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Old 12-15-2009, 08:23 PM   #1
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Why do professional epubs look so different from each other?

I downloaded three epubs yesterday and loaded them onto my Sony reader. Two were library books and one was a freebie from the Sony store. I was shocked at how different they looked.

Both library books had absolutely minuscule default fonts. One looked just fine once I adjusted to the next zoom level. The other turned super-giant on the next zoom level and also developed margins that left three inches of white space on every side of the screen so that only a small tube of text was visible down the middle.

The Sony book had a normal-sized font and looked okay, except that periodically (in between chapters) there would be a screen's worth of scrolling which would be totally blank. Other Sony books I have seen have not been as nice and have had other issues.

I understand that people like to have control over their own books and it would not be right to say everyone must do it this way or that way. But I have to admit, after last night I feel like a definitive ebook style guide and some sort of standardization would be nice.
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Old 12-16-2009, 11:58 PM   #2
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I downloaded three epubs yesterday and loaded them onto my Sony reader. Two were library books and one was a freebie from the Sony store. I was shocked at how different they looked.

Both library books had absolutely minuscule default fonts. One looked just fine once I adjusted to the next zoom level. The other turned super-giant on the next zoom level and also developed margins that left three inches of white space on every side of the screen so that only a small tube of text was visible down the middle.

The Sony book had a normal-sized font and looked okay, except that periodically (in between chapters) there would be a screen's worth of scrolling which would be totally blank. Other Sony books I have seen have not been as nice and have had other issues.

I understand that people like to have control over their own books and it would not be right to say everyone must do it this way or that way. But I have to admit, after last night I feel like a definitive ebook style guide and some sort of standardization would be nice.
I agree that an ebook style guide would be a very good idea. It would provide ebook formatters with a basic guide to follow that would provide a consistent look for ebooks. It would also be designed with ebooks in mind.

For example, it could establish a standard all-around margin of 0.2" (5mm) for ebooks, or it could use a percentage of the total screen dimensions (the left and right margins are 5 percent of the screen width). In the same way, other formatting could be established independent of a specific screen size (everything is based on percentages of the screen size).

As far as formatting problems go, it is possible that the ebooks were created with a printed version in mind, rather than display on a screen. For example, the blank pages could be there to ensure that each chapter starts on a odd page (on the right side of the book), something that's not an issue with ebooks.

In the same way, the font size may not be considered crucial with ebooks because the user can increase the font size. However, there should be a minimum font size used so that they text is at least readable at the smallest setting.

As I said at the beginning, I think an ebook style guide would be a great help to people who are making ebooks. If properly designed, it would ensure that ebooks have a good consistent look, and would improve readability.
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Old 12-17-2009, 12:25 AM   #3
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When Sigil moves to support external CSS stylesheets, maybe we can upload some of our standard settings to compare and share.
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Old 12-17-2009, 02:33 AM   #4
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When Sigil moves to support external CSS stylesheets, maybe we can upload some of our standard settings to compare and share.
One of the things I find frustrating with formats is the lack of font control. With RTF files I might get a serif font, or a san-serif font. One of the things I'd like to see an ebook reader offer is the ability to override an ebook's formatting (much like web browsers allow you override a website's fonts). An internal CSS might be one way to do it (when loaded properly on your reader, its formatting supersedes the ebook's formatting).
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Old 12-17-2009, 12:35 PM   #5
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I’ve wondered at the poor formatting too. I’ve variously blamed the ePub file, the way the rendering engines on different brands of readers work, the hardware and possibly even the source of our books but I think the real problem is a lack of adequate tools.

For the last few months I’ve been using a Pocket Pro. Comparing the way it renders ePub books to the way the Sony renders the same file is instructive.

The Pocket Pro displays most ePubs with fully justified margins. I thought my Sony 505 lacked full justification until I re-downloaded a book I had been reading in LRX format (William Broad’s excellent study of the Delphic Oracle). In LRX the 505 displayed a well formatted book with fully justified left and right margins. When Sony switched to ePub I returned to their store and re-downloaded it. When I opened it on the 505, the first thing I got was the spinner (it’s the time-delay notice Sony Readers use) and the message: “Reformatting”. I had never seen that before. I was surprised when it finally came up with fully formatted margins and the same attractive formatting the book had in LRX.

