I had a little go’round with a coding geek on the #eprdctn Twitter feed about the use of fonts in ebooks. He was muttering about those #$*&^!%^#$ designers, and I ended up biting off the tips of my fingers to avoid cutting him a new one to drain all his pent up hostility. It was hardly a fruitful conversation. But it got me thinking.
The real problem with the new publishing is the layout quality
The quality of the formatting and the layout of the book are determined by the experience and focus of the person designing the book. The problem is that book designers rarely get to design the ebooks. At this point, many [if not most] of the new ebooks are put together by coding geeks with no real concept of the readers’ needs. I am so tired of getting books that appear to be (and were) designed in ignorance on BBEdit or its equivalent. Even more horrifying are the printed books put together by these same coding geeks.
So, how do you fix that? What should you do to make better books? First you educate yourself.
Signs of poor
Website book layout
- Excessive line length: This is the most common fault of Websites. Any time you have more than a dozen words per line, you have reading material that is too hard to read. This is the major problem with blogs [and I include this one you are reading]. It is a severe problem with RSS feeds and readers. It is the major problem with emails. The reason we write tersely on the Web is to use paragraphs to space our copy enough to make it readable. It’s not because readers want everything all chopped up.
- HTML defaults: The paragraph spacing, font choices, and white space control of HTML defaults is abysmal. A headline or subhead only needs a few points above the paragraph and 1 or 2 points at most below the header. The paragraph spacing should be a couple points—not a half inch or more. The first line indent should be zero or a quarter to a half an inch. And most importantly,heads and subheads do not need to be Bold—in many cases they are much more effective in regular.
- “Fully monetized sites”: You know the problem: a little bit of poorly formatted copy surrounded by waves of over-colored, irrelevant advertising screaming at you. God forbid that your book looks like one of these.
- Times & Arial: Not only are these fonts over-used to the point of imbecility, they are [by their very nature] less than a pleasant reading experience. One of these font families is designed for the typographic nightmare of old letterpress newspapers. The other is a simple theft of an already difficult-to-read staple: Helvetica. There are no warm fuzzies with these fonts. You start the readers off with bad expectations.
I could go on, but surely you get the point. Websites have come a long way. CSS has offered a potential solution to the layout woes of HTML. But as a book designer [and this includes ePUBs and KF8], you must do better. Anything less is an insult to the readers of the book.
So, what should I do?
- Remember that ebooks are still books: Because they are books you must deal with reader expectations. I read silly comments all the time about how ebooks are simply encapsulated Websites. I agree that this is the problem, but as book designers we need to be seeing this as a problem to solve.
- Focus on readability: There are infinite solutions, but you must control line length, leading, paragraph spacing, and font use. Of course I know that most dedicated ereaders default to their limited choices for fonts. But those fonts are very readable. The problem is usually the ebook producer’s ignorance of the rest of book design.
- Use capable software: As you well know, this means InDesign, as far as I am concerned. I’m not saying that you cannot design good books with BBEdit or its equivalent. That is certainly possible with a lot of care in the setup of your CSS. It will be very difficult to do a decent book which is easy and comfortable to read in Word. In fact, it will take more work to do well in Word than it will take for you to learn InDesign.
- Get feedback from actual readers: not your friends, but your audience. You cannot produce an excellent book without knowing what the actual readership requires to assimilate what you are trying to communicate.
- Research your market: Do everything you can to determine the background, educational level, and reading habits of your readership. The snowboarding scene has very different requirements than your fellow hobbyists. Academic requirements are very different than those needed by retail sales outlets. Scholarly readers have expectations far outside the realm of the reader looking to learn how to grow truly healthy and delicious vegetables.
Keep it loose
You need to be prepared to issue revised versions very quickly—as often as they are needed. You will always find typos, layout mistakes, better ways to do things, updated techniques, new resources, and so on. You need to have a book which can be easily published in print and ebook. In other words, you must have your book in a format where you can export PDFs for print, KF8s for Amazon, and ePUBs for everyone else. Only InDesign can do that well. There is no time for hand-coding changes to the new and repaired copy. And most importantly, HTML & CSS do not convert well to print.
It can be hard to remember that most books still sell quite a few printed copies. This is even true of the books best suited to ePUB and Kindle: novels. For many reasons you should start with the printed version and convert that to the various ebook versions. Basically, it is relatively easy to lower the standards from print to ebook. The conversions from vector graphics and 300 dpi photos to 600 pixel wide JPEGs are simple. Moving the other way is usually impossible.
But that’s enough to get you thinking
What do you think you should do? Do you have any questions we can talk about here? Where do you think I am wrong?
- What skills are needed to self-publish? (bergsland.org)