Lamenting the loss of design and style in e-books

I have a shelf of my own books in my house, and it always intrigues me to see how the presentation styles have changed over the last 25 years or so.

See that print copy? That's the only edition of 'Guns and Utu'. The end.
Some of my books…

There have been a big shifts even in the last ten years. And the stuff my publishers of the day were doing in the early 1990s certainly wouldn’t cut it today.

It’s inevitable. Styles change. Technology changes. A lot of what we regard as ‘cool’ is driven by that changing technology – witness the sudden arrival of drop-shadows when Adobe InDesign got the capability as a tick-box panel. In general, we can do things today – quickly and cheaply – that weren’t possible even with ‘desktop publishing’ software 25 years ago (yes, I’m talking about you, Aldus/Adobe Pagemaker) or which demanded a lot of fiddle-faddle with $250,000 purpose-built typesetting machinery.

For e-books, of course, the art of book design has taken a back seat to the utility of display on screens.

Cover designs rule. Internal content – not so much. Kindle adjusts the display according to the device. Self-pubbers often use MS Word or some near equivalent – it’s rare to see an e-book completed with InDesign (still rarer to see one in Xpress, which seems to have vanished off the face of the typesetting planet). That’s not a problem where Kindle re-formats on the fly. But Word has also leaked into print, via self-pub services that accept its files. And therein is the problem. Word sucks, big-time, as a typesetting tool. Especially when it comes to composition – it just can’t compete with InDesign’s paragraph compositing algorithm, and that’s just for starters. It also lacks proper frames, which is a killer for layout stability.

Wright_Illustrated History of New Zealand sample 4
A page from the 2012 second edition of my book ‘Illustrated History of New Zealand’.

Should we lament that loss? I think so. There is still a place in print for a well-designed, appealing book – a book where the artistry of the page design is as much a part of the reading experience as the content.

I’m reading one at the moment – Ian Brodie’s marvellous photo-essay book on Middle Earth locations in New Zealand. It’s a fabulous example of the book-maker’s art, with textured cover and wonderful reproduction quality. Good stuff.

Are you reading a book at the moment -a real, physical book – that is a joy to hold and to look at, quite apart from the content? Do you own any? And what do you think about the loss of that side of things to an e-world where screens dictate the presentation?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


16 thoughts on “Lamenting the loss of design and style in e-books

  1. I remember being shocked the first time I read a “how to format an ebook” article — where were the drop-caps and the headers and footers and etc. etc. etc.? It makes sense from a functional point of view — plain text can be converted to any device, up-sized, down-sized, etc. … but I think that’s one of the reasons I don’t like reading ebooks. It just doesn’t feel like a book.

    1. I agree wholeheartedly – and it’s also meant that an individual book, which could have been given some sort of distinction through typography, has been reduced to a homogenous visual product. Add to that the effect of the POD/self-pub world via CreateSpace and other services – all of which rely, by and large, on what Word or similar word processing software can do – and the result is, well, a bit hideous.

  2. I have seen some really bad typesetting in my time, but I simply put it down to a lack of knowledge on the part of the writer who self publishes. You make good points however – it could be a mixture of lack of knowledge along with poor tools.

    1. I agree – I think it’s both. And as Michelle pointed out above, the ‘toolset’ includes the reading devices, which further homogenise the product. Some of my commercially published books – which had proper typesetting and design input – have gone through the e-book process and been reduced to strings of ‘device responsive’ text. Ouch. I suppose as bandwidth expands and processing power climbs it’ll become possible to develop software to generate adaptive page designs and typography on any size screen (silly though that might be on a phone!). InDesign, in theory, has been able to produce adaptive screen material for a few years, but I think that’s only a beginning.

  3. There are books I won’t buy as ebooks because either a) the way the book has been designed appeals to me, or b) it’s going to look like crap on an e-reader (Simon Garfield’s Just My Type springs to mind).

    1. Exactly true. Large-format ‘coffee table’ books simply don’t translate into e-readers (I’ve had discussions with publishers about this one). There’s also the issue of file size for any illustrated book. When some of my old non-fic, illustrated-with-maps back-list books were turned into Kindle format for reissue, the pictures and most of the maps couldn’t realistically be included.

    2. I only read fiction on my Kindle. For non-fiction, I always go for proper books. An e-reader never does them justice, and it’s too hard to go back and forth.

      Even with fiction Kindle can be a problem though – the book I’m reading at the moment has a map of Restoration London at the front which is quite important to the story, but it’s far too small to see. Even if it wasn’t important, I’d still love to be able to study the map in detail.

  4. I’m guilty of those originated-as-a-Word-document books — four of them. I formatted the ebooks using Smashwords’s guidelines and the books are readable, but certainly there is no artistry to them. When I reformatted the same original Word docs for print publication (CreateSpace), I added things like headers, ornaments, title pages for the interior sections and drop caps. I also selected different fonts for main text and other areas. Compared to traditionally designed print books, mine are pretty basic, and the text composition probably isn’t perfect, but compared to the ebook versions, they are more satisfying to read and look at.

    1. Print always is better than an e-book from the asethetic viewpoint because the print layout is always fixed – you can do things with it and know it’ll work. I suppose issuing a book as a PDF makes that possible electronically, but a page might be a bit small or difficult to navigate on some screens.

  5. Reading this post has minded me to try InDesign for my ebooks. (Hate the nonsense that comes with Word and OpenOffice.) I’ve just noticed a Kindle plugin for InDesign and wondered if anyone has any experience with it. It appears to convert an InDesign book to be readable on any Kindle device. I might experiment with it and see what happens.

    As for book design I’ve always loved the Dorling Kindersley books. The company’s biography is a fascinating insight into managerial madness, exploitation and how talented idealists can be derailed by greedy incompetents. Thankfully, Dorling Kindersley is still with us.

    1. I’m familiar with InDesign but haven’t used this plugin. I’ve just checked the specs for it, though, and it doesn’t support a lot of what InDesign can do – and requires forced page-breaks and the rest. In short, it seems to work by abandoning all the strengths of InDesign that make it a professional page layout programme… If the base document isn’t specifically set up, it’ll cause problems in Kindle.

  6. A friend and I had this discussion about print vs ebooks just yesterday. The sensual feel of a physical book, we agreed, simply can’t be matched by an ebook.

    That said, I’ve had good results with using Scrivener for final composition (from a Word original file to PDF or ebook formats) of internal format. Perhaps not to the level of artistry you describe, but not too bad!

    As for the cover, I don’t even try it in Word except to rough out some notion of what I want to do. I take that idea to Kindle and CreateSpace, both of whom have pretty good cover creating software.

    Giving the devil his due, Word really wasn’t designed to create covers and translate to ebook formats. There’s a version of WordPerfect you can buy that supposedly converts seamlessly from WP to *.aspx and *.epub, but it’s a little beyond my pocketbook at the moment. I understand InDesign is somewhat pricey as well.

    So, sometimes, you just have to use the tools at hand, keeping in mind their limitations as well as one’s own!

  7. “Are you reading a book at the moment -a real, physical book – that is a joy to hold and to look at, quite apart from the content?”

    While I’m not reading it right now, my favorite book from an aesthetic point of view is an old Leibniz book printed in 1902. In it, someone named Katherine—1907—wrote all over the margins in beautiful script. In the back of the book, she taped in a little book of her own with outlines and notes. If I’m looking for a particular passage, I can look at her notes and find it. Thank you, Katherine.

    In short, I love books that have a history. Not collectible books, not books that are worth something or books that are in pristine condition, but books that have been read and studied. I love writing in books and reading what others have written.

    “And what do you think about the loss of that side of things to an e-world where screens dictate the presentation?”

    I would be a huge fan of ebooks if I were in college. I wouldn’t have minded the loss of presentation to save hundreds of dollars on classics which are available for free or maybe a whopping one dollar. Now, however, I tend not to read ebooks. I have nothing against them, but I tend to gravitate toward physical books. Perhaps it’s the price (used copies can sometimes be cheaper than the ebook) or perhaps I just haven’t played around with ebooks long enough to learn their virtues.

    One loss that I don’t hear of too often: Sometimes you can get highlights in ebooks of particular phrases that others have “underlined.” In that sense, you do get a bit of a feel that the book has been “lived in.” But those phrases tend to be superficial and uninteresting. If it were Plato’s Apology, the phrase, “an unexamined life is not worth living” might be underlined. BOR-RING.

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