E-book Design doesn’t have to be bad

A Twitter message of outrage over e-book pricing from @feliciaday (yes, that Felicia Day) reminded me of an embarrassing incident from the holidays. I’d put it out of my mind largely due to hysterical amnesia. You’ll see why in a second.

For Christmas my brother, sister and I kicked in to get my parents an iPad 2. My father had mentioned being interested in having an e-book reader, and he liked backlit screens. He’s a Mac user (since I’m his IT guy, I insisted). My mom is still rather 19th century about tech, but she’d played with my iPad and is very much into pictures of her grandchildren. The display and ability to load digital pictures straight into the iPad without having to wait for my father to load them onto the computer, were big selling points. Part of the deal was that I would help them get used to the device while I was visited for Christmas.

Phase one of computer camp started with my father. He wanted me to walk him through iBooks and how to order books. I showed him the search function and, of course, we searched on my name. (Have to reinforce the brand there, after all.) A bunch of my books came up and we tapped on the first one on the list: A Secret Atlas. We ordered the sample, then opened it.

I was very embarrassed by the product.

A quick note here: I’ve purchased multiple e-books from traditional publishers. While many of the new books look pretty solid, the problems I will point out below are endemic to backlist titles. These books get scanned wherever the work can be done cheaply (usually off-shore to places like India), and are put into shape using design specs that are now at least two generations behind in terms of e-book design. It’s the electronic equivalent of publishers putting their backlist out on clay tablets. While I use A Secret Atlas as an example, it’s not because of any ax to grind with Random House. It’s just that with that book the contrast between it and the physical book are incredibly sharp.

Cover: The thumbnail of the print cover of A Secret Atlas shows up just fine in the iBooks library. The image at the left, however, is what you get if you click on the Table of Contents button. Not only does it look like crap, but the correct cover graphic is already part of the e-book file. Not only does this bulk out the file (raising Amazon’s download charge to the publisher), but it’s completely wasted data. Just put the book’s real cover there.

Table of Contents: I have complained about this aspect of things before with traditionally published e-books. Their design specs demand a fully interactive Table of Contents in the front of the book, right where it would appear in a traditional book. It should be noted that the print versions of A Secret Atlas do not have a Table of Contents, so this was cobbled together specially. This Table of Contents consists of page after page of hotlinks going directly to chapters.

As if anyone is going to page back through the book to get to it! You can’t, save by flicking every single page. Right up there in the upper left corner, between the Library button and the Buy button, you can find the Table of Contents button (where the Resume button is in the picture). You cannot make an e-book without one of them being generated automatically! It is available from every single page in the book. The only way you can get to their hotlink table of contents, unless you want to page back through the book, is to use the automatically provided table of contents. More wasted time and effort in generating something no one will use.

Front Sales Material: Another point I have made concerning e-books is this: publishers should put a list of other books available from the author, with hotlinks enabled, in the front of the e-book. Why? Because when someone downloads the free sample, as I did, they’d get a whole list of other books by the same author. This is simply good business. The print version of A Secret Atlas has an extensive list of other books I’ve written, right up there in the front of the book. There is no reason on earth why that should not have been included, with hotlinks.

Unless, of course, compiling that information would be too much work. The fact that it might sell more books should be a mitigating factor there, I would think.

Title Page: In the print version of A Secret Atlas the title page was beautiful. So, for the e-book version they simply shot .jpg of it and included it. The problem is that the title page was part of a two-page spread, which shows up as two separate, non-side-by-side, pages in the e-book. (That is a problem with the dimensions of the .jpg, I suspect.) So, instead of redesigning the title page so it looks nice, they leave it looking like a cut-and-paste job done by Ms. Finster’s afternoon art class at NimbleKinder Day Care.

The Map: As you can guess from the title, A Secret Atlas has something to do with maps. Bantam got the artist Michael Gellatly to do a lovely map based on my original sketches. It’s reproduced faithfully in the e-book. It’s wider than it is tall, so they put it on its own page. The writing on the map, unfortunately, is oriented vertically, not horizontally (ditto the compass).

What ensues, in trying to read the map, is hilarity, at least if you’re reading on a tablet device that switches orientation. As you turn the device to read the map correctly, the map revolves so you can’t. And, yes, it’s true that many devices allow you to lock the orientation, but the default isn’t set that way on an iPad, so I’d have to go digging around to repurpose that button. That repurposing is global, not specific to iBooks, so I’d have to switch it back if I want the button to work as a mute button again.

Nice idea with the map, including it that is, but a big, practical fail when it comes to the reality of reader devices.

General Formatting. It’s no secret that e-books are really just clumsy HTML pages all packaged together for convenience. However, this does not mean that a book needs to look like a web page. To give Bantam their props, they did ask for indenting on paragraphs. That looks good.

