Are ebooks ugly, and has the book industry got it wrong?

Anyone who has tried to create an ebook from a source that uses sidebars, tables and other layout devices will know that the current ebook formats such as .epub, mobipocket, etc can become very challenging and even look plain ugly. They’re fine for long slabs of text with occasional pictures and headings, but give them anything more complex and they can end up looking like they’ve gone through the mixer.

So you’ll understand where Dave Thomas is coming from with this article from his Pragmatic Programmer blog. It deals neatly with this topic, in his case with regard to the challenges of setting technical books in ebook formats. And he has some useful samples that show the same layout done using PDF, HTML and mobi/Kindle to give you a feel for just what the limitations of these systems are.

It’s an important issue that we certainly hope will see some work done in the near future to solve it – although many would argue it’s already been solved and perhaps it’s just the book guys who haven’t ‘got it’. PDF still works fine as do systems that have come from the magazine world such as Zinio (PDF based – if you want to try out a book using Zinio, go to their free classics site) and Texterity (with the SVG graphic format underlying it), and a number of others.

This raises the question: Are the book publishers and sellers coming at this problem of digital publishing with the wrong thinking? The trend in any media seems to be for it to get richer, more graphical and colourful as it develops. Even books, though they’re the last bastion of vanilla black and white, are succumbing to more and more sophistication in their presentation. So why are the ebook standards so limited?

I think there’s probably going to be a place for ‘plain’ books for many years to come. You arguably don’t need the extra ‘bells and whistles’ to enjoy a good novel, and the pure economics of short-run niche books demands low cost production and distribution methods for their survival. So if the paper world needs, and can support, these two requirements, perhaps the e-world needs to too.

In the meantime, if you’re planning on e-publishing, you’ll have to to consider your tools, and their limitations, carefully as you work out just how to tackle this brave new world and make a buck along the way.

In case you’re now despairing that ebooks are heading in the wrong direction, you might also check out this article from Jon Norling on the Teleread blog in defence of the .epub standard. I’m not sure it overcomes the immediate concerns publishers might have. While epub can already do more than many publishers are using it for, it’s probably too unfriendly and technically challenging at the moment to take advantage of its finer points. But Norling’s article points out that the technical underpinnings of the .epub standard are sound and give it room to accommodate many of these more sophisticated needs as it develops.

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