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Books Technology

Are Programmers Ruining the Design of eBooks? 470

An anonymous reader writes "The Toronto Review of Books claims that the majority of digital books are awful because major publishers are handing over the design work to programmers, not artists and editors. This results in the 'typographical horrors' typical of so many eBooks, and hundreds of 'lackluster' iPad adaptations. 'Programmers are suddenly being given free reign to design books,' the article laments. 'Most publishers don't care about the iPad or eBooks very much... which may be an aesthetic rejection based on the publisher's historical reverence for the printed page.' Don't we deserve better eBooks?"
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Are Programmers Ruining the Design of eBooks?

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  • Amusing (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @09:50AM (#38650042)

    (Posting AC because I'm at work and I don't log into websites from work...)

    I find it amusing that the article linked for this story has some atrocious typography of its own. In today's day and age of CSS3, that sort of leading on the internet is simply unacceptable. If you're going to complain about the typography in ebooks, perhaps you'd like to get your own website in order first.

    • Re:Amusing (Score:5, Informative)

      by snowgirl ( 978879 ) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @10:09AM (#38650228) Journal

      (Posting AC because I'm at work and I don't log into websites from work...)

      I find it amusing that the article linked for this story has some atrocious typography of its own. In today's day and age of CSS3, that sort of leading on the internet is simply unacceptable. If you're going to complain about the typography in ebooks, perhaps you'd like to get your own website in order first.

      Perhaps, because the Toronto Book Review isn't the one who said it, and it was actually Chris Stevens the author of Alice for the iPad who said it?

    • Re:Amusing (Score:5, Funny)

      by gnapster ( 1401889 ) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @10:17AM (#38650324)

      I find it amusing that the article linked for this story has some atrocious typography of its own.

      Really? What I see is a single sentence in a black serifed font on a white page. No ads; nothing. It is beautiful:

      Error establishing a database connection

    • Re:Amusing (Score:4, Insightful)

      by _0xd0ad ( 1974778 ) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @11:34AM (#38651324) Journal

      I find it amusing that the article linked for this story has some atrocious typography of its own.

      No, that's just what happens when you let an artist choose the typography rather than a programmer. They want you to appreciate the article as art, not process it as information. You don't "read" it, you "experience" it.

  • Cost-cutting (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tripleevenfall ( 1990004 ) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @09:51AM (#38650052)

    This is a symptom of the down economy, but also of the must-make-earnings-or-else management style.

    PHB's don't see design and development as needing different skillets, they just see two jobs that can be consolidated into one. If you have a programmer who does a B+ job programming and a C- job on design, eliminate the design, produce a C+ product, and then go tell your C*O you eliminated positions without impacting productivity.

    • Re:Cost-cutting (Score:4, Insightful)

      by realsilly ( 186931 ) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @09:58AM (#38650124)

      It goes beyond simple cost cutting measures. Project managers don't really see the benefit of good artistic design and layout. It is rare indeed that a programmer has the artistic eye for design and are a great programmer. They do exist, and those that are really great at what they do have set a precedent of sorts. As managers try to find cost cutting measures that still provide a product worth selling, but if the manager doesn't have an artistic sense then that manager will hold little to no value in a designer. They don't see value added work. But the reality is quite the opposite. A great design can help sell a product because it is visually pleasing to the eye.

      Look at banking web pages for example, they are designed pretty nicely and are very functional.

      • It is rare indeed that a programmer has the artistic eye for design and are a great programmer.

        Is it really that rare, or are you just looking for love in all the wrong places?

        John Brockman: the man with a three digit speed dial []

        I quickly realised, but did not articulate, something the anthropologist Gregory Bateson told me 10 years later: that of all our human inventions, economic man was by far the dullest.

        We've had superlative typography since the 1980s, but instead the world standardized on Widow Maker

  • by neokushan ( 932374 ) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @09:52AM (#38650064)

    Most publishers don't care about the iPad or eBooks very much

    There's your problem right there. It's not the programmer's fault if he hasn't been given an artist or designer to work with. If you give an unqualified person a job to do and they do a shitty job, it's your fault, not theirs. Either get someone qualified in, or give them the necessary training.