What looks like hell, and I see this all the time in lousy e-books, is an extra line between paragraphs. That’s what a web page looks like. E-books don’t have to. I don’t do that in my books. And the place where you see it most in A Secret Atlas is in the chapter headers. What should be a compact little collection of lines now takes up over half a page. What should have been almost invisible now has to be waded-through. It’s just one hot mess.

As noted above, this is not about Bantam or Random House. I’ve seen the same sort of things in books from plenty of imprints. It’s indicative of a general indifference to the e-book reading audience and a willful ignorance of how e-books work and what readers want. And since, at latest guesstimates, at least 30% of publishing’s income is coming in from e-book sales—and rising—they’re really past the point of creating a good impression. Smaller, leaner houses, more able to move with the times, will be setting the standards against which they will be judged. Individual authors can do that, too—I’ll let you know when I have the e-book version of Eyes of Silver ready and you’ll see what one guy can do with a bit of imagination and some basic book design knowledge.

Readers should take note: authors have absolutely no control over what our e-books look like. I’ve asked publishers if they’d let me do my own version of my books, just so they’ll look good. The silence of their responses is chilling. (The time to redo A Secret Atlas would be inside of an hour.)

The attitude of “if they want it, they’ll buy it no matter what” has contributed heavily to traditional publishing’s current straits. Claims of being the gatekeeper get undercut badly when production efforts show contempt and lack of respect for the folks who pay their bills.


Writing up this series of blog posts is cutting into my fiction writing time. If you’re finding these posts useful, and haven’t yet gotten yet snagged my latest novels, please consider purchasing a book. Nice thing about the new age of publishing is that you become a Patron of the Arts, letting writers know what you’d like to see more of simply by voting with a credit card. (Authors charge less when they sell direct, so you save, we make more, and that frees us to write more.)

My latest paper novel, Of Limited Loyalty, is due out in December and is available for pre-order now.

In Hero Years... I'm Dead. A Digital Original novel.
My digital original novel, In Hero Years… I’m Dead is available for the Kindle and in the epub format for all the other readers, including the Nook, iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. (Imagine the Batman, Watchmen and Kick-Ass movies all rolled into one, as written by Dashiell Hammett, and you’ve pretty much got the idea of the book. Oh, and with some satire and political commentary slipped in for irony.)

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14 Responses to “E-book Design doesn’t have to be bad”

  1. Here via Felicia Day’s re-tweet… I’m a graphic designer specializing in web design, and everything you’ve just described horrifies me. Modern XHMTL allows a designer to reproduce on a website practically ANYTHING with as little or as much control as desired. There’s no excuse for the publisher not hiring a web designer to produce their eBooks!

  2. Just a note about paragraph formatting: I thought I remember reading in my graphic design typography class days that block paragraphs with a full space in between is actually preferred and easier to read, and that the indented style is common simply due to the historical need to save as much physical paper as possible. The argument seemed to be that we should move away from indents now that paper is not a part of the product.

    I’m not sayin’ I agree, though! Just sayin’ it may in some cases be intentional.

  3. Mike, have to mention this one because it’s probably a worse example: the Kindle version of At the Queen’s Command is formatted so that you can’t read it in reversed type (White type on black background).

    It’s a deep brown of some sort.

  4. Andrew Timson 21. Feb, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    While I agree that the book has all the problems you cited, many of the formatting problems are often only found in older titles that Random House and other publishers have converted from other formats to ePub, rather than generating anew from the books’ layout files. Random House’s newer titles, like the ebook releases of your non-NJO Star Wars novels, use the actual cover images, don’t have break between paragraphs, and orient maps correctly.

    They still have some design problems, like having the TOC, and the linkless “other titles” list is at the back instead of the front. But as a reader I prefer the list there anyways—I’m more likely to read it there, rather than to skip past it on the way to the meat of the book (and not come back).

  5. Found your post via Felicia Day’s re-tweet. As a person who provides ebook conversion services I can relate to the points you’ve made. Everyone wants to feel like they’ve invested their money in a high quality product. Formatting errors or feature omissions (like the lack of a table of contents) can detract from the reader’s perception of a book, no matter how good the content is. Because of this, it’s unfortunate that authors don’t have a say in how their books are converted. Hopefully though, your post helps authors who are publishing independently to distinguish good conversion services from bad, or to realize that unless they have the skill it’s worth the investment to pay to have it done well. Best of luck with your upcoming book!

  6. “publishers should put a list of other books available from the author, with hotlinks enabled, in the front of the e-book. Why? Because when someone downloads the free sample, as I did, they’d get a whole list of other books by the same author. This is simply good business.”

    No, that’s simply annoying. Put it at the *end* of the book, so those who’ve finished and enjoyed it will know where to go next.

