Thoughts on Format and Design

As I’ve been typesetting Erekos for the last two weeks, I’ve been musing about formatting.

Print is a beautiful thing. It lets you set exactly how you want a reader to experience a story – it gives you the ability to make an aesthetically pleasing container for thought.

I love this. I love taking an unformatted manuscript and picking just the right fonts and printer’s ornaments and drop caps and all that; I love finding the right font sizes and margins to make everything flow together beautifully, in a form that’s worthy of the words that are being conveyed. Maybe it’s part of being a bookbinder – there’s something magical about taking words and making them into an objet d’art, something to be enjoyed on both a physical and intellectual level. It’s one reason why I can’t wait to expand Candlemark & Gleam into the print business – I desperately want to see our authors’ work in bound form, something lovely and tangible.

Thing is, book design becomes something entirely different when you’re going digital. PDF files allow you to present a book as though it were in print form – what you get is exactly what you’d see if the book were printed. The problem is, this is a very inflexible format – PDFs show the exact fonts and design elements the designer wanted, but they won’t reflow to fit different screen sizes, etc. You can zoom, but that’s about it. Rather inconvenient, don’t you think?

The digital revolution opens up a lot of avenues for books. With ePub, .mobi, .ltf, and all the other formats out there, books can be read on any number of devices – the Kindle, the Nook, the iPad, the Sony Reader, iPhones, Android phones, and just about anything with a screen. Even cheap mp3 players support .txt files for simple e-reading these days. It’s exciting and wonderful.

But what sort of sucks is the loss of design. I’m reformatting Erekos for ePub as we speak, and instead of using the lovely fonts I’ve chosen – Calisto MT for body copy and Aladdin for drop caps, with Tyro Sans accents and Bodoni standard ornaments, in case you’re interested – I’m pretty much stuck with Times New Roman, Garamond, and Arial.

Now, these are classic fonts for a reason. They’re easy to read, they’re eminently scalable, and they’re installed on friggin’ everything. Garamond, in particular, is a fine, fine font. But in gaining the functionality of reflowing text to suit an individual user’s tastes, we’re losing the design element – we’re losing the lovely, individually selected and carefully composed book-as-art that we have with print.

No drop caps, no lovely formatting, no special design tricks. Just reflowable simple text.

Oh well. This is why we’ll be offering a PDF version – the “pretty” version – in addition to offering every other format we can think of, DRM-free. If you want the pretty, you can get it. If you want the flexible, you can get it. Something for everyone.

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  • Jason

    One thing that has gotten to me over the years – and it doesn’t relate to your own enterprise, but it’s a kneejerk pet-peeve – is the abuse of the .pdf format. Particularly, the number of companies who put out visually bland pdfs of, e.g., user manuals, laid out for portrait printing… even though the only copy of the manual is the pdf on the product CD and their users will, we presume, be looking at it in anything from landscape to widescreen viewing windows. To add insult to injury, the number of these that use multiple columns per page (and thus require a truly painful amount of scrolling) is astonishing.

    With a novel like Erekos, on the other hand, I can totally see where the layout and design are both important and appealing – and it’s a shame that more readers aren’t yet capable of allowing you to include real typesetting and formatting. The option to gracefully degrade to bare bones is important for a number of technical and human access reasons, but the option to see the true work in all its glory should really be a part of any format that aims to deliver books to readers.

  • Jason

    One thing that has gotten to me over the years – and it doesn’t relate to your own enterprise, but it’s a kneejerk pet-peeve – is the abuse of the .pdf format. Particularly, the number of companies who put out visually bland pdfs of, e.g., user manuals, laid out for portrait printing… even though the only copy of the manual is the pdf on the product CD and their users will, we presume, be looking at it in anything from landscape to widescreen viewing windows. To add insult to injury, the number of these that use multiple columns per page (and thus require a truly painful amount of scrolling) is astonishing.

    With a novel like Erekos, on the other hand, I can totally see where the layout and design are both important and appealing – and it’s a shame that more readers aren’t yet capable of allowing you to include real typesetting and formatting. The option to gracefully degrade to bare bones is important for a number of technical and human access reasons, but the option to see the true work in all its glory should really be a part of any format that aims to deliver books to readers.

  • http://www.candlemarkandgleam.com Kate

    I agree with you on the abuse of the PDF format; I’ve had to read a lot of scanned articles over the years that are in PDF, and the amount of scrolling was truly horrendous. Technical manuals, too, and gaming books – I can understand why they’re done in PDF, but the scrolling! Oh ye gods, the scrolling. And when there’s no logical reason for it to be stuck in PDF format, when users need to be able to navigate and scroll and jump around in the text and do it on any of a number of devices, one would think that the manual would be available in more than one format.

    But this is why I get so annoyed with the eBook format options currently available. There is no graceful degradation. There seems to simply be a choice between “gorgeously laid out but very, very static” and “serviceable, if dumpy, and reflowable to all devices and applications,” and no graceful middle ground. I’d even be happier if I could choose a nicer font than Times New Roman or Garamond for ePub display, but a lot of the aggregator services prefer that you use one of the super-standards just to make sure that there’s no wonkiness between platforms. It’s highly annoying, especially given how beautifully eBooks can potentially render on a screen like an iPad…

  • http://www.candlemarkandgleam.com Kate

    I agree with you on the abuse of the PDF format; I’ve had to read a lot of scanned articles over the years that are in PDF, and the amount of scrolling was truly horrendous. Technical manuals, too, and gaming books – I can understand why they’re done in PDF, but the scrolling! Oh ye gods, the scrolling. And when there’s no logical reason for it to be stuck in PDF format, when users need to be able to navigate and scroll and jump around in the text and do it on any of a number of devices, one would think that the manual would be available in more than one format.

    But this is why I get so annoyed with the eBook format options currently available. There is no graceful degradation. There seems to simply be a choice between “gorgeously laid out but very, very static” and “serviceable, if dumpy, and reflowable to all devices and applications,” and no graceful middle ground. I’d even be happier if I could choose a nicer font than Times New Roman or Garamond for ePub display, but a lot of the aggregator services prefer that you use one of the super-standards just to make sure that there’s no wonkiness between platforms. It’s highly annoying, especially given how beautifully eBooks can potentially render on a screen like an iPad…