Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
As a book designer, I understand the desire to mirror a book’s print design with its ebook counterpart. But as an ebook reader and developer, I know that print publications are different enough from their digital versions that one design does not always fit both purposes.
In this and following posts, I’ll discuss how I decide which format to recommend, along with differences between design for print and for ebooks.
Fixed-Layout or Reflowable?
Particularly for complex print layouts, publishers often want the fixed-layout treatment, in which the ebook is identical to the print design, including font choice and size, as well as text and image position.
But to this, I ask clients the following: Have you read complex fixed-layout ebooks on devices like the iPad or iPhone? Are you comfortable with pinching and zooming and panning around the screen? What do you think of the reading experience on a smartphone? Have you lost the context of the zoomed area?
Or how about the popups on a Kindle? The page or spread stays flat, so you can see it as you magnify a region, but text (or spot art) pops up on double tap. Is that a smooth reading experience?
After a while, do you even know where you are on the page? Does the interaction needed to read the book help or hinder the reading experience?
I’m not a fan of fixed-layout when it comes to complicated designs. But I do think it’s great for kids’ picture books, art books and other publications with a small amount of text surrounded by images. I just don’t want to work up a sweat maneuvering around the screen.
I’m not always successful at convincing clients to go the reflowable route. To be honest, I have a lot more fun rethinking a print design for reflowable adaptation than I do building a fixed-layout document. But my own reasons aside, I think readers benefit from a careful consideration and choice of format.
A much more practical issue is font usage, as the ingredients of a fixed-layout ebook can include embedded fonts. Those can be problematic. First, fonts must be OpenType or TrueType (font.otf, font.ttf), not PostScript (which you might find in older, backlist titles).
Second, fonts embedded in ebooks of any format must be licensed specifically for ebook use—not print, not web, but ebook. These licenses can get expensive, or may not be available at all.
Another complaint against the fixed-layout format is accessibility: it’s tough to make these books work well for text-to-speech. Reading order can be upset, and embedded images can go un-described (via alt tags in the HTML markup). What good is a picture book when half the action takes place in the illustrations and can’t be understood by some readers?
Why Design an Ebook?
If you decide on the reflowable format, design is essential. Too many books on retailers’ shelves look the same, are hard to navigate, or have inconsistent reading experiences. Even a simple novel, with Chapters One, Two, etc., should be thoughtfully put together. Design the table of contents instead of leaving it as a plain list, for example, and use unique ornaments—with color—in the chapter header.
One purpose of print design is helping readers find their way from chapter title to text to sidebar to footnote. Another is decoration: using typefaces, color, imagery and ornament to embellish. Sometimes navigation and decoration work together to provide extra meaning (for example, in a cookbook, blue recipe titles can indicate main courses; red titles, desserts).
But navigation, decoration and meaning work differently in reflowable ebooks. Users change font and font size at will, causing reflow; decoration may or may not display well in different reading modes (particularly night mode); and light-blue heads may not be very visible in e-ink devices, and text to speech doesn’t mention that it’s reading a blue recipe title instead of a red one.
Who Decides: The Tool or the Designer?
Developing reflowable and fixed-layout ebooks is a combination of design and technology. Developers need to know how to build solid, semantic HTML documents, and how to wield CSS to create attractive, useful books.
Plenty of ebook developers build their EPUBs using web-building tools (Dreamweaver, BBEdit, etc.), but many are InDesign- or Quark-based. Both applications offer export to EPUB, and both try to capture the print design and translate it to HTML and CSS, the building blocks of EPUB and KF8/MOBI.
I use InDesign, so I can only speak to its exported product. Allowing InDesign to build a CSS style sheet and tag text often gives me more grief than I want to deal with (extra markup; too many character, paragraph and object overrides). Over time, I have created a custom CSS that I almost always use.
A benefit of using my own CSS is that I mentally separate print from digital. I don’t think, “InDesign will translate the print design exactly and I’ll be happy with the result.”
Instead, I examine a print publication design, and as I translate it into an ebook, I ask:
• Do typographic flourishes provide information, or are they decorative?
• If they provide information, will that meaning be lost if a reader uses text-to-speech or other assistive technology?
• If they are decorative, do they read well on a small smartphone screen or an e-ink device?
I don’t need to mirror the intricate type treatment of a list of recipe ingredients, for example. Caps/small caps, italics and swooshy fonts might be lovely on a page printed on glossy stock surrounded by lots of white space, but how do they look on an iPhone screen? And do those small caps indicate meaning, which would be ignored in text-to-speech?
These are all arguments for why a considered format choice and thorough ebook design is worthwhile and needed. Most aren’t hugely complicated, but even small touches can make a difference to a large selection of readers.
Kevin Callahan is presenting on ebook production best practices at the Digital Book World Conference + Expo.
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