Monthly Archives: October 2011

Should Apple and Amazon REALLY Control eBook Design?

Who’s in control of your book design? You – or Amazon and Apple?

This post is not meant as a criticism of either Amazon or Apple. Each has done more to push forward the adoption and availability of eBooks than any other company since the first text appeared on a computer screen. Thanks to them, we now have a large installed base of reading devices, and hundreds of thousands of book titles available in eBook formats.

However, I’ve spent most of my working life thinking at least ten years ahead. (That’s as much a curse as a blessing. Ten years is too far for most managers to even contemplate – far less support).

I’m thinking of the future of eBooks. Now that these two companies have finally taken eBooks mainstream, it’s time we – and they – began thinking more about their design. People like Jan Tschichold spent their lives considering and implementing good book design. Yet in eBooks, the tail is still wagging the dog. Design of eBooks today is driven more by the functionality of eBook reading software and short-term competitive goals than by either aesthetics or art.

Great book design is high art combined with a deep understanding of how humans read.

eBooks can be every bit as beautiful and readable as printed books. This post contains some suggestions for moving the field forward. It is based on months of research, hands-on eBook development, and many years of thought.


Amazon really started the eBook ball rolling with Kindle. It’s a low-cost device, holds plenty of books, has a battery that runs for days, and was linked into Amazon’s already-massive paper book-selling website and delivery system. Yes, there were other devices before it, but Kindle’s the one that achieved critical mass first.

Then along came Apple with the iPad – a far more versatile device, used for many things besides reading – with an iBooks app that in my opinion creates a far better experience.
Some of you will jump on this assertion and declare your preference for the Kindle, especially now that Amazon has announced its own $199 tablet device. But it’s revealing that in all the hoopla of the Kindle Fire announcement, there was no mention – zero – of how the Kindle reader software might be updated to take advantage of the new color capability. Like Henry Ford, Jeff Bezos still seems to think that you can have your eBook in any color you want – as long as it’s black-and-white. Perhaps he has a surprise up his sleeve. It’s significant that Amazon has made no mention of the Stanza Reader since it acquired Lexcycle…

However, the only option I can see in Kindle Fire today which would support color and typography is to produce your eBook as a PDF – and what a backward step THAT would be!
Some of my thinking is definitely based on the future potential of eBooks. But it’s surprising how much design you can put into an eBook, even today, provided the device and the software support more than black-and-white text in one font…

That’s why the experiments I’ve been doing over the past few months have focused on iBooks running on the iPad. They have convinced me that there’s a great future for eBook design if the right kind of collaboration takes place.

Books are too important to the human race for this not to happen.

Just one example of the thought that went into printed book design…

In this post I want to focus on typefaces and sizes in eBooks, and how current options in eBook readers – both iBooks and the Kindle app on the iPad – place brutal constraints on book design. I also want to start outlining a better approach which is easy to implement and would pass greater control of eBook design back to the graphic designer and typographer, where it belongs.


Let’s first explore the font and size options available today…

iBooks currently includes six typeface choices. Of those, only two – Georgia and Palatino – create an acceptable reading experience. iBooks also supports embedded fonts, which I’ve been researching intensively while I create the lavishly-illustrated iBooks version of Tanya’s book: “Sanctuary – Wetland Birds of Kauai”.

The Kindle app is even worse. While its PMN Caecilia typeface is pretty readable, the reader has no option to change it. And Kindle does not support embedded fonts at all.
Embedded fonts can make an iBook look terrific. I’ve shown sample pages in earlier posts on this blog.

I’m beginning to develop an eBooks Design Manifesto. Here are my first three “demands”:

  • eBook readers should give designers and publishers complete control over what fonts to use in their books, and support the full range of typefaces available today by enabling font embedding.
  • Since typefaces are an integral and vital factor in design, the designer should have the ability to disable inbuilt font choices.
  • The font industry should make using fonts in eBooks identical to using them in a printed book: Provided you have purchased a legitimate copy of the fonts, you should be able to use them to create as many millions of as many books as you wish.

When desktop publishing first appeared in the 1980s I was there, and deeply involved. It created a huge “gold rush” for the font industry, which found that millions of people who’d never even thought about fonts suddenly found they wanted as many as they could get their hands on. What was formerly a small niche market to professional designers and the print industry exploded to become a mainstream one. The same could easily happen again. Chances are this new gold rush would be even larger, since distribution of eBooks is essentially free and democratic in a way that print never was, and cost-of-entry is almost zero, enabling more people to publish books than ever before.


Now, let’s turn to type sizes…

Kindle has a number of predetermined font size choices. IMO, the smallest is too small for comfortable reading, the next size up is too large, and it just gets worse from there…

iBooks is better. It has ten text size increments on the iPad, including some very readable size options. My personal view is that the smallest one or two sizes are unreadable, while the largest two or three are not only unreadable, but turn any design aspirations into a joke. They’re clearly meant to satisfy the “Accessibility” needs of people who do indeed need very large text. But they don’t work the way they are today. True Accessibility requires a more thoughtful, better-designed solution.

I believe passionately that the reader should be able to change type sizes, to allow “large print”, for instance. Fixed Layout ePubs are backward-looking, a short-term expediency hack, and an evolutionary dead end.

However, I believe just as passionately in a truth that every designer knows: design does not scale arbitrarily. Changing type size – especially by significant amounts – entails changing, or at least adjusting, the basic design.

There’s an easy way this can be done, with little effort. As a research project, I’ve produced two separate editions of Tanya’s book. The only difference between the two is that I use a different CSS style sheet for each case. All of the other XHTML is identical, except for the style sheet links.

You could use Javascript to switch CSS. But it would involve an intrusive additional piece of UI. If your ePub book is broken into separate XHTML files for each chapter, you’d need to ensure that not only did a choice made in the first chapter persist throughout the book, but that the size-change UI was always available.

There’s an easy way to do this. Apple’s iBooks menu already has “Smaller Text/Larger Text buttons. So here’s the third demand of my manifesto:

  • eBook readers should offer a set of APIs to allow a designer to hook into their Smaller Text/Larger Text UI and call the appropriate stylesheet, instead of the arbitrary scaling of today.
It might be that the designer wants to include a full ten size options (I can’t think why, but you never know). If only three were offered, the appropriate button would gray out when the top or bottom size was reached.

True design for eBooks is still to come. It is up to us as writers, designers, typographers and publishers to regain control over design in the digital future of books, and ensure that 550 years of book-publishing experience does not become lost in the transition.

Let’s allow Jan Tschichold to sleep easily in his grave…