearance of the ebook will be based somewhat on the software and hardware used to read it.

PDFs try very hard to maintain the print layout system. (Which make sense, since PDF stands for "Portable Document Format," and it was invented to allow documents to be printed the same way without the need for matching fonts & print drivers on multiple systems.) But even it isn't quite the same as a print book... you can zoom in to a PDF; you can rotate the pages; if you've got the right software, you can change the margin sizes, move the lines of text around, delete images, or watch embedded videos as well as read the text. You can even rearrange the pages (although I don't recommend doing this for most novels).

The other ebook formats are different. EPub and mobi are the two most commercially active today, although there've been plenty others in the past. Both ePub and mobi are based on HTML, which means the layout options are more limited than print but include some options print never allowed, like hyperlinks.

Publishing ebooks means researching how different programs & devices show ebooks. We don't indent first lines of paragraphs "1/2 inch," because on an iPHone screen, that's a ridiculous amount of space. We don't use colored text because many of our readers are using e-ink screens, which only show greyscale. We have to be careful with internal artwork or tables and charts, because how they look on a laptop reading with Mobipocket Reader is different from how they'll look on the Kindle App on an iPhone, which is different from a PDF on an iPad, and different from an ePub on a 5" e-ink screen.

We have a choice: We can make them look almost the same everywhere by skipping almost all formating choices, and leaving the text in "web layout" of left-aligned, line-between-paragraphs--or we can use some standard printing typography methods, like indented paragraphs with no spaces between them, larger text for chapter titles, centered scene dividers, and cope with the fact that they won't look exactly the same on every device.

We hope they look good on every device--that it's obvious where the scene breaks occur, that the italicized text is italicized regardless of the display font, that the table of contents is usable to navigate around the ebook. We just can't control the exact appearance of the final details; we can only make suggestions. Some of them are pretty strong suggestions, supported by most devices, but every formatting choice has to be balanced against, "is this going to be lost for some readers? Or worse, will it be interpreted badly by some devices?"

Sony readers don't support justified text in ePub; they all have ragged-right margins. Kindle automatically indents paragraphs even if they're specifcally set to left-aligned. Smashwords doesn't support tables at all (not that many books need tables), and its onsite display options don't match the documents uploaded. Mobi doesn't support embedded fonts at all, while Adobe Digital Editions doesn't display some of them. Every time a new ereader or ebook-reading program hits the market, we have to consider how much effort to put into finding out its exact display options and limitations.

This is known as the Tower of eBabel problem, and the only "solutions" currently available is either to declare one hardware-software combination as the "correct" one, and format for that & ignore the other options, or to design a swarm of ebooks for each title, one for each hardware-software combo we can think of, until readers are left with a plethora of choices based on details they find incomprehensible.

We do the best we can with the resources we have. We investigate new software and its limitations (Mobileread is invaluable here), try to find someone with each of the major types of hardware to test our books, and scratch our heads at some of the conversion results. And we wait for ebook technology to reach a point where most books are readable on most devices and show up almost the same on all of them.
yourlibrarian: Angel and Lindsey (MERL-ArthurUnimpressed-yourlibrarian)

[personal profile] yourlibrarian 2012-04-27 02:11 am (UTC)(link)
Interesting to hear about all the considerations that have to go into formatting. One would have hoped that changing from print to digital would have encouraged publishers to rethink what's actually necessary when it comes to formatting versus what's simply become typical (why is any paragraph indented, for example?) but it seems legacy habits are always very strong when mediums change.
yourlibrarian: LoveDenial-jessi_br00t41 (SPN-LoveDenial-jessi_br00t41)

[personal profile] yourlibrarian 2012-04-27 08:26 pm (UTC)(link)
But ebooks don't have that constraint, and a lot of people discover it's easier to read them at larger font sizes.

So true, see my answer to amalthia below. In fact, I only just now thought this may be a reason why so many people seem intrigued by my eReader which is nothing special, probably because they're so unaccustomed to see large font in reading material. That's a useful review of the financial constraints of print though.

You know, the other thing that publishers don't seem to be thinking about is how to translate the hardcover/paperback dichotomy to eBooks (in a way other than price that is). For example, for most of my reading, all I care is that something is readable. But if it's a story I quite like and might want to reread, I'd love to have a visually attractive version, with illustrations, scene break art, etc. (thus why Big Bang works can be so appealing). And to some degree there have been print attempts to do things like this with "collector" editions and expensive binding, etc. But eBooks could also benefit from this, and chances are the books that would sell well with those features would already be top sellers (at least in their genre). Yet other than cramming multimedia into texts (which I would personally find of limited appeal), I don't see that this is any kind of plan on their part.
amalthia: (Firefly Inara)

[personal profile] amalthia 2012-04-27 05:08 am (UTC)(link)
I like indents on my 6 inch screen mostly because it means less page turns which use up the battery. I've been in places where I could not easily recharge my reader. I think with computer monitors it's more important to have that space between paragraphs because it makes it easier to read from a distance.
yourlibrarian: Angel and Lindsey (OTH-RiverInfinity-binka_boo)

[personal profile] yourlibrarian 2012-04-27 08:18 pm (UTC)(link)
Ah, yes I can see that being useful. My own font is so enlarged on my reader (a major advantage to me of having one) that I only get a sentence per page if that. So other than paragraph breaks, most formatting is pretty useless to me.
amalthia: (Default)

[personal profile] amalthia 2012-04-28 05:18 am (UTC)(link)
I love that e-readers give readers more options on how we read. :)