Great text transcends nothing

Disclaimer:

Working on ebooks is how I make my living. Therefor you should take everything I write about ebooks with a grain of salt. Anybody whose economic future depends on specific viewpoints is more likely to hold those views, if not for any other reason than to avoid the discomfort of cognitive dissonance.

Yes, that does mean you should be sceptical about bankers on banking, real estate agents on real estate, and insurance salespeople on insurance, especially when they are defending the societal value of their profession as a whole. Assume they are biased and compensate accordingly. Of course, that can backfire when the professional in question is aware of their own biases and has already tried to compensate.

With that in mind…

There’s a peculiar sort of joy that comes from reading a good print edition of a great book.

@AthenaHelivoy said this here thing:

If Ebooks looked good, this sudden “novel” devotion to “intrinsic worth” wouldn’t have sprung up. … “Great lit transcends blahblah” is an uralt non-argument revamped for Ebooks.

From here and here.

There we have the problem with ebooks today in a nutshell (that and the fact that none of us actually own the ebooks we’ve bought, we only own licenses).

That isn’t to say that the ebook reading experience can’t be as good as reading print in some cases. The accessibility features of many reading apps open new titles up to those partially or wholly without sight. Changing the font size similarly helps those with bad sight. Those who read a lot of books appreciate the ebook’s relative weightlessness.

But for the vast majority of readers, ebooks as presented by Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and co. have only three real advantages. They are:

  • Cheaper
  • Immediate
  • Lighter

That’s it. Those are important advantages and, in many cases, all people need to pick an ebook over print. But ebooks still have miles to go.


Ebooks generally look worse than your average trade paperback or hardcover book. If competently done, they can manage to match or exceed the quality of a cheap paperback.

But if you pick an ebook at random and compare it to its print versions, odds are the ebook will look worse:

  • Typography will generally be worse. Automated pagination in existing ereaders ignores quite a few details that print typesetters pay a lot of attention to.
  • The resolution will be slightly lower, even on retina display screens.
  • The typeface will look worse and be less readable. Most fonts are designed for print and will look too thin and wispy on a high resolution screen. Odds are none of the fonts your app lets you choose are properly designed for screen reading.
  • On a lot of devices and many apps (Android and older iOS devices) your interaction with the ebook will have a slight but infuriating lag in even text-only novels. And if your book has a lot of images you can expect a substantial infuriating lag.

Moreover, as I’ve written about before, for many readers ebooks the experience as a whole will be worse because tactility is an important part of how we experience and remember things.

Some of these problems are solvable in practice. We can embed fonts that have been designed to look good on screens. We can mark the ebook up properly and pay attention to screen-specific detail in the stylesheets. And we can make sure to read our books in apps and devices that are responsive and render the ebook well.

Other problems are solvable in theory. LaTex and similar systems show that automated pagination should be a solvable problem. And there shouldn’t be any reason why we can’t match the overall typesetting quality of print.

The problem is that we manifestly don’t. And that’s because none of the key players care. It isn’t an issue of can’t but one of won’t.


Publishers don’t care about ebook quality. They’ll scrutinise every detail of the print edition while, as @liza quipped at the Books in Browsers conference the other day, not bothering to mark up a list in an ebook as a list. Ebooks, even from big publishers, are full of OCR errors and other mistakes. Almost every ebook backlist title I’ve read so far has had an OCR error in it somewhere (a numerical ‘1’ replacing an uppercase ‘I’ being the perennial classic). Publishers quite simply do not care what the ebook version looks like.

Ebooks are often hidebound by the demand that they match the styles of their print edition, even when many of their print design choices are grossly inappropriate for digital. (Like drop caps. Drop caps simply do not work in digital since they can’t be done without compromising accessibility where they break up the word.)

Hang on…

The Drop Cap rant interlude

Modern drop caps are a nostalgic affectation by people keen on spicing up their books with decorations but who are too stingy to pay an actual illustrator to draw an actual goddamn illustration.

Originally most drop caps were proper illustrations. Each was lovingly rendered with an awareness of its context, often commenting on them in witty and clever ways, and they did a marvellous job of spicing up the reading, as all well-made illustrations do. Reusing the drop caps from a book made about as much sense as reusing the illustrations.

Then drop caps became homogenised, pasteurised, blended, stamped, and cookie-cut into standard typographic forms. They got pre-made as fonts for people who wouldn’t know decent illustrations even if they were beaten into their heads at a picket line. People who think they can get the same effect as an illustration by buying something pre-fabricated from a font foundry.

You can’t. Never. The only effect you get from a modern pre-fabricated drop cap is vacuous nostalgia and the joy of being able to piss on the grave of the art of book illustration.

Then add to that the fact that they simply do not work in a cross-platform and accessible way in digital and you get only one conclusion:

JUST SAY NO TO DROP CAPS.

Yes. I hate drop caps. Unless you’re doing them properly as custom illustrations, of course. Then you get a pass.

The Joy of Reading

There’s a hard to define thrill that comes out of reading a good book that is well supported by it’s context and design. It’s like those moments in theatre where everything comes together to bring you a well-written play, with a great set design, perfect costumes, fantastic actors, with tone-perfect direction. The text of a play cannot transcend its actors or its staging no matter how great. Its words cannot dispel the curse of a mumbling actor or wash away the colours of a garish set. No phrase, no matter how beautifully crafted, can tone down an overacting diva.

A novel, no matter how great, cannot transcend its typography, packaging, or design.

Ebooks, quite simply, have to improve.

4 thoughts on “Great text transcends nothing

  1. Counter view: “Floreat typographia: Digital technologies are returning the art of making books to its beginnings, in hand work, singular visions, and small presses. The impulse to make books is the same, the technologies are different.” Discuss🙂

    • Like I’ve said before, most of the time when a complex problem is split into an artificial dichotomy, the answer is both.

      In this case, ebooks can both be substandard visually and deficient typographically and they can be enabling a return in publishing to singular visions and small presses.

  2. I see your point, and yet I have to disagree. A well-written story can, I believe, transcend its packaging. As a science fiction and fantasy fan, I am used to reading excellent books in cheap paperback editions with dreadful covers and sloppy design. I agree that a well designed book can be, in itself, a thing of beauty, but that’s not why I read it. My goal is to get lost in the story.

    The typography of e-books is necessarily simplified because the device gives the reader control over so many design elements. Font, size, color, and margins can all be adjusted to suit an individual reader (something that I really appreciate, since my eyes aren’t what they once were.)

    • The typography of e-books is necessarily simplified because the device gives the reader control over so many design elements. Font, size, color, and margins can all be adjusted to suit an individual reader (something that I really appreciate, since my eyes aren’t what they once were.)

      If only that were true. These are modern computers we are working with, not steam-driven DOS plonkers. They should be calculating and rendering the ebooks according to best typographic principles based on known factors (which include the user’s preferences). Most ereaders today don’t do this at all and those that do only do it in a limited way. Ebooks are a lot uglier than they have to be.

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