EBooks Today: Futility or Utility?

by | Oct 13, 2010

Indie Author April Hamilton responded to my post about typeface combinations for book design with a note about ebooks:

Joel –
Those font combintations look great, but I can only shake my head and sigh knowing none of them would survive the conversion to Kindle (prc), iBook (epub), or most other ebook formats intact—the notable exception being pdf ebooks, but that’s hardly the most popular format. Sadly, font options are still very, very limited where ebooks are concerned.

Ebook, thy name is utility.

April, who performs conversions to ebook formats, knows this ground well. For most ebooks, text is one long stream of data, paginated on the fly by the ereading device itself. As soon as your text enters this elastic space, it can be manipulated by users for their own convenience. The font you selected can be replaced, and sizes, line endings, page breaks and other parts of the infrastructure of the book are rendered irrelevant.

Craig Mod, in his great post about ebook reading last year, Books in the Age of the iPad, argued that the Apple iPad was the first reader to be able to display books with the same kind of accuracy in presenting content that printed books do.

He goes on:

The metaphor of flipping pages already feels boring and forced on the iPhone. I suspect it will feel even more so on the iPad. The flow of content no longer has to be chunked into ‘page’ sized bites . . . In printed books, the two-page spread was our canvas. It’s easy to think similarly about the iPad. Let’s not. The canvas of the iPad must be considered in a way that acknowledge the physical boundaries of the device, while also embracing the effective limitlessness of space just beyond those edges.

Trapped in the Past, But At Least There’s Something to Read

Looking at the EPUB versions of lots of books can be dispiriting to a designer. But we are in a primitive and transitional time for books, and we all know it.

Ebooks remind me today of character-mode displays of 20 years ago. We ran programs on what were essentially terminals with green screens and a single set of characters. You had to know how to enter command-line code to get anything done. When I brought home my first PC, I spent an hour typing at the C: prompt and receiving only this in reply:

Unknown command or filename

From there to Mac OS10, the iPhone and the iPad is quite a journey in itself. But ebooks, from what I can see, are still in their infancy.

Partly this is due to the current level of technology, certain to change quickly over the next couple of years. But even more, it’s longstanding habits and cultural memory that will change next.

Then we won’t need sophisticated electronics to spend their energy imitating old books and graceful page turns. Text will leap out of the need for the “page” itself, and connect with all the media converging on these mobile platforms like the iPad.

From the time people started to bind together sheaves of paper, creating the first books, until today, text has been displayed in only a couple of ways. And books, the standard unit of text communication, still use materials and operate by rules laid down in the sixteenth century.

Here are a few things I’m looking for in tomorrow’s ebook experience:

  • Text in pages, and not in pages—there are so many ways text can be displayed that might start from the page / spread metaphor, but then go completely beyond it.
  • Text in three dimensions—hyperlinks created the first kind of experience of text in dimensions, where depth becomes a factor. Ebooks are perfect vehicles for this type of content-layering.
  • Flexibility of the display, not just the content—and by that I mean presenting an eInk-type screen like the Kindle when only text is involved, and a high-resolution color screen like the iPad when other media come into play. Why do we have to choose?
  • Dynamic graphics that interact with the text—breaking down the wall between graphics and text is something ebooks can accomplish in totally new ways.
  • Context sensitive, location sensitive, environmentally sensitive—harnessing all the computing power in next-generation tablets and other convergent devices can make text responsive to the reader in many new ways.

So my question is, when will ebooks break out of the mold of the printed book? And then what will they look like?

Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, original work copyright by Anita K Hart, https://www.flickr.com/photos/anitakhart/

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Richard Peal

    Insightful post, as a typesetter for textbooks I see a great future for the likes of the iPad. Having played with the book/app Elements and it have me an appreciation of the potential of ebooks. With the help of software giants the role of the designer will evolve from typography on paper to typography on the screen. 

