Mission: Impossible? Consistently good ebook formatting across devices

Alan Pringle / Opinion6 Comments

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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About the Author

Alan Pringle

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Content strategy consulting. Publishing (electronic and print). Eating (preferably pastries and chocolate). COO at Scriptorium.

6 Comments on “Mission: Impossible? Consistently good ebook formatting across devices”

  1. It is great that folks email you (the publisher) about the inconsistencies… but they *really* need to contact their eReader vendor. Until enough people complain to the device manufacturers, there’s no incentive for them to adhere to a standard…. which, as you point out, makes it very hard for publishers to produce quality deliverables for all platforms.

    Imagine what would happen in the the music industry if each device implemented the MP3 standard slightly differently!

    1. Rick, I agree, but it probably doesn’t occur to many people that their devices–for which they may have paid a tidy sum–could be the cause of formatting problems. Understandably, they think the 99 cent (or $9.99 or whatever) ebook file is the culprit.

      Also, as long as device makers perceive there is a financial advantage to not following standards, they will continue to flout them. That is what I find the most irritating as a publisher.

  2. Good article, Alan. I had a similar dilemma when testing various ebook creation software on some complex Word documents. What would look fine in Calibre, for example, would look awful on my Android phone even though it was meant to look the same. As the time taken to test on all possible devices to get something that emulates the original document’s content is just too great (not including the cost of purchasing and maintaining these multiple devices), my conclusion was that PDF is the best ‘quick and dirty’ option to preserve as much formatting and complex content as possible. That sounds like heresy, right? But when you have thousands of Word docs, and likely only admin assistants to convert them, PDF becomes a very viable option. See my blog post on my testing and how I arrived at my conclusion: http://cybertext.wordpress.com/2012/08/27/more-about-creating-ebooks-from-word-documents/

    –Rhonda

    1. Rhonda, you had very specific requirements (which were thoroughly considered, based on what I read in your post), and you made a decision based on those requirements. PDF was the better fit.

      I shudder to think how awful your complex Word tables converted to EPUB. Probably best left unseen.

  3. Hi Alan,

    Good focused article. I think that this is a problem that is only going to get much worse before it gets better with the ever increasing array of platforms now available – just how many can one test on? This is particularly true when you’re producing eBooks that are more than just simple words and spaces – though that in itself is sometimes a problem, even when using the same reader app on different tablets. Certainly complex tables, lists and other specific formatting items introduces its own set of cross-platform problems.

    One can only hope that the continuous improvement in the firmware of the various platforms will ease the situation, ongoing adoption of HTML5/CSS3 etc. will also help, but as we have all experienced in past cross browser issues, we still have a way to go.

    By the way, thank you to Rhonda for her post on the issues she experienced with her Word file work.

    1. Mike, our ebooks are relatively straightforward: paragraphs, lists, and some tables (but not very complex ones). No fixed layouts. Even with these simpler books, there are still formatting inconsistencies. The thought of those issues getting worse is depressing.

      FWIW, we have been so disgusted with how badly Kindle e-ink devices handle even simple tables, we opted not to publish one table-filled book in Kindle format. We have an upcoming title that is full of tables, and it may not make it to Kindle format, either. Pretty sad when the limitations of a device drive publishing decisions, but I’m not going to force a square peg in a round hole. Not worth it.

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