Just what is an e-book anyway? Part three

This is part three of an in-depth look at e-book files. See Part one and Part two.

So, we’ve looked at the functionality of an e-book file and have taken a closer look at the inside of an e-book. Great. But, how does this affect writers? How do we approach e-book design to maximize all these awesome reader-controlled functions?

The cardinal rule of e-book design

The design of an e-book, IMO, should never impede the e-reader’s built-in custom options unless absolutely necessary. A reader’s ability to customize their e-book experience is one of the main benefits of e-books versus printed books.

Think of a reader who has a visual impairment and needs to make the text large in order to be able to read. Or, a reader with partial color blindness who needs to be able to change the text and background colors in order to read. If these custom functions don’t work as expected in your e-book file, then these readers will not be able to read your book.

When I started working on e-books, my biggest paradigm shift was letting go of what the page looked like. As a designer, I want to make each page pristine (controlling the font, the font size, the line and page breaks, etc). It took me a while to let go of control on the page level and begin to focus on the structure of the book. I learned quickly that e-books can look vastly different from e-reader to e-reader depending on screen size, e-reader operating system (OS), file type, the reader’s custom options (like font size, font face, background and text colors, orientation), and if and how an e-reader can interpret custom embedded fonts in your e-book file.

Let’s look at the definition of ‘graphic design’ for a moment. I think this definition from The Association of Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario says it best:

“Graphic Design is an interdisciplinary, problem solving activity, which combines visual sensitivity with skill and knowledge in areas of communications, technology, and business. Graphic design practitioners specialize in the structuring and organizing of visual information to aid communication and orientation.”

Let’s look at the three knowledge areas the RGD talk about in their definition as they relate to e-book design.


Really, a graphic designer’s job is not to make pretty pages, but to structure the content in a way that makes the content easier (or more enjoyable) to read and comprehend. Once the core functionality of reading is addressed, then the designer can look at making the content visually pleasing.

Not only do we have to consider dozens of different devices, we also have to accommodate a least two different sets of specifications. There’s been a lot written about EPUB3 and KF8 in the past 18 to 24 months, how great it’s supposed to make the e-book reading experience…and it does, but not on all devices or on all platforms. Some reading platforms have been slow to adapt to EPUB3/KF8 and backwards compatibility has been challenging. Readers are not upgrading their devices as quickly as forecast. This leaves publishers in the difficult position of supporting both specifications in one file.

If you want more info on EPUB3 and KF8, I wrote a blog post about the testing I did with these formats.

Nate Hoffelder writes a realistic blog post on the current status of EPUB3.

What are the business impacts? Not all these impacts are negative, some may be positive, depending on your product, target market and situation.

Say you want to develop an e-book product catering only to EPUB3 and KF8 devices. First, that would limit the number of online reseller partners you can choose from. Second, that decision would narrow your target market. Third, customers purchasing your book, not realizing it’s intended for new devices only, could complain to the reseller that the product doesn’t work. If your product gets too many complaints, your reseller may drop it. And, there’s the possible negative effects on your personal brand from unhappy readers.

OK, then you want the best of both worlds…looks great in EPUB3/KF8 and works on older devices. To my knowledge, there is no easy (automated) way to test e-book files on all e-readers other than looking at that file on that device and testing. There are software programs that will approximate the view of some devices (here’s a good list from PressBooks) but these are not 100% accurate. To accurately test means buying all the major devices, and taking the time to review the file on each device, documenting issues and unexpected results. Then comes the revisions to try to address those issues. Then more testing, then more revisions. And so on, and so on.

Amazon has an interesting solution to this problem, which also adds to their bottom line. In most of their plug-ins (like the export to Kindle plug-in for InDesign) the software writes two separate files, one for older kindles, and one for KF8 compatible kindles and compresses them together in one MOBI file. This creates larger file sizes. Most authors I work with prefer the 70% royalty option, where delivery fees are charged based on the file size. The larger the file size, the more profit for Amazon.

The next option would be to create a fixed format e-book, so we can control each page. This means removing all the e-books ability to reflow text, disabling many of the customizable features of the e-book for the reader. Fixed format e-books are great for books that rely heavily on large photos/illustrations like comic books, children’s books, cookbooks and some non-fiction books, but come with trade-offs that your audience may or may not appreciate.

For now, I advise the authors I work with to focus on the functionality of the file for all readers. This means removing design elements that could be interfere with the e-reader customizable options, or could be misinterpreted by the device. These elements include embedded fonts, some images, drop caps, first line treatments and very large or small font sizes.

I hope you enjoyed this closer look at e-book files. Agree? Disagree? Comment below. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Is there a topic you have been meaning to research and just haven’t got the time? Comment below or send me an email…let me know what you want to know. I’ll do the research for you and write about it in a future blog post.

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