The Problem With Reading Books on the Small Screen

by | Apr 30, 2011

by Paula Hendricks

We’re lucky today to have a guest post from my friend Paula Hendricks. I met Paula when she was doing a term as president of the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association (BAIPA). Paula, who is the co-author of, among other titles, the Tire House Book, is also a blogger and photographer. She writes today about a recurring problem she faces when reading e-books.

I am a book lover. I love the feel of a book in my hands. I like reading on my couch, on the bus, in bed. I always have a book with me. My basic decorating device is bookshelves with books on them.

I never thought I’d read a book for pleasure on a small electronic device. Was I ever wrong!

Paula Hendricks and e-booksIn the last year or so I started reading more library books. Maybe it’s the increasingly high prices of new printed books. Maybe it’s that I realize I don’t need to own everything I love. Maybe it’s that bookstores are disappearing and I like to browse in person.

Another Source of e-Books—the Library

For whatever reason, I’ve started reading ebooks from the library. In part this is because printed books are getting larger. I confess I have never liked hard backed books — they are simply too big for my hands, too heavy to carry around, and are just awkward. My book of choice is the mass market paperback. It fits neatly into my bag and fits my smallish hands perfectly. But more and more paperback books have moved to an awkward tall size that is not pleasant for me.

I don’t have an e-reader and I don’t have a tablet yet. And I can’t imagine sitting at my desk reading a book for pleasure, but here’s the surprise. I love reading ebooks on my iPod, at least most of them.

There is an intimate quality to the experience that reminds me of the mass market paperback. Even the newspaper mobile apps are easier to read on my iPod than the full websites on my laptop. There is less information on the screen, fewer things taking up space. It’s just me and the words. I even make the font smaller sometimes. I love it.

But There’s a Problem: Justified Text

My iPod is small and discrete and the process to get the books onto my iPod is simple. But here’s the rub: many e-books are still being laid out as though they are print books.

Paula Hendricks - Kindle app

Book in Kindle iPhone app---click to enlarge

For my eyes, the most egregious layout feature is justified text. Because the screen on my iPod is small — 2″ by 3″ (smaller than a standard business card which is 2″ by 3.5″) — it is extremely unpleasant to read justified text. With such a narrow reader there are, inevitably, gaps of white space and odd line breaks to accommodate long words that are not hyphenated. I actively look for ragged right content.

So now when I convert or set up ebooks. I do not justify the text (I leave as left justified) and I put spaces around dashes of all sizes. I also make sure that there is a space after the punctuation that ends a sentence. I recently read a book that had no spaces after many ending periods. It made for an exhausting reading experience.

Paula Hendricks - iBooks app

Same book in iPhone iBooks app---click to enlarge

I’m also looking for ways to standardize this information for readers. This way I, as a reader, will know before buying or borrowing whether or not I can actually read it easily on my ipod.

I now return books that have justified text. And since I have to download them first to find out if they are justified, it’s incredibly annoying and makes me think the author and publisher don’t care about my reading experience.

You may have good design or content reasons to justify your text, but be sure to consider how many people you will not reach if you make it hard to read your book.

Check out Paula’s website ( to find out more about her writing, book designing and photography.

Photo by Dennis.Vu

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  1. Paul Robinson

    I’m coming even later to the party (a year and a half late in fact).

    I stumbled across this in my quest to discover why the Nook app for the iPhone does not let me turn off full justification. It has a setting for it, but that fails to override, presumably publisher defaults.

    The comments here are interesting… we each have our idiosyncratic–or philosophical–or typographical justifications for preferring left justified or full justified text. The more nuanced positions– that it depends upon type of material and screen size–have a subtle sophistication going for them.

    As for me, full justified text — in a regular hard copy book — has never been an issue. But it matters like crazy in other venues. On the small screen (e.g., Palm or iPhone), full justification leads to flowing rivers of white space–and incredibly distracting extra spaces between words. They interfere with quiet reading. For courses I teach, I ensure that printed materials are left-justified because, even on a 8.5 x 11″ page, the words can be spread out by Word in odd ways. Clearly, others, as in this thread, prefer full justified text, no matter the venue.

    The bottom line, however, for me, is that ebook readers need to let the user decide! If they don’t, or if their settings don’t work, they are a failure of design and not deserving of support. The e-reading community should set some standards and call on the carpet those developers and big companies when they do not provide users with settings for margins, line and paragraph spacing, indentation, font choice and sizing, and colors (background and text).

  2. paula hendricks

    thanks nathan. i’m going to check that out initially i don’t see a way to change these settings in overdrive (the software many libraries use) and it doesn’t work with pdf files… but now i’m on a hunt.



  3. Nathan Wrann

    I’m arriving at the party a little late here but I think I might have some input that will save Paula and others some frustration and returns.

    When I first uploaded a short story to Kindle/Nook/Smash etc. I noticed that the text was justified when I would proof it on my iphone. I went into the settings (on the nook it’s the “A” icon) and turned “Full Justification” on. That automatically changed the view of what I was reading to left justified. (I also shrunk the text which makes it a smoother read).

    So the issue might not be with the document/file that is being uploaded by the publisher, it might be with the settings on your device.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Great info, Nathan, thanks for that. There’s the same setting in the iBooks application, if that’s what you’re using to read on the iPhone or iPod. Under Settings/iBooks there’s a slider you can use to turn justification on or off. But each app has its own controls, and some of them don’t include that function.

  4. paula

    hi everyone. great discussion. i’m back from a day away. all good comments. for a book where the end result can be controlled (print) justified text is often preferred, even to me and even to read. but the more narrow the column (newspapers?) or for the small screen or for where text can flow with different fonts and different sizes, i can’t see where justified text is always the best answer.

    for technical books, or books with heavy layout demands and images that need to be placed just so… well then i’m not sure delivery on a very small device is the right answer.

    i’ll have to look into the ibook setting… i didn’t know that either. i’ll try it.

    thanks for commenting.


  5. David Bergsland

    My confusion lies in the fact that I bought Paula’s argument so I changed my ePUB are reuploaded it. In Adobe Digital edition, it is flush left. In iBooks it is still justified. My real issue is with the bad hyphenation (appallingly bad). I can’t seem to fix that in the iPad.

    • Michael

      For whatever reason, there’s no setting within iBooks itself to turn off justification, and everything is justified regardless of what the ePUB specifies. The reader can open the Settings app from the home screen and find the option to turn off justification there, but I suspect most will never realize they can do so.

  6. Joel Friedlander

    Lots of interesting thoughts here. I prefer justified text when I’m reading something that reminds me of a book. I agree with Paula that the narrowness of the phone-sized screen presents challenges for any typographer. From a long career creating business documents as well as books, I know that Christopher is correct in his reminder that rag right works better for technical and instructional material. It’s the particular challenge of the e-book reader software, and its control by engineers rather than typographers, that seems to be the problem to me.

    For instance, given the exact same text, why do the two pages in the photos look so different? Which one of those images (which relate directly to the argument in the article) do you prefer?

    (Paula is traveling during the day but tells me she’ll be checking in this evening.)

  7. Will Entrekin

    Count me among readers who prefer justified. I don’t mind the white space between the words because it makes the text appear as though it’s taking better advantage of that small screen.

    Then again, I rarely read book-length text from my phone; for that, I use my Kindle. I tend to read only short stories and essays on my phone. It feels like phones are more appropriate for short-form reading, while tablets allow longer form content.

    Which makes for an interesting thought, that people will read different narrative content on different devices, rather than merely treating all digital reading as the same beast.

  8. David Rory O'Neill

    This is fascinating and highly relevant to me. I have just started putting out my work as eBooks. I layout myself but send the result as a PDF to my publisher who does the final conversion for the various eBook sellers like Kindle, Sony etc.
    I am wondering how much of my format goes through untouched?
    I have been using the same format I used for printed work. Justified looks correct on screen and printed and left aligned looks ragged and plain wrong.
    I used two spaces after a period. It was discouraged by my publisher since it makes a significant difference to the final download size and page count.
    I wonder how many potential buyers are using iPods and is it worth upsetting those using Sony, Kindle, iPod et-al
    Regards David

  9. Mchael N. Marcus

    Christopher, you know what you’re talking about when you cite the need for white space (a.k.a. “negative space”), but it can be achieved in many ways other than by having ragged-right type — which often presents ugly, jagged right margins.

    And, identifying yourself as an author of engineering documents, does not mean that you are an authority on book design.

    White space can be provided by indents, margins, headers, footers, paragraph spacing, spaces above and below breaker heads, space around illustrations, space around drop caps, space above chapter beginnings, blank verso pages, etc.

    A justified page can be a thing of beauty, and I’ve never felt fatigue from reading a justified book. OTOH, it definitely _can_ be fatiguing to read ragged-right text because of the constantly changing right margin. It disturbs the natural rhythm of moving eyes from right to left as we read down a page.

    Flush-left/rag-right pages in a pBook are much easier to produce than good-looking justified pages, and I think they are the mark of a lazy formatter.

    Michael N. Marcus
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series:
    — “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),”

    • Christopher Wills

      Hi Michael interesting to hear your reply.

      To qualify my position, I have post graduate qualifications in Technical Communication. I’m not expressing my opinion when I state that ragged right margins are easier to read and that the majority of readers prefer them for reading. I am drawing from seminal works on Technical Communication like the excellent ‘Technical Communication’ by Rebecca E. Burnett a University Professor of Rhetoric and Professional Communication, amongst many other prestigious communication related awards and positions. Also, a long cited survey in the journal ‘Technical Communication’ backs this up, stating that the majority of managers and nonmanagers prefer documents with ragged right margins.

      Design for aesthetic reason is good and has its place, but in technical communication (note technical is a wide term that goes way beyond engineering) we are more concerned with accessibility, comprehensibility and usability for the reader.

  10. Christopher Wills

    Great post. I totally agree about justified text. I am a Technical Author of engineering documents so I know what I am talking about. When text is justified it removes white space from the page. White space is essential for readers because it makes the page easier on the eye in the same way that lots of images do. It is only a small difference and not everybody will notice it straight away but the extra white space on a page from left aligned text makes the reading experience more relaxed; essential when reading for a few hours.


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