  7. We’ll probably disagree about this point. I would agree with you if there are multiple pages of links, but one or two is hardly onerous and readers can always hit the TOC button to skip right to the meat of the story. I stress putting it at the front of the book so if someone pulls down a sample, realizes it wasn’t the book they wanted, they have the links right there to snag the one the did want. This is useful in series, where you’ve sampled the second or third book and want to start from the beginning.

    Of course, I do agree that links to the books that are next in the series should appear at the end of the text. I like to include a sample chapter from another book with the appropriate links there, too.

  8. Minor point from a new iPad owner with a savvy niece. You can double click on the Home button to get the icons of recently used apps. Then swipe left to right to get to settings; click on the circling arrow on the far left to stop rotating the screen. Turn it off the same way. Much easier than repurposing the button!

  9. I have to agree with Church here … In the front, especially in a sample, it is just annoying, because it cuts into the sample text.

    Besides … I just downloaded the sample of “In Hero Years” and you put more than just one or two links in there :))

    I also downloaded the sample for “A secret atlas” and yeah, you are right, that is kinda horrible.

    I read up about ebook formatting and you are right, it really isn’t all that hard to figure out. Which makes it all the more surprising that publishing houses with all their resources still haven’t figured this out …

  10. I work in publishing (boring legal and regulatory stuff, not trade press) and we hit this wall over a decade ago. A lot of the wonky formatting in ebooks comes from publishers trying to go with this sort of workflow:

    word processing —> typsetting file —> file for ebook

    The problem is, in order to make the print good, composition folks put things like hard hyphens and non-breaking spaces into the file that goes to the typesetter. If you turn around and convert that file to ebook format, you have to go back and proof and correct the file again to unfix all the things you fixed the first time.

    The solution is to treat the book as data and convert the word processing file to a neutral format like SGML or XML that can then be reliably converted to whatever output is needed. This has real advantages over time, as ebook formats evolve and allow the publisher to proof and correct the data once instead of over and over.

    Not embedding covers in ebooks is just plain bad practice and hopefully will go away very soon.

  11. If I said two links, I mean to say two screens. Depending on the type-size (which is user controlled) even a short list could go on forever; but having a list of books there isn’t a vice. Most sample’s give you 10% of the book and I’d guess that readers know if they will buy a chapter in or so. 🙂

    At least, I do.

  12. To be fair – and Mike can tell you how seldom I give in to the urge to be fair – some of the problems with paragraph formatting originate not with the publishers and converters but with the “reading systems.”

    Reading systems are whatever you use to read an e-book. Some are cross-platform software solutions (such as Kindle for PC). Some are proprietary hardware (such as the Kindle 2 device).

    I test the e-books I self-publish on several readers (Aldiko, FBReader for Android and PC, Stanza for the iPhone, several flavors of Kindle, Adobe Digital Editions, the calibre reader, and more) and have found a very frustrating disparity in the way they handle paragraph formatting.

    Some automatically indent paragraphs. Some don’t, and ignore HTML codes you introduce to force indentation. Some automatically add blank lines between paragraphs. Some automatically compress and eliminate blank lines you want to be there, such as between sections of text. Some allow you to toggle a function to use CSS styles in preference over their normal formatting defaults, some ignore CSS no matter how pitifully you beg. (And I’m a writer. I can beg quite pitifully.)

    So one of the tougher skills to acquire, at least in this turbulent settling-in period of e-readers, is to come up with a personal formatting style that looks anywhere from okay to good on the widest variety of readers.

    Things would be much better if all reading systems had an option to accept CSS imbedded in the e-book, but allow for overrides according to the reader’s own preferences.

    And all reading systems should have night modes – white text on black backgrounds. And infinitely scalable font sizes. Take that as a recommendation from someone who’s visually impaired.

    So, in addition to persuading publishers to give more attention to their e-books, we need to persuade reading system designers to show more versatility.

    I have only one ass left, and this situation is a pain in it.

  13. Great article, Michael. It’s good to hear that authors care about their ebooks as well as the printed books and hopefully things will improve for them and their readers. I wrote an article about ebook design for Futurebook which you might have seen? http://futurebook.net/content/what-makes-good-looking-ebook-tips-ebook-design-standard-titles You could, err, pass it on to your publisher!

  14. But, I thought that e-books cost as much as paper books because the publishers had to spend so much time formatting and editing them? At least, that was the last excuse that I heard. You know when the rising price of paper books was due to paper and shipping overhead became a point of contention for the price of e-books.

    Sorry, I had to rant about pricing. I have bought several of your e-books, but only from your store, I refuse to pay more than a few dollars for a DRM encumbered book, that is essentially a rental for an unspecified amount of time.

    As for formatting. Yeah, the big publishers pretty much stink at it. The best formatting that I have seen on e-books is actually front the community at mobilereads.com. There are some truly gorgeous e-books available there.