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December 10, 2012

Mission: Impossible? Consistently good ebook formatting across devices

Your mission, should you decide to accept it: distribute content as ebooks.

Scriptorium—along with many other publishers and companies—has accepted that mission. But I’m starting to think that ensuring consistent, attractive formatting of ebooks across the legion of ereaders and apps just isn’t possible.

Scriptorium has distributed EPUB and Kindle versions of many titles, including the recent Content Strategy 101. Even after testing formatting of the EPUB and Kindle files for that book in emulators and on multiple devices and apps, we still get messages from people who are nice enough to tell us, “You know, the formatting in <insert section name> is weird on <insert name of ereader device or app>.”

I really appreciate people taking the time to let us know about these issues, and we can often make fixes. Other times, however, there is no easy fix because the problem may be a quirk with a particular ereader or its settings. There are also cases where a modification improves the appearance on one device but degrades the formatting on another.

So, what are ebook distributors to do? I think the best they can do is to create ebook files that adhere as closely as possible to specs and industry standards and to then test, test, test those files on as many devices as they can. (That said, the existence of EPUB specs doesn’t mean the various EPUB readers accommodate all of specs, much less render the content the same way.)

When formatting looks strikingly different on two devices, try to find some middle ground that displays acceptably but not necessarily beautifully on both devices. If you know your ebooks will be viewed primarily on particular devices, you can optimize formatting for those devices, but you better be very sure you’re targeting the right devices.

This ebook formatting dilemma parallels another unpleasant reality encountered by anyone who has put together web pages: the browser wars, which still are raging based on Scriptorium’s experience on a current project. When viewing HTML output generated from a DITA Open Toolkit plugin we developed, we discovered one particular browser (take a wild guess as to which one) mangled formatting that looked great on other browsers. We would have loved to tell that browser to take a hike, but we couldn’t because it’s the primary browser used by many of our client’s customers.

The ereader wars are in their infancy. I won’t even attempt to prognosticate what the ereader landscape will look like in the coming months (much less years), but the chances of all the ereader folks getting together to discuss unified formatting on all devices are ZERO. (And don’t even get me started on how the myriad devices and apps from Amazon display Kindle files differently.)

As an ebook distributor, I plan to continue to test on as many devices as I can and to be grateful when readers lets us know about formatting quirks. Getting that reader feedback makes the impossible at least somewhat tolerable.

Join me on April 11, 2013, for a free webcast, during which I’ll talk about these display issues and other realities of distributing ebooks:

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P.S. Choose whichever Mission: Impossible theme you prefer to accompany this post: