digital books


I wrote this as a reflection of my thoughts whilst designing and coding a kindle e-book for Gerry Jones (Liverpool Musician). The word that springs to mind is compromise, especially when books have already been published in hard copy.

E-books and mobile websites are the latest formats that designers need to work with, and I believe that whatever format we work with initially whether it be print, large screen or reduced size electronic publication we must take into account all the permutations that our work may eventually be used in and design accordingly if we are to achieve some measure of compatibility across these diverse formats.

What is a Digital Book

I will attempt to discuss the difference in digital formats and how these impact on decisions about reading devices and the design of eBooks. Digital books come in two formats - fixed and flowable - below are images of each format viewed on a Kindle E Ink device.

Fixed format (Adobe PDF)

By changing the percentage (oval) the amount of space occupied by the text (rectangle) on the screen increases from the top left, however it is now impossible to read a complete sentence without moving something, this is similar to using a magnifying glass to read a large sheet, not that comfortable.

Flowable format (Kindle Book)

By changing the font size (circle) the amount of space occupied by a paragraph (rectangle) on the screen increases or decreases allowing the reader to view ALL the text comfortably.

I can, perhaps, make the following approximate statements:

  • A fixed format is more suited to large screens such as those of desktop, laptop or large netbook computers with 10"+ (25cm+) screens, pages will be viewed comfortably at somewhere near the print size of the document.
  • A flowable format is in its own class on handheld devices with screens in the 6" (15cm) to 10" (25cm) range, these include Apple iPads, Kindles, Samsung Galaxy Tabs amongst others.
  • On small handheld devices such as smartphones the digital book could be read but to achieve a comfortable reading size there would be very few words on a line, this would be OK for quick reference but would be uncomfortable if reading War and Peace.
  • Any digital device which has 'text to speech' features (built in or as an add-on app) can be used to listen to a digital book, no limitation on screen size! However beware, some some publishers block this option through DRM (Digital Rights Management).

With a fixed format book it is possible to have a layout that incorporates text and images (and perhaps commentary) or uses multiple columns. The image to the right is simply there to show an example of fixed format and this text can be considered a link to that image, imagine that in a flowable format if all the text on this page was increased in size, this paragraph would end up on the next page where possibly there is another image to the left that has absolutely no relation to this paragraph.

Whilst there is some movement in the eBook realm towards fixed/flowable content it will, in the immediate future, be hit and miss.

With a flowable format book it is you the reader who is in charge, you decide on the type of device that you are going to read the book on, the font-size that you feel comfortable with and whether you view the book in b/w or colour (this depends on your choice of device).

If the editor of your eBook has done more than simply convert the book from its print version your reading experience could be pleasurable, however as is often the case, there is a rush towards the new media as a new form of income with little thought to whether the subject matter is really suitable. Take for example a cookbook, in the print version there would probably be many photos with text next to them, in a flowable format if you enlarge the text the photo stays the same size, this means that the text slips away from the photo, making it necessary to flip back a screen to see the photo then forwards to continue reading, we have been told that new technology will simplify our lives, getting cramp from flicking forwards and backwards does not seem to fit that bill.

A print cookbook in the kichen and we spill liquid on it, we might ruin a £10.00 book, an £8.00 eBook version with a £150 device, the eBook will be OK (we download it from the cloud), liquid on electronics usually amounts to a loss of the device, we could afford to ruin 15+ print books in this scenario.

Let us look at another scenario, a long train journey, you have a number of novels that interest you and a few magazines to catch up on, if you take the print versions it will mean a bigger bag (and bigger muscles), not so with your favourite eBook device which weighs little more than 40 sheets of 80gsm paper, it can probably store more than 250,000 pages with access to even more from the cloud, wow!!! that's technology for you.

Therefore, when choosing beween devices and formats for digital books, the following could be considered when deciding.

Fixed format

  • Devices with resonable sized screens (laptops or netbooks).
  • Books that contain images or photos.
  • Books that you need to reference.
  • Books that you wish to annotate (larger screens easier for the fingers to select text).

