A Note on eBook Design

I recently completed reading Frederick Brooks’ excellent The Mythical Man-Month, a book I’ve been aware of pretty much since it was published but somehow hadn’t read. I don’t see much point to adding another review to the large stack that’s already extent, but I wanted to talk a bit about the ebook edition.

The ebook is an excellent, impeccably scanned, version of the book’s 1995 edition. I mention this because the preface to that edition includes the following paragraph:

Addison-Wesley’s house custom did not permit me to acknowledge in the preface to the 1975 edition the key roles played by their staff. Two persons’ contributions should be especially cited: Norman Stanton, then Executive Editor, and Herbert Boes, then Art Director. Boes developed the elegant style, which one reviewer especially cited: “wide margins, [and] imaginative use of typeface and layout.” More important, he also made the crucial recommendation that every chapter have an opening picture…. Finding the pictures occasioned an extra year’s work for me, but I am eternally grateful for the counsel.

I pull this quote because all that fine formatting and design work, including all the hard-sought pictures, got lost in translation when the book was scanned. On my Nook, which renders all books pretty much alike, this wouldn’t have been quite so obvious (although I’d certainly have recognized that the pictures were missing), but I read it on my Galaxy Tab, which could certainly display the original as designed, and the lack was pretty obvious.

Which leads to my point: One of the plain deficiencies of the current generation of ereaders is their inability to deliver interesting formatting. Joan’s Kindle 2 and my Original Nook make little effort in this direction, while my Sony Reader’s better in some respects, worse in others. The various apps on my tablet could certainly do better, but I’ve not noticed that any do so. Strangely enough, my smartphone’s apps, which are more mature than the tablet’s, tend to give me (but not the publisher) more control over presentation than any other electronic device.

For some books, design is important. It’s less significant for most, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter, as good design can make reading easier. Design has long been a feature differentiating publishers, all of whom use it to add value for readers. Basically all paper books show the impact of a designer; not just the cover and illustrations, but typeface, margins, chapter headings, page headings/footers, and even paragraph orphans are items within design purview. None of these things make it into your typical ebook. Partly it’s that the delivery devices are mostly concerned with presenting text. Partly it’s that most of the current generation of ebooks began as scans, rather than electronic documents. And partly it’s a failure on everyone’s part to take this seriously.

That needs to change. We need to decide the current ereader crop is first generation and unfinished. We’ll move to more sophisticated devices in time, and the publishers will remember that design is one of the ways they add value for customers. I imagine the epub (mobi, ibook) spec discussion has included these issues, but I’ve not been following that. I may begin to do so.

Postscript: I’ve not mentioned books-as-PDFs, because on the whole they annoy me, but they’ve solved this problem–at the price of removing whatever control I might need to adjust the presentation to my circumstances/needs. Such books are unreadable, or nearly so, on most of my devices; only the Tab handles them well.

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