E-book Design: It’s a Thing

When I first started reading electronic editions of books, they were all in the public domain, made available through Project Gutenberg. I didn’t give much thought to their aesthetic value—I wanted the texts. I used many of them to replace battered paperback Penguin Classics that I had been dragging along on many moves over the years. It didn’t really matter if occasionally the scanning process messed with the font, or if an illustration was unreadable. It was free, after all. It was saving me a box or two per move. It was clearing up space on the bookshelves for the first editions by my favorite writers that I still like to collect.

But since I got my first iPad, I have gradually begun to open my mind to actually purchasing e-books. There are times when someone on the Internet recommends a nonfiction book, for example (in other words not the kind of book I like to collect in paper editions) and rather than make a mental note to look for it next time I’m out, I just go to the iBook store and download it. Often the e-book price is slightly lower than the physical edition would be, but not always. Either way, these books are not free, and they are not provided by volunteers, like the ones from Project Gutenberg.

But they have as many—sometimes more—glitches as the free books. It appears that no one at the Big Five NYC publishers has ever heard of e-book design.

I might not have thought much about this if I had not published my first novel in an exclusively electronic format. My book had a cover designer and a book designer. Maybe some readers out there are not familiar with the concept of book design, but think about it. Someone decides what fonts should be used in a book, what size the margins should be, whether there’s a running header at the top of each page and what it looks like if there is, where the page numbers go, how and where italics are used, how to present block quotes, what internal text boxes (think about charts or side bars, for example) will look like. Someone indexes books that require indexing.

No one seems to be doing that—or at most they are half-doing it, half-heartedly—for the electronic editions of books initially released in paper by big publishers. Instead, every single e-book I’ve bought has been riddled with mistakes that make it clear not much is happening besides a quick scan and an upload to e-book vendors. The first e-book I ever bought had an index with page numbers but no links. Page numbers are meaningless on an e-reader, where the text size can be changed by a reader, shifting the entire book’s pagination. So I paid money for a book with an index I couldn’t use. E-book versions of paper books frequently have hyphens in the middle of words that appear (or can appear, depending on a reader’s text size preference) in the middle of page, where they need no hyphenation. This is a sure sign that the book was not designed to be electronic, but simply scanned from a paper version that required a hyphen because its type was set for a particular physical page. Text boxes, side bars, and charts are sometimes unreadable, especially when the font size is increased or decreased (but sometimes altogether, regardless of font size).


Note “She supposed” about halfway down the page. In this larger font it is hyphenated. In the smaller font (right), it appears in the middle of the page and is not.


Bonus! E-books can cheaply incorporate color. This is usually prohibitively expensive in print. I was pleasantly surprised when I got the galley of my e-book and noted this detail.












My own book—and others I’ve seen that were produced to be exclusively electronic books—are absolutely beautiful inside. They are designed for the font to shift. They are designed to be read and make visual sense on a multiple e-readers. If they have indexes, they use internal links, not page numbers. Sometimes they have external Internet links that will take a reader directly to a cited source or to more information.

Some of you may remember that I decided to self-publish another of my novels. I produced both a paper and an electronic edition of the book. The two editions required completely different design processes and considerations. When something is going to be printed, it has to be perfect in its static final state. When something is going to be electronic, it requires a mobility in design that will translate well on different e-readers at different font sizes. E-books also allow for some design features that are trickier in print.

Now that I have noticed this difference, I am aghast that big publishers feel okay about scanning a print book, slapping a price on it and uploading it for sale. If a self-published writer did such a thing they would be rightfully criticized—possibly in condescending tones—by readers and other book critics. It is egregiously unprofessional. Selling a scan of a paper book and asking people to pay for it strikes me as roughly equivalent to stapling together a raw manuscript and asking a brick-and-mortar bookstore to stock and sell it.

Why don’t big publishers put their paper books through a real, electronic-specific redesign before selling them as e-books? I’ve done it. It takes a day or two. Someone who does it a lot could probably do a couple books per eight-hour workday, honestly. It would cost very little if anything. It is a job that screams “entry level” or even “unpaid intern.”

Oh, look! Someone took the time here to helpfully let readers know the index doesn't work and to point them to the search feature in their e-reader. How much harder would it be to add links, so, you know, the index actually works?

Oh, look! Someone took the time here to helpfully let readers know the index doesn’t work and to point them to the search feature in their e-reader. How much harder would it be to add links, so, you know, the index just works?

Not doing it feels like a slap from the publisher. It is disrespectful to the reader and implies that all the publisher really cares about is the extra money they might make by putting the book into another format. But those of us with dedicated e-books know that good e-book design is as necessary as good paper book design. We would just as soon forgo a final proofread of our manuscript as we would real internal book design.

I’m not sure what to do about this problem besides complain. Right now I’m planning to leave reviews of all the e-books I’ve bought that have these problems (which to a greater or lesser extent, is all of them except the e-books I’ve bought that are exclusively electronic). I am not getting what I pay for if the index doesn’t work, or the information in the text boxes is unavailable to me. It’s disappointing, because the convenience of e-books is really appealing, even to a bibliophile with four thousand paper books, like me.

Since getting my first e-reader, I have come to see the potential for a Brave New World with all kinds of access to all kinds of books for all kinds of people. Unprecedented access is already here. Even more is possible. But come on, publishers, show a little respect. Step up and take as much pride in your electronic product as you do in your paper one. Then you’ll have me for a customer, hook, line and sinker.