Flowable format

  • Devices with smaller sized screens for portability.
  • Books that contain mostly text.
  • Magazines, newspapers etc..., their publishers have, in the main, taken into account screen sizes and have adapted competently to the new media.

If in doubt and on a limited budget, a possible option could be a 11" (25cm) netbook/notebook to complement a smartphone (the screens are getting bigger).

Create a Digital Book

If you have read the preceding pages (if you haven't please do!) and you wish to create a digital book, they may have left you confused or they could have given you a push towards publishing in one format over the other, only you know what type of book you wish to share with the world.

If you decide to go with fixed format, it has one benefit not mentioned, but which could be important, this format is the same as for printed books, you could therefore with little extra effort on your part publish both print & digital versions without worrying about the design and typefaces being lost when publishing in flowable format.

Let us examine the eBook or flowable format - eBook means electronic (digital) book, which can include both of the formats, though there is tendency to talk of eBooks as those published in flowable format by Amazon (Kindle), Apple (iBooks) or Barnes & Noble (Nook) amongst others.

eBooks are not only published in different file formats but they can be read on a multitude of devices, each device can have not only a different screen size but a different screen resolution and aspect ratio.

In the images the aspect ratios have been inversed to correlate the screen resolution and the ratio, normally they would be 4:3 and 16:10 - Cathode TVs and monitors were 4:3 and new generation flat screens for computers 16:10 (flat TV screens 16:9) - these are but three of the many different aspect ratios from the multitude of screens on offer in the marketplace, thus designing ebooks means making decisions on image size which will work approximately on all different screen sizes.

It is these variables that make it very difficult to incorporate images or tables that remain relevant to the text, it also means that an image that is large on one device will appear smaller on another, so what starts out looking pretty can become something that looks like it was thrown into the mix without much thought, this will be frustrating as you will have given every aspect of your book the greatest consideration possible.

In creating for an eBook the word that will surely spring to mind is compromise.

In deciding to publish because of format incompatabilities it is important to decide where you are going to upload your tome, the two biggest companies are Apple and Amazon, they cannot be called publishers as they do not involve themselves in the content, nor give editing advice, basically you do all the work and they take a royalty (on sales) for your book being on their site.

Given that there is little difference on the surface between these two, let us dig a liitle under the surface. Apples market tend towards the younger generation, whilst Amazon Kindle sales are larger with the 50-70 year old demographic. Both companies sell all the bestsellers so the sites are visited by millions of potential buyers, they also use a DRM system which limits their use on other systems. Amazon, however, does produce apps for reading books sold through them for most devices on the market - Kindle for PC, Kindle for Mac, Kindle for Android and others, this also means that someone can start reading on their Kindle and continue on another device which will know which page they stopped on.

Besides Apple devotees, the logical choice is probably Amazon, so let us look a little deeper at what this involves. Any research will tell you that that submission of books can be in a number of formats, the most obvious being Word documents.

The only format that really matters is HTML the language used to construct web pages, most eBooks are published in this format. The HTML for these books is simpler than that used in the modern day web page, which means the design possibilities are limited. On an E Ink device chapter headings are largish and body text are smaller and the fonts available are limited. Simplicity is the order of the day, so don't make use of all the bells and whistles that are available in modern day text/DTP programmes.

Below are images of a simple book previewed in three different Kindle devices showing the design problems with this media. The three devices have different screen size, resolution and aspect ratio (and these are only three of many).

The preceding pages have concentrated on the design constraints of the flowable format, these should help you understand and adapt to this new media. The concepts are different but with a little thought in advance it will be possible to produce a design that works across the print, fixed and flowable formats, by planning in advance it will be possible to keep the compromises to a minimum.The links that follow will hopefully explain the technical issues raised in this module and guide you to those pages which will help you with the act of publishing your book.


Graphics display resolution (Wikipedia)
Comparison of e-book formats (Wikipedia)
An electronic book (Wikipedia)
Which is the best format for ebooks? (The Guardian)
Ebook Formats: A Quick Guide For Self-Publishers
Kindle Direct Publishing