    • by EdZ ( 755139 ) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @09:57AM (#38650120)
      The programmer is probably just as pissed as the user. Imagine designing an ebook format with built in dynamic page breaks, line breaks, columns, tabs, etc so the text can reform on-the-fly for different aspect ratios and text sizes while maintaining formatting. Now imaging the publisher insists of just hitting enter 20 times between chapters and formatting columns by pressing the space bar a lot each line.
    • Most publishers don't care about *Books* very much

      Every penny they spend on typesetting and layout is a penny lost in (very meagre) profit ...

      • Every penny they spend on typesetting and layout is a penny lost in (very meagre) profit ...

        Spare me. I've looked at the numbers book publishers put out, and they're obviously full of shit. Did you know even textbook publishers, those guys who think 200 hours of editing and new material between printings justifies a new $220 edition every three years, swear up and down that they make a 1% profit?

        1 fucking percent? Are they joking? What other non-commodity business makes 1% and survives? For that matter, almost no commodity businesses make that little, either.

        Furthermore, if 1% was true, the

    • by JaredOfEuropa ( 526365 ) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @10:45AM (#38650650) Journal
      Spot on. The truth of this becomes apparent when you're reading ebooks that are straight conversions to PDF or ePub. No programmers were directly involved in the conversion, yet these books are often rife with typographical glitches and lexical errors that are clearly the result of OCR errors being incorrectly fixed by the spelling checker. This sloppiness is particularly common in ebooks of older publications, even those from reputable publishers.
  • Management failure (Score:5, Insightful)

    by plopez ( 54068 ) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @09:53AM (#38650072) Journal

    Probably what is happening is that management is trying to go cheap on labor. I can see the attitude in my mind. Someone says "Why do we need designers when we can just have the programmers throw it on the eBook for free?"The same thing happened with websites for years, before people realized how important good design really is.

    • by JasterBobaMereel ( 1102861 ) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @10:21AM (#38650346)

      What makes you think programmers are doing the eBook version, they already have the text in electronic format, they just get the Office lackey to use a quick and dirty program to turn it into an eBook ...

      The issue is that no-one is writing a program to convert into the eBook formats that cares about typesetting ...

  • by shic ( 309152 ) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @09:57AM (#38650118)

    I don't want specific media for ebooks. I want an ebook device that accurately displays the printed page.

    Where's my A4 300+DPI E-ink tablet that's been promised 'just around the corner' for years now.

  • by Patron ( 2242336 ) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @09:58AM (#38650134)
    I prefer my ebooks as .epub, thank you very much.
  • by shilly ( 142940 ) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @10:02AM (#38650178)

    The summary is more than usually dreadful. This was a thoughtful interview with the guy that designed the Alice in Wonderland app, ie someone who knows what he's talking about. And he's right.

  • by HBI ( 604924 ) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @10:24AM (#38650394) Journal

    It's about horseys, you see. []

  • "Given"? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Bob9113 ( 14996 ) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @10:28AM (#38650420) Homepage

    'Programmers are suddenly being given free reign to design books,' the article laments.

    Given? We're being "given" this?

    I don't know how it works in the ebook industry, but in my fifteen years of professional programming in a variety of other industries, I've found that when they "give" me free reign to design the UI, it really means they rejected my suggestion that they hire a designer (if they even asked).

    You're pointing at the wrong target, bud -- it's the chucklehead manager, with the designer clothes and designer watch, who thinks designers are a waste of money.

  • by Suki I ( 1546431 ) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @10:32AM (#38650474) Homepage Journal

    I found the whole process of converting my word document, which looked great when printed, into the Kindle format a total chore. It was so bad that I had my best friend finish it and publish it under his Kindle account. That was a couple of years ago and maybe things have changed. I guess having eBook readers read Word documents is too much of a leap.

    • by radtea ( 464814 ) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @11:54AM (#38651606)

      guess having eBook readers read Word documents is too much of a leap.

      You are correct. Word documents are not appropriate for eBook readers because Word layout is handled via some collection of ad hoc and not very clever heuristics. PDF "eBooks" are even more broken, as PDF uses static layout that is incompatible with font scaling and other features you'd like an eBook to have.

      ePub is XHTML and CSS with a few extra XML files for metadata. eBook readers are not much more than special-purpose Web browsers, which is sensible because layout is something Web browsers do really well. There is a problem that many eBook readers use a broken Adobe component for rendering, which simply doesn't work properly in many cases: for example, my Sony doesn't handle floating elements properly.

