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…

9 thoughts on “Should Apple and Amazon REALLY Control eBook Design?

  1. Anonymous

    hey bill…long time no post…i see your blogis now justified.that must makeyou happy…loose lines make metoo uncomfortable…anyway, i'd love toread your thoughtson these matters,but… seriously?…if you are gonnarun your paragraphstogether, then you_must_ indent them.otherwise, it's justone run-on mess…and really, bill,you need to usereal em-dashes, orat least double upthe en-dashes, butusing one en-dashas an em-dash?that just don't fly._especially_ whenyou're going on andon about _typography_.anyway, fix that stuffand maybe when i comeback here later to seeif you've fixed it,i will read the post.otherwise, i'm off…-bowerbirdp.s. but i'm neverever ever ever evergonna buy the positionthat "designers" shouldbe get an advance-vetoin decisions about anytext that _i_ will read.if i don't have theauthority to change_anything_i_want_,i'll ditch that system.-bowerbird

  2. Bill Hill

    Apologies about the indents.When started blogging again, it had been months since I last posted. Blogger had a new UI, and I couldn't find where to indent the first line of the paragraphs. Your position that designers should never get an "advance-veto" on any text you see is dumb.This blog is clearly not for you.

  3. Bill Hill

    UNDER CONSTRUCTION: Apologies to all readers. I just changed the layout of this blog again, to one of Blogger's new Dynamic Layout templates. I really like View#1, Classic. It's very clean and removes all the clutter. If readers want to know more about me, they can always visit my Profile. Otherwise, nothing on the page but the Posts seems like a breath of clean, fresh air.However, there are a few things I'd like to tweak about the typography – among them the lack of first-line indents. I need to implement these in the Blogger HTML. May take me a while to get around to it. In the meantime, spacing between paragraphs is better than no spacing and no indents.

  4. Jon Pennington

    Wow! You have some fairly critical readers (who for some reason keep their identities secret despite bold baseless remarks). However this article fostered two ideas for me:1. The Kindle Fire announcement, while exciting, disappointed me. I think you made a valid point about zero mention of the actual reading experience. We've all seen the highlights about gaming, Amazon Silk, App Store and others but when it comes to it's primary purpose, there is nothing mentioned about an improved reading experience.2. I think your overall hypothesis of who should gain control over the content cannot be one or the other. My take would be a concerted effort on the platform to provide tools for content creators (similar to the SDK given by Apple to developers). Although Apple provides some control, there is significant room for improvement on how publishers control their content. The analogy above about the SDK, I think, puts this into perspective. How great would it be if Amazon and Apple provided a toolkit for publishers to build their content in a rich, creative, and immersive way (which you hinted at). Also heard your interview on This Developer's Life and found the work you have done to be fascinating. Thanks again for the insights.

  5. Richard Fink

    bb wrote:"i'm neverever ever ever evergonna buy the positionthat "designers" shouldbe get an advance-vetoin decisions about anytext that _i_ will read."This is exactly what I honed in on also. If somebody want's to deliver fixed media to me, ink on dead trees works fine.Also, an inability to cut and paste from book to whatever the hell I want, I cannot abide. To hell with 'em.

  6. mike

    Hi Bill,I recently heard you on 'This Developer's Life'. It was fascinating to hear you make the connection between tracking and reading. It resonates deeply with me and ties in beautifully with several other 'recent' trends. If you were to sit down and read 'Born to Run', it would not take you long to see the connection I am talking about. As a disclaimer i have yet to read your Osprey paper.As a species, we are optimised for hunting. Specifically, we are optimized for a specific kind of hunting, known as "Persistence Hunting". This style of hunting consists of selecting some prey animal, say, an antelope, and simply running after it under the midday sun. The antelope would easily outpace a man over a short distance but this is where things get interesting. Combining tracking ability, endurance optimisations and social skills, a small party would catch up to the prey before it was fully rested. Repeating the process until heat exhaustion set in and the prey collapsed. At this point the animal is dispatched at short range and dinner is served.The endurance optimizations I am talking about are things like bipedalism, lack of hair and sweating. Bipedalism allows for us to disconnect our breathing from our gait. In quadrupedal animals, the gut effectively serves as a pump for the bellows that are the lungs, forcing air in and out with each stride. The lack of hair combined with sweating makes us the best thermoregulator out there. We can effectively maintain a higher work rate than any other animal in the heat of the day. To top it all off, we are extremely efficient runners. Our feet and calves store energy from stride to stride and out long legs allow us to expend a minimum of energy to maintain pace.Back to what I was talking about earlier. We are pattern recognizers, we are runners. We have hampered both abilities through technology. Modern shoes and modern text layout do not lend themselves to the patterns that allow optimal performance of these subsystems. Today we can see a trend in the running community towards 'minimal' or barefoot running. Perhaps we are accompanying this trend with the advancements we are making in reading and text layout on devices like the iPad. Or the iPhone with it's 326 PPI display. The point here though is that by understanding the evolution of the human body and mind we can enhance and optimize our performance and focus on the more important stuff. This is why I find things like treadmill desks so interesting. If we were built to track while on the move maybe we should be reading while walking? There seems to be an evolutionary connection between the two activities. Anecdotal evidence of people finding their productivity increases with the use of treadmill desks leads me to wonder if there is more research that has been done.Are you still active on Facebook in the 'The Future of Reading' group? If not are there any communities you are active in or can recommend as places to discuss these topics?I apologize for the disconnected nature of this but I have not edited.

  7. Bill Hill

    @ Jon. I know these two contributors of old. I think they're both wrong, but maybe it's my fault for not explaining myself very well.First, I believe that writers ought to be able to make a living by being paid for their writing. I've spent over 50 years learning any craft I have. You shouldn't just be able to copy my work and paste it somewhere else, in its entirety. My wife spends six months painting a picture. Should that become Public Domain?Second: Good, thoughtful design terrifically enhances the reading experience. Both richard and bowerbird seem to think I'm advocating some kind of fixed layout. I'm totally against that. But I'm also totally against mindless flexibility which can easily destroy the reading experience. Design is, however, still somewhat stuck in the Gutenberg-era, "I want to control the placement of every pixel" mindset. It needs to evolve into a new, dynamic design philosophy. We've been designing the display of information for fixed-size spaces for 35,000 years (first cave paintings). That's what I call The First Age Of Design. Now, we need to create The Second Age of Design. It won't happen overnight. Neither the "fixed space" nor the "total flexibility" camps has it right. The right answer is something new. I'm groping towards what that could be. I don't have all the answers, and don't pretend to. I'm very wary of fanatics from either end of any polarizing issue who insist that theirs is the ONE TRUE WAY, and everyone else is an infidel.Good design is not merely "art". It assists people in navigating and assimilating information. It ought to be possible to combine the best of both worlds.@Mike. We have to slow down, or stop running altogether, when we want to study tracks in detail. Or when we want to look at a nice rock. L-ife is not all about hunting, or running. We pick fruit, too. One of the strengths of humans – from which all our technology evolved – was the ability to stop, think, and concentrate.


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