On Formats and Friction

MCMMonday, September 7, 2009

I'm not going to play the blame game, but it's all @shutsumon's fault this post exists. The question is: what do we need out of an ebook format?

Note: Liza Daly rightly points out that my argument is with the implementations of ePub, and not the standard itself. I most agree with that sentiment, upon reflection. Mostly :)

Let me state up front that I think all the current formats suck beyond words. We live in a world where a web app can behave just like a really fancy desktop app... where onscreen design can easily surpass what is economical in print design, and where a great many devices (desktops and smartphones at least) have enough raw power to get the job done. And yet we're stuck with something akin to a spit-and-polish version of the Mosaic browser. For those of you who don't know, that is a VERY OLD BROWSER. My eyes bleed just thinking about it :)

The problem is this: epub (the heir-apparent to print) is a horribly crippled format. It offers so little support for CSS (styling) that you can't really specify anything beyond italics and bold, and maybe the occasional header. Something as fundamental as small-caps isn't supported. It's clearly "design by coder", where the imperative is on creating something stripped-down, functional, and verifiable. The less crud, the better. Function before form... and hell, if we can just get rid of the form altogether, that's even better!

The problem with this is that it removes the beauty from books. Choosing the right font, the margins, the spacing, all that stuff... it seems like a pretty mundane thing, but having it done right is part of the reading experience. It's not just for fun, either. If you get the balance wrong, you'll reduce the comfort level of reading, and subtly push your audience away. Design is a complex science dedicated to making everything seem simple. Epub assumes none of that matters, and the user should be in charge of changing all aspects of their reading experience on a whim. It seems like a nice ideal, but it's like letting a child decide how many chocolate chips go into their cookies: they'll toss so many in the bowl that they'll make themselves sick.

Now of course designers will say the solution is to let them design the books themselves, and they'll probably be expecting to hand-craft each page one at a time. But when you have a file being read on a Kindle, then an iPhone, then a desktop browser, then a desktop browser on a 29" screen, or a tiny mobile screen... you can't really design that easily. Text needs to re-flow, so fine-tuned typography is a thing of the past.

How do you design for a page that can change shape and size and scale at any time? How are margins figured? Can we say that each page has left and right margins equal to 1/8 the size of the page? Is that safe? Is the formula more complex? How about line spacing? Should we set it by the number of lines onscreen at a time, or by some other measure? If we have a graphical treatment to the page, does it scale to fit the page, or does it re-align itself? If it scales, how does it scale (if the page is much taller than expected, does it repeat, or just stretch, or...) Is there a way to design a book in such a way that it is truly cross-platform, or is that asking too much?

Coders will say none of this matters. The benefit of epub is that we leave all that behind. But truly great design won't happen in the format until it's possible, which means — despite any tendencies towards being the MP3 of the literary world — the format won't really take off. What needs to happen is for the coders behind epub to stop using this as a second chance to right the wrongs of the CSS revolution (where they lost control of the web to the designer hordes) and try to come up with a clear, precise, validatable methodology that lets designers have room to play. If you don't define the tools, they'll come up with something crazy on their own, and you'll spend the next 10 years trying to make it make sense.

Personally, what I want out of epub is this:

  • full CSS support
  • embeddable fonts (via @font-face, already in CSS)
  • a switch to change elements when the device only supports black and white
  • reducing the customizability in readers like Stanza, so well-developed design concepts can't be trod on willy-nilly
  • finding an open-minded typographer to re-imagine how ebooks should look, keeping in mind the limitations of the medium, and use that as an example of what SHOULD be done.

How about you? What do YOU want to see in the perfect ebook format?

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