    Right now ebooks are at the same stage the internet was when Al Gpre invented it. With a generation accustom to a media driven lifestyle. Where information comes from the evolving web page rather than the static book. It is only a matter time when ebooks will be main stream in our universities. The ebook freight train is coming and there is no stopping it. It is up to the designer to adapt and acquire the skills for this transition. 

    I am so behind the eight ball on this. 

    • Joel Friedlander

      Richard, I know how you feel. There’s a point at which typesetters are being asked to become coders, and that’s a leap too far for a lot of people. On the other hand, the tools needed to create ebooks will continue to improve and it may not be all that long before we can go back to doing what we do best. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. bowerbird

    i really want to comment on all of the
    hopelessly confused meanderings here,
    but i just don’t even know where to start,
    so you’ll have to sort it all out yourselves.

    check back in 5 years, to see what i mean.


    p.s. but if you want the point of philosophical
    departure, it’s that the _users_ will demand
    — and obtain — final control over everything.

    • Joel Friedlander

      bowerbird, good idea. Things are going to look very different for ebooks and book buyers alike in 2015. You’ve got a date.

  3. Colleen Cunningham

    After experimenting with ePub earlier this year, I had to concede to the fact that I am not a coder, don’t want to be a coder, and that quality book design and ePub are not compatible at this time. I was frustrated by ePub limitations and discouraged by what the future was looking to be (endless, scrolling, non-hypenated, horribly justified Palatino text haunted my nightmares – you all can relate). But as you point out, Joel, eBooks are still in their infancy. The C: reference made me laugh! Thanks for helping to put all this into perspective. Technology can only improve eBook making and help us produce eBooks that are carefully-crafted, a joy to look at, and that help the reader do the only thing s/he has ever wanted to do – connect to the words on the page. That’s all we book designers ever wanted to do.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Colleen, I’m all too familiar with the discouragement that comes from looking at one too many EPUB books. Maybe it’s just those of us who have made a career our of the careful arrangement of type on a page, who have practiced that art of designed and getting out of the way of the author at the same time, that suffer this way. But, nonetheless, I’m pretty optimistic that better tools are going to come along, hopefully before the book-buying public has gotten used to Palatino!

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  4. Douglas Bonneville

    Keep your eye on Webkit. I’m sure that anything enhanced will spring forth from that platform. Markup will never go away, and Webkit leads the way with HTML5. In a word, HTML5.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Douglas, many of us want to learn more about HTML5 and its capabilities. I’d love to have a blog post to publish here that described what this new standard will mean for ebooks. Any takers?

  5. Maggie

    Until HTML and hyphenation join hands, I’m avoiding the e-reader bandwagon. I’ve tested Kindles, iPads, and Nooks, and I’ve tripped over loose lines to the point of being unable to move forward. I’m a typesetter, so this is probably more of a stumbling block than for the average reader.

    On the other hand, I see the immense possibilities of e-readers. They’re exciting and they’re definitely the wave of the future. I just hope we don’t sacrifice basic readability in the quest for bells and whistles.

    While you can change fonts on today’s e-readers, you can’t change H&J, and this is what impacts readability.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Maggie, it certainly is the agony and the ecstasy when it comes to e-readers. Vast potential, but often atrocious typography. And what’s the big deal about changing fonts anyway? Were readers crying out for Palatino? I don’t think so. Let’s hope these devices start to fulfill their potential before readers get used to the loose lines, lack of hyphenation and limited font choices.

  6. Robert Nagle

    By the way, I was thinking the EXACT SAME THING as April when I read that post (interesting as though it was). This lack of flexibility of fonts is enough to drive a person crazy.

    Not only am I bored with the animated pages on the Ipad, I am growing weary at not having the navigation affordances that people take for granted on the web. I think a “home page” is more usable than a Table of Contents.

    By the way, I almost never read PDFs before I got an ipad, but now I think PDFs work almost perfectly in GoodReader….almost to the point where I wouldn’t bristle at the thought of making a PDF output (as long as the links worked).

    • Joel Friedlander


      I’ve switched to iBooks for reading and organizing PDFs, and it seems to me to be the best PDF viewer available. You might give it a try. Thanks for your comment.



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