Formatting Pleasant eBooks

Lion's Way bio photo By Lion's Way

As a concept, the electronic book is a grand idea. In execution, it has been a slow starter. For over a decade now, people have been creating Portable Document Format (PDF) documents and sharing them digitally. Digital books can have a ton of advantages:

  • They are easy to transport.  A 1,000 page document doesn’t make your laptop any heavier.
  • They are “green,” not requiring paper.
  • The reader can use the “find” button to browse for particular information.
  • They are easy to publish.

However, the readers notoriously eliminate most of these advantages by hitting the print button.  Bam – They take the “e” out of “ebook.” It is not the reader’s fault.  Most ebooks are just not that convenient.  Most are not layed out in a useable, screen friendly way.

Design Principles for a Great eBook Format

We Word Lions want to make an ebook that works. We talked long and vociferously about how to make the perfect ebook format.  It was an amazing scene:  demitasse cups strewn across the table, laptops beeping low battery warnings, and a dry erase board turned solid ink. Word Lions in development mode is a sight to see.

We came up with some principles to guide the format of our ebooks:

  1. Don’t mess with a good thing. The PDF format is ubiquitous and easy to use.  Authors like PDF because it preserves formatting such as fonts and layout no matter where the document is opened.  Readers appreciate that there is  a reader for every operating system and, well, it works.  Although there are a lot of interesting format options out there, PDF is going to be the easiest for your audience.
  2. Use the medium for the message. PDF allows for both internal links to bookmarks within the document and external links to websites.  You can also create forms that the user can fill out.
  3. Some like paper, some like screen.  I am a great lover of paper and do often commit to the print button.  We could create a document that looks great on the screen but prints out as an unholy mess.  You can see this if you try to print out an informative web page.  They often break oddly across pages and columns. If the user needs to print the document, in whole or part, give them something they can use.

The first two are pretty easy.  We adopted the PDF format and decided to not place digital controls on the files so that they are easy to use and move around.  Since we know we are writing for an electronic format, we can include links and utilize forms.  The bigger challenge was the third:  Making a document that would bridge the digital divide, be both paper and screen friendly.  Not just an eBook, but a uBook:  The ÜberBook format.

All Things to All People:

Word Lions Press üBook Template

In the old days (5 years ago) computer screens were basically square, in the same ratio as our old televisions.  Maximizing the use of that screen for text was tricky. Since it was not at all comparable to the dimensions of a piece of paper, something that looked good on the screen would not print well.  Conversely, something that prints well would not look good on the screen. Old PDFs are designed for good old 8 1/2 x 11.  As a result, they are a pain to read on the screen.  Thus the tendency of readers to head to the print button.

"Portrait" formatting of a PDF on a screen.

Nowadays, modern computers have a screen that is wider than it is tall… just about the dimensions of an 8 1/2 x 11 page.  We created a 2 column format that is highly readable on the screen but can also be printed and read in landscape (standard paper turned sideways) format.

The Word Lions uBook format. Click for full size image.

Particularly since we aim to provide useful manuals for small business people who are not necessarily computer masters, we like the flexibility of the format.  In addition, two narrower columns has been shown to be far easier to read.

As we do on a lot of our projects, the übook utilizes different fonts and colors to cue the reader:  The red text (which prints as a distinctive gray on black and white printers) is our “Take Action” text that directs the user to perform steps.  Black text is informative.  We also use boxes to identify special tips or extra information.

Philip and I are pretty proud of the format.  What do you think of it?  Have you seen other ebook formats in the wild that address the design principles above?