We are honored to have been invited to post on the Book Designer on the subject of ebooks — a subject I love talking about, having been designing ebooks since 2010. (In this industry that makes me practically an old-timer.)
There are lots of very complex questions when it comes to ebooks:
- text and image formattingus workflows for creating ebooks,
- and much more.
For this post, before we get into the more esoteric issues of ebook design and publishing, We’d like to start by defining the subject: just what is an ebook?
This may sound like a very simple question to answer, but it isn’t as straightforward as you might think, and being able to answer it correctly will make many of the thornier issues of creating ebooks just a bit easier.
If we were to ask most folks to answer that question they’d probably say that an ebook is a digital file for reading text on a digital device — a computer, tablet, or smart phone. And that answer would be true, so far as it went.
Unfortunately, that definition would cover a wide variety of documents that aren’t ebooks. A Microsoft Word file, for example, is a great way to compose and share formatted text — heck, you can even add images and hyperlinks, just like an ebook.
Word docs, however, are by definition meant for writing and editing the text, not for distributing it commercially. We don’t want our readers rewriting sections of our books without our permission, do we? If they don’t like what we’ve written, fine; they can write their own books!
A kind of digital file that is frequently referred to as an ebook but that isn’t is the PDF — the now-universal Portable Digital File format that Adobe invented as a way of distributing print documents digitally. Not only is it how we share our own personal documents (letters, etc.) through the internet, but it’s how publishers have been transferring print-ready files to commercial printers for decades. How is that not an ebook, you ask?
The PDF isn’t truly an ebook because it retains its format no matter the size of the screen that displays it. It will always be an accurate representation of the paper document that it represents — on a 27″ monitor, on a 13″ laptop display, on an 9.7″ iPad screen, or a 4.8″ Galaxy s3 phone.
The basic unit for a PDF is the page. And so as the screen shrinks, so does the page size, and with it the size of the words, and with them both the readability. Anyone who’s tried to read a PDF on a small screen knows what I mean.
Characteristics of an eBook
What a true ebook, then, does, is to present correctly formatted text and images no matter the size of the screen it’s being displayed on. In order to do this, ebooks get rid of the idea of a page; the text will format to flow properly, and when one screen is full, will flow to the next — that is, they are reflowable.
Images will resize (if the book has been properly designed) to the proportions of the screen. We deally the book will be attractive and easy to read on any device — and because each software application for reading ebooks has some reader controls, some whose vision is no longer as strong as it once was (like, say, me) can make it larger, while someone who doesn’t like serif fonts can have the book display in sans-serif or, heck, Zapfino (don’t try this at home). And this can all be done without changing the ebook itself — the changes are simply user preferences within the app.
To give an idea of what I mean, here is a photo of the same book displayed on a number of different devices — just the ones that we happened to have on our desk: