Fifty Shades of Black-on-Grey: The unfortunate design limitations of e-books
October 30, 2012 | 3:47 pm
Last month, Amazon announced that they are selling more e-books than printed books for the first time. For every 100 hardback and paperback books sold on Amazon, 114 e-books are downloaded. The company says that we are experiencing a “reading renaissance,” and book publishing stats also show that adult e-book sales grew 49 percent last year, selling nearly 100 million units.
It seems that e-books are gradually replacing traditional printed books, but will printed books ever die out altogether? Regardless of whether texts are perfectly translated onto digital reading devices, most e-books tend to lack the individual character that is present in printed books. Much of the typography, layout and design of traditional print publications can’t be displayed on some e-readers, most notably the market leader, Amazon’s Kindle. It means that every novel looks much the same, whether it’s Kafka or Kipling. Reading e-books can turn into a boring experience when book after book has the same basic layout and typeface.
It’s a shame, because e-readers clearly have their advantages, displaying content with print-like clarity and offering a range of other advantages over traditional books. Publishers are missing out on the opportunity to publish something truly unique in favor of publishing something which will work on a wide range of e-readers.
Publishers format an e-book in a way that ensures the text flows property regardless of device, screen size or font. Designers and publishers are accustomed to having complete control over the appearance of their books, but now, design needs to be flexible and capable of being displayed well on a number of different devices. While some e-readers offer publishers a great deal of control over the appearance of their e-books, the Kindle offers very limited control. This is why typographic expression is particularly lacking in today’s e-books; the Kindle only offers one typeface.
EPUB was developed by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), and is accepted by most popular readers, apart from the Kindle. EPUB is based on XHTML and CSS, a popular markup language and style sheet language, respectively, for Web pages. These languages offer much more control over design and layout than other formats. The Kindle’s file formats, however, severely limit the amount of control publishers can have over the design, layout and formatting of their products, and this really impacts the quality of the reading experience of most of today’s books. Unfortunately, the Kindle is one of the most popular e-readers on the market, and it’s holding back e-book design as a whole.
Great design and bespoke typefaces play an important role in forming the identity and personality of a book (see the example above, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, of text designed to resemble a mouse’s tail), and this is missing from the world’s most popular e-reader. The best we can hope for is that eventually, one fairly-flexible e-book format will prevail and become the standard, as is happening in China and Taiwan.) Hopefully this will be a non-proprietary publishing standard which can distinguish between content and presentation. Using fairly simple markup languages like CSS makes a lot of sense too, as it means that users can relatively easily edit the “look and feel” of a book based on their individual preferences. This could be particularly important for visually-impaired readers who require text to be of a particular size, color or shape.
* * *