      If you want to create eBooks my recommendation is to export your Word doc to plain text, write some Python or the like to process that plain text into XHTML, and use Sigl to create an ePub. That's what I do and it works brilliantly, with the one exception that Sigl uses WebKit for rendering so it isn't broken like the broken Adobe component that breaks on eBook readers that use it. What I do is generate and test the correct CSS in Sigl and then test on the various e-reader applications (Adobe Digital Editions, Amazon Kindle for PC and a couple of others) and put in the required hacks to get the correct rendering on the broken ones (of which Adobe is by far the worst... why anyone would go to a company with no Web browser experience for an HTML rendering component is beyond me.)

      Better yet, you can skip Word entirely and write in plain text with your favourite editor (I use EMACS, myself). There is simply no advantage to a writer to using Word.

      With regard to TFA: bad book design is ubiquitous, and decent book design is easy. Not ever book requires a unique design, and the number of best practices required to get something that looks as good or better than the average printed page is not high.

  • by tigersha ( 151319 ) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @10:47AM (#38650678) Homepage

    That it. If I can get the damn Linux freaks who despise anything GUI to learn that one thing my users would be happy.

    There IS something about dressing things up too much, yes. But that does NOT mean that all style is a bad or useless thing.
    Say that again: Style vs Substance is NOT a Zero Sum Game

  • It comes in waves (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Peter H.S. ( 38077 ) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @10:50AM (#38650730) Homepage

    There have been several dips in typographic quality over the years, usually when the book industry transitions to a new technology or way of working. Going from Linotype machines to computer typesetting lead to some serious dips in typographic quality for a while. The dip was even more severe when printing was outsourced and most typographers was fired and replaced with layouters and designers. The desktop publishing (DTP) horrors from the late 1980's and 1990 also springs to mind. Usually it wasn't the new technology that was to blame, but that typographic knowledge got lost in the transition to the new technology because of cost cutting measures. The new technologies promised productivity improvements and lower cost through reduction in the workforce, but when the workforce is sacked, their knowledge disappear too.

    So it is no surprise that e-books etc. will introduce horrible sloppy typography with no sense of line length versus font size, weird line and word spacing, no knowledge of kerning, no reasoning behind the font used, or matching between text and font.

    But over time decent publishing houses will ensure at least some basic standard of typography for their e-books. There will probably not be a return to the high typographic standards of the 1950's early 1960's, but the default quality will be good and unobtrusive enough that it won't disturb the readers. However, the next group of knowledge workers in the firing line are the editors; when they are gone or reduced to merely salespeople, the text qualities of the books and e-books will drop to new low standards.


  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @11:06AM (#38650938) Journal
    Isn't merely discussing this topic running the grave risk of having the ghost of Donald Knuth come from the future, heavy with unutterable wrath, and smite us all?
  • Fixing my eBooks (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Frightened_Turtle ( 592418 ) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @11:08AM (#38650952) Homepage

    Yeah, this has been a pain in the ass for me. Ballantine Press (Random House imprint for Sci-fi & Fantasy) has really screwed up the typography on their ebooks. It is clear that there is absolutely no QA going on in the publishing houses. I have yet to buy an ebook from Ballantine that does not require editing of the ebook to make it readable.

    McCaffrey's The Dragonriders of Pern trilogy collection is in terrible shape. Typographical errors are bad enough, but the books are loaded with spelling errors as well. It was so bad, I actually wrote a letter of complaint to the publisher. I forked over good money for a story I enjoyed, and found it almost unreadable due to the problems. One of the worst examples was the place name "Ruatha". I found over twenty times when it was misspelled as "Ruath"--in one case, it was even misspelled on a page where they had the correct spelling in the following paragraph!

    Of a number of ebooks I've bought from Ballantine, I've had to break open the ebook files on all of them an edit the text and the CSS to correct the errors. It is clear to me that publishers have placed such a low priority on ebooks that they are willing to put out substandard product into the market without any quality control. In Piers Anthony's Xanth series, all it took was two tiny changes to the CSS to fix their typographical mistakes to make it a pleasure to read again.

