I’d like the survey the CT commentariat about their ebook reading habits, and toss out a few ideas. I’ve made the shift this year. I now read more new books on my iPad than on paper. I also read a lot of comics on the iPad, mostly courtesy of the Comixology app. But let’s start with plain old mostly word productions.
At the present time Epub (or EPUB or EPub, or however you capitalize it) and Kindle (mobipocket) are notably sucky formats. Epub 3 is rolling out, and I’m sure the future will get better and better. But for now we have these beautiful devices; yet the books I’m reading on them look plug ugly. Terrible layout. Limited fonts. In their guts, these HTML-based ebook formats are websites pretending to be books. They don’t have pages, strictly. They jostle images in thoughtless ways. The gestalt is very web circa 1997. This is by design (in a negative sort of way). You can’t be sure what size screen you are dealing with, so every appearance of every bit of every ebook on every device is its own custom-poured page, courtesy of these flow-y formats. But the results are, to repeat, bad. Suppose you had a choice between getting a basically quite nice ‘standard’ garment off the rack, or having an brain-damaged, blind tailor make you a suit – just for you! cut by the poor, mad fellow, just to your measure! on the spot! There’s a lot to be said for not the ‘bespoke’ option, in this case.
So how about: just make a PDF so it looks good on the iPad. (Until 2014, when Epub finally catches up.) Why the iPad? Because I’ve got one, so I can see what I’m doing. No, seriously: how will it look on other devices? Unless you are trying to read it on your phone – which, admittedly, some people want to do – it will look fine. Why PDF? Everything can read PDF, and will continue to be able to do so. If the screen is fatter or thinner on some Nook or Kindle or whatever next year’s flavor may be, there will either be a slightly fatter top or side margin. But slightly fat margins are minor sins compared to the barbarities routinely perpetrated, in passing, by ePub and Kindle. PDF can look great. You pick the font! The pictures are in the right place!
And will Epub catch up? Technically, I’m very ignorant. I don’t code. I sort of know HTML and barely grasp CSS. I make books with InDesign. Maybe that makes me biased in favor of (relatively) old-fashioned laying out of pages. But I have nagging doubts as whether this whole websites-pretending-to-be-books, custom-poured page business really is the future of the book. I’m concerned it is, to some degree, a solution in search of a problem. [UPDATE: gross overstatement. Obviously cross-platform compatibility is a real problem, but I wonder whether the problem isn’t being over-solved, with perfect flexibility becoming an ideal to which some good design values are being sacrificed, when modest flexibility might be better.] Consider this very admirable effort, Bibliotype, by Craig Mod, who is always worth reading on these subjects. By all means, let this sort of thing go forward. We’ll see. But consider: if you want to play Angry Birds, you orient your iPad to landscape, for maximum width (the action is left-right). If you want to play Tetris, portrait is better. Up to you, of course, how you want to play at breakfast or in bed or wherever. But the point is this: no one would say game designers should work to design games that are omni equi-playable in portrait or landscape mode, at arms’ length, one inch from your nose, so forth. Likewise, I don’t see why eBook designers should necessarily be bending over every which way to ensure that, no matter what device, and how you are holding your device, you are getting as good a reading experience as you are getting any other way you hold it. Flexibility is a virtue. But there are others. Maybe it would be better to design something that looks great one standard way, even if that means it doesn’t look so good some other way. We still have pages. They aren’t inherent in the e-nature of the eBook beast. But they are inherent in the readers we read on. The iPad is a page, even if the things on it don’t have pages. Maybe the way to go, ultimately, is back to deliberate page layout. Maybe there is no other way to get the best results.
But that’s a big maybe, and I don’t want to stand in the way of folks like Craig Mod trying whatever stuff they think might be great.
In the meantime, as things stand, PDF’s are almost never formatted for an iPad screen, so it doesn’t readily occur to us that we might look in this direction for the optimal solution. I read a lot of PDFs, academic stuff. It’s all formatted for my printer, not my iPad, so the pages are mostly too big, and if you shrink them to fit, the print is cramped. I would suggest that, going forward, folks might start sizing and shaping PDF pages for these devices. The rules are a bit different. But that’s enough for one post. I’m curious to hear what your recent ebook experiences have been. Do ugly ebooks bother you? Do you crave the ebook analog of the Protean easy chair, from Melville’s Confidence-Man?
“My Protean easy-chair is a chair so all over bejointed, behinged, and bepadded, everyway so elastic, springy, and docile to the airiest touch, that in some one of its endlessly-changeable accommodations of back, seat, footboard, and arms, the most restless body, the body most racked, nay, I had almost added the most tormented conscience must, somehow and somewhere, find rest. Believing that I owed it to suffering humanity to make known such a chair to the utmost, I scraped together my little means and off to the World’s Fair with it.”
In a follow-up post [UPDATE: now posted] I’ll give out some freebie PDF eBooks I’ve optimized for the iPad, and note how slightly different rules apply. Nothing fancy. (How fancy could PDF be, after all?) But nice, I hope.