Time for a test. I’d already loaded The Elements of Style Illustrated, a generic ePub from Shortcovers, on both readers so I decided to compare. This one is fully justified on the Pocket Pro and left justified on the Sony: no spinner or re-formatting this time. But the margins are the same width on both the Sony and the Pocket Pro, not a percentage of screen width. At about 10 millimeters these margins are too wide on either screen. They make the book hard to read on both but especially on the smaller, 5-inch Pocket Pro screen. However, the illustrations in this book render as fast as text pages on the Pocket Pro and so slowly on the Sony I thought it had hung. Pocket Pros use a new Epson controller that wasn’t available two years ago, which probably explains the Pocket Pro’s faster refresh.

As a second test I loaded the Oracle book on the Pocket Pro to compare. As expected, the illustrations loaded quickly without interrupting the reading experience. Both had some formatting errors such as missing first letters of each chapter which I guess were drop caps in the pBook that they failed to carry over into ePub. But the Pocket Pro had new flaws with this book: it added extra blank lines in places the Sony did not. For example, Sony did this:

TWO
Doubters

Pocket Pro did it like this:

TWO


Doubters

Obviously this book lacks the relative formatting needed to suit it for any size screen. Device independence is one of the most important of ePub’s potential features.

A style sheet might help but I really think the bigger problem is the lack of really good page layout tools for ePub. Giants like MS Word and WordPerfect support PDF publishing but neither can create even a simple ePub file. Where are the automated, instinctive professional layout tools? Once these tools are available style sheets make sense.

The people laying out these books understand what they want to do but I think that as long as publishers have to hand edit format codes we will not see better formatted books. They already have to deal with the complexity of the different implementations of Adobe Mobile and the differences in hardware.
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Old 12-17-2009, 01:10 PM   #6
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One of the things I find frustrating with formats is the lack of font control. With RTF files I might get a serif font, or a san-serif font. One of the things I'd like to see an ebook reader offer is the ability to override an ebook's formatting (much like web browsers allow you override a website's fonts). An internal CSS might be one way to do it (when loaded properly on your reader, its formatting supersedes the ebook's formatting).
Ironically, Stanza for the iPhone kinda does this-you can pick the typeface, margins, spacing, justification, etc...but.......it overrides the formatting with no way of turning off the override...so all my careful CSS editing is for naught. I'd love to have the option as well.
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Old 12-17-2009, 04:24 PM   #7
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A style sheet might help but I really think the bigger problem is the lack of really good page layout tools for ePub. Giants like MS Word and WordPerfect support PDF publishing but neither can create even a simple ePub file. Where are the automated, instinctive professional layout tools? Once these tools are available style sheets make sense.
I think there's a small difference between PDF and ePub, and its name is "years of deployment". ePub is a new format, with no definitive spefications, open in both senses (for everybody and with freedom in some aspects). I don't think a big company make a lot of effort through it at this moment.
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Old 12-17-2009, 04:25 PM   #8
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Ironically, Stanza for the iPhone kinda does this-you can pick the typeface, margins, spacing, justification, etc...but.......it overrides the formatting with no way of turning off the override...so all my careful CSS editing is for naught. I'd love to have the option as well.
Not exactly. I've found it respect more the styles in a tag <div> then <p>: indent at first line, for example: I have a nice macro in vi
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Old 12-17-2009, 04:37 PM   #9
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Not exactly. I've found it respect more the styles in a tag <div> then <p>: indent at first line, for example: I have a nice macro in vi
Terisa, is that what it is? I WONDERED why some tags did tend to work, while most were overridden. Thanks for the tip-I'll play around with DIV tags a bit!

(I do notice that Stanza maintains some decremented non-CSS stuff like <tt> and such-but I'm kinda reluctant to put that stuff in)
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Old 12-17-2009, 05:17 PM   #10
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Terisa, is that what it is? I WONDERED why some tags did tend to work, while most were overridden. Thanks for the tip-I'll play around with DIV tags a bit!
Yes, it works. Calibre converted a book with <div> instead of <p>, and then it worked. I was very surprised.

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(I do notice that Stanza maintains some decremented non-CSS stuff like <tt> and such-but I'm kinda reluctant to put that stuff in)
I don't know them, so...
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Old 12-17-2009, 07:11 PM   #11
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I think it's similar to how back in the day different operating systems and web browser render different web pages vastly differently. Then web designers started testing on different platforms and made CSS which worked across browsers and made type font, heading size look 'pretty close' in the different OS/Web Browser combinations.

I think publishers and e-reader manufacturers probably need better standard rendering of them ebooks and possible better general guidelines (and frameworks like they have yahoo css frameworks).
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Old 12-17-2009, 07:43 PM   #12
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Aside from bad editing and terrible xhtml markup on the part of publishers/editors, I'm of the opinion that the issue is inadequate software in the readers, and bad ergonomic design.

Most don't fully support CSS; most have terrible interfaces; very little thought goes into improving usability. It's all about getting the thing to market. Not producing a great piece of kit that renders beautifully, feels great, and supports open standards well.

How many clones of other hardware are there? Very little creative thought, even less commitment to excellence. How many even lazily use the same software without improving it? (ie: ADE, FBReader etc.) They're all just trying to get a piece of the money pie, and praying that they somehow become the default prime mover when formats somehow settle in. Typical mimicry.

Hardly a surprise that the experience of using them is so poor when virtually no imagination has gone into developing them.

PocketBook seems to be the only company since NuvoMedia that has thought about usability, with their 360. The Jetbook at least took another hardware tack, although they seem to be caught in format creep, and utterly failed on the HID element.

It's like no one has heard of Apple, or Google, or understood the lessons of simplicity and excellence that allow them to succeed. They're not difficult to understand, just require commitment. Which you won't get from most people, and so the field is polluted with mediocrity -- and that mediocrity becomes the standard.

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Old 12-17-2009, 11:36 PM   #13
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Terisa, is that what it is? I WONDERED why some tags did tend to work, while most were overridden. Thanks for the tip-I'll play around with DIV tags a bit!

(I do notice that Stanza maintains some decremented non-CSS stuff like <tt> and such-but I'm kinda reluctant to put that stuff in)
I've always thought that basic HTML would work very nicely as an ebook format, and would provide all of the formatting needed for most ebooks. Its only weaknesses are the mandated blank line after every paragraph (although CSS is supposed to deal with that), and the reduction of multiple consecutive blank spaces to a single space.

One development I've disliked about CSS is the depreciation of some very useful HTML tags to discourage their use. Sometimes a simple tag is the best way to achieve a desired effect (for example, I prefer the simplicity of the CENTER tag, rather than having to modify a paragraph style to center text).
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Old 12-18-2009, 12:28 AM   #14
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One development I've disliked about CSS is the depreciation of some very useful HTML tags to discourage their use. Sometimes a simple tag is the best way to achieve a desired effect (for example, I prefer the simplicity of the CENTER tag, rather than having to modify a paragraph style to center text).
Yes,and <i> or <b> instead of <span class="....>, I don't understand, really.
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Old 12-18-2009, 01:01 AM   #15
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Yes,and <i> or <b> instead of <span class="....>, I don't understand, really.
That <span class="....> stuff is bad XHTML. The simplest way to do those is with <em> (emphasis) and <strong>. If you're seeing a lot of <span...>, it's because of the overuse of Word, and other programs that insert a lot of cruft.

<span...> and <div...> are generic containers, that should be used when there is no other tag that is appropriate. It's lazy markup. Both of them are overused, and lead to a vague, illegible, incomprehensible document. I only use <div...>, for instance, as actual divisions in my markup -- literally, largeish pieces of the book: ie: cover, frontispiece, foreword, section, chapter, appendix, colophon, etc. I only use <span...> for two unique tags: FirstLetter and FirstWord -- which don't have any easy equivalent in HTML.

A well-thought out set of XHTML tags for use in an ebook can actually make things a lot better and allow for an amazing amount of control.

Done well, you can have less tagging -- or you can ramp it up to quite a high level. The amount of tagging is dependent on the complexity of the document structure, though, not the display complexity.

I can give you a well-constructed ebook, and simply by editing the CSS, you can completely change the way it displays -- you wouldn't even have to open the ebook if the CSS were well-documented.



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