    Example: In the CSS in some of the ebooks, I noted that they had listed paragraph indentation defined as pixels. Well, 15 pixels on an ebook reader are not the same size as 15 pixels on a computer screen or a smart phone display. Pixels are a subjective value where one device can have 300 pixels in an inch another can have just 72. It is better to define text indentation as an objective value such as 1 cm or 1.5 em so it gets indented properly, no matter the device that is displaying the text. By defining the indentation in pixels, the paragraph indentation in some ebooks was so minimal that the paragraphs just ran together and couldn't be differentiated.

    I find it ironic that the ebooks being sold by independent (e.g. self-published) authors to be flawless in their display while the ebooks from the big publishing houses with all their resources are all messed up.

  • by bcrowell ( 177657 ) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @11:45AM (#38651486) Homepage

    Since TFA is slashdotted, I'm just responding to what I could glean from the /. summary.

    The two most popular ebook formats (epub and mobi/azw) are both basically just a collection of html and css files put together into a zip file. The html is extremely limited. For example, in kindle (azw) format, all images are displayed in the center of the page. So, for example, if you want to put an equation rendered as a bitmap embedded in a paragraph of text, you basically can't do it. In most cases, you cannot use javascript. Creating an ebook is also exactly like writing html for the web in that you have to make it work on any device. For instance, a Kindle 2's screen is 260x311 and a Kindle DX is 372x511. You cannot embed fonts and know that it will work on all devices. (E.g., epub 2 allows fonts to be embedded using CSS2 @font-face rule, but the spec doesn't require devices to support it, and many don't.) The CPU on these things is designed for low power consumption, not for heavy processing.

    So, given these resources, there really isn't much that you can do creatively in designing an ebook. If it's a novel, it's pretty much going to look like all other novels. It's in a font that the hardware vendor optimized for legibility on that device.

    It's true that the formats are becoming more sophisticated. For example, epub 3 (which is not yet supported by any devices), includes mathml, which will allow math and science textbooks to be made into ebooks for the first time. Javascripts is coming.

    But be careful what you wish for, because you might get it. Are we really looking forward to reading Wuthering Heights formatted beautifully by a professional designed -- for a screen that's narrower than the one on our own device? How about opening a book and finding that the title of contents is an image, forcing you to guess where to click in order to start reading? How about animations that you can't skip? How about CPU-intensive features that freeze up your device for 30 seconds? What about fonts that looked great on the designer's device, but that look absolutely horrible on ours?

    And there are going to be compatibility nightmares that will make the browser wars look like a child's tea party. For example, epub 3 includes mathml, but it doesn't say that devices must support mathml, it just says that they can. So publishers will be selling one version of a calculus textbook for the Nook 17xi (which supports mathml), but a different version for the Nook 16lx (which doesn't) -- and of course an eyeball-bleeding epub 2 version for "legacy" devices, like that Nook 14 that you bought way back in 2014. Oh, you switched to an iPad? Cool, but you find out that the epub 3+mathml version of the book that you bought for your Nook doesn't work on your iPad, because Apple hasn't gotten around to implementing mathml. But you can buy an iPad version instead, only $187!

    • It's up and down. Hit refresh and you might get it. Or might just contribute more to the Slashdotting.

      Word of advice, though: if it does load, turn off styles; it's nearly unreadable unless you do (Firefox: View - Page Style - No Style).

  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @01:14PM (#38652702) Homepage

    The article in the Toronto Review of Books has at least three spelling errors and typos, including the common error "free reign" instead of "free rein". (That's supposed to be a horse term.) The body text is in a sans-serif font, while the headings are in a serif font. The body leading is huge, almost double-spaced. This publication is in no position to talk about layout. Besides, how much good layout can you do on a tiny screen that updates slowly?

    As for the eBook Alice, colorizing the Tenniel illustrations is bad enough, and animating them is just tacky. What next, 3D []? If you want a good version of Alice, get The Annotated Alice [], which is not currently available as an eBook and would look terrible on the tiny screen.

Single tasking: Just Say No.