Does Style Matter In Ebooks?

Back in my traditional publishing days it was always a big cause for celebration whenever a writer got a hardcover deal (I never got one). It was a sign that the writer was moving up, that the publishers took her more seriously, and that the book itself was important. Bigger price tag, more room on the shelf, and readers who not only read, but collected. It was a Big Deal.

Or was it? Words is words and stories is stories whether they are bound in cardboard or paper. Right? What real difference does it make when a mass market paperback reads the same as a hardcover?

I don’t know about the rest of you, but it is a Big Deal. There is an aesthetic beauty to a well made hardcover book. From the binding itself, to its weightiness, to the extra care taken in typography and layout. It is that “experience” I’ve talked about before. How the look and “feel” of a book can affect how readers experience the text.

You can make a strong argument for “words is words” and the format doesn’t matter. But it’s not an argument that works with me. For instance, I’ve produced a lot of manuscripts. I have read a lot of manuscripts from others. When I am reading a manuscript it makes no difference how good the story is, the reading experience is Work. My inner editor flips to ON and there is no way to turn it off. If I want to read for pleasure, which means getting sucked into the story-world and engaged with the characters, I want a book–in some form–and not a manuscript.

I’m strongly affected by how my ebooks look, too. While getting this post ready I searched through my Kindle for examples and realized I have very few poorly formatted ebooks and not many serviceable-but-plain ebooks either. It’s because I download samples before I buy. If the sample doesn’t appeal to me visually, I probably won’t buy the book. Here’s one I did buy because I happen to like the author’s stories very much, but I absolutely hate the formatting.

This is "page" one.

This is “page” one.

The problem with this format is that the start of the book looks exactly the same as the rest of the book. Every time I Go To the beginning, this is where I land, then it’s swipe, swipe, click click, trying to figure out where the real beginning is. Even though I enjoyed the story, the lack of visual clues and the text-only formatting bugged me.

Contrast that sample with this one:

begin4Any questions that this is the beginning? Turns out this ebook is actually ‘broken’ so I was forced to read it in ugly font and couldn’t change the line spacing, but despite that the formatter made a real effort to make the book look interesting.

The next example is from an ebook that truly did it right, on every level.

begin3It works properly, the headers tell a story by themselves, and the formatter used some interesting techniques throughout which I’ve been busily trying to figure out how to do.

Contrast that with an example from a sample that I did not buy.

begin5Not only is this ebook badly broken–none of the user features work–but the layout looks exactly like a manuscript. In fact, I suspect the person who formatted this mess took a Word document with manuscript formatting and ran it through MobiPocket.

My mother was never one for good advice, but one thing she said stuck: “Nobody is going to care more about you than you care about yourself.” That applies to books, too–print or digital.

Go back to hardcover versus mass market paperback. The format proclaimed the hardcover as the better book. The more important book. Readers might not articulate it, or even consciously realize it, but they trust the hardcover more. The fact that a publisher cared enough about the book to produce it as a hardcover automatically made it ‘better.” This is perception, not reality. We are talking about taste where perception matters very much and reality takes a back seat.

One reality, reading devices are getting better. I’ve started using color in my formats. Why? Because it’s fun and it’s visually interesting and because it makes the books look fabulous on a tablet.

begin1Because I’m too much of a derp de derp to figure out how to take screenshots off my Kindle Fire, you’ll have to take my word for it. The above example has a hot pink header. It looks fabulous on the Fire.

Now, does your ebook have to be all fancy pants, tarted up like it’s heading to the hottest club in town? Of course not. Different styles for different books. Take a look at the following example. Simple, elegant, but serious to match the tone of the book.

begin6As reading devices improve, readers will grow increasingly demanding about the quality of ebooks. Not only will they expect (and they should!) that the ebooks work properly on their devices, but they’ll start expecting the ebooks to look better, too.

Writers need to ask themselves: Do they want their work perceived as a “cheapie throwaway” or is it “hardcover worthy?” The more YOU care, the more others will care in response.

What about the rest of you? How much does style matter to you?

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24 thoughts on “Does Style Matter In Ebooks?

  1. So here’s what I think, and I was just discussing this with another author – it matters to me. I’m not so certain it matters to your run of the mill ebook reader. There, said it. Consumers have, to some extent, become accustomed to poorly formatted ebooks and many don’t really notice when they get a pretty book – when an author/formatter/editor have gone the extra mile to make sure reading is a pleasant experience.
    Personally I like the weight of a book in my hands. However I’m growing accustomed to my Paperwhite – still, at least to some extent I want my ereading to mimic my hands-on book reading. I want to be swept away and if I feel as if I’m staring down at a piece of paper or a script or a WIP, I’m not swept anywhere.
    That being said, I often wonder how important formatting is to the average consumer of ebooks.

    • This is one of those things where I can only state with any conviction my own experiences. I know HOW an ebook looks makes a lot of difference to me. Of course, since i format them, i pay a lot of attention to the formatting. Not everybody does that.

      Truly, I doubt there are very many “average” readers who say, “Oh, that ebook was so nicely formatted!”

      But they do notice. They can’t help it. Humans are visual creatures. We are hard-wired to respond to visual clues. What will happen with increasing frequency is that readers will start comparing one ebook to another on a visual level. “Oh, this one doesn’t look as nice as the last one I read.” They’ll start lumping ebooks into categories based on visuals. It’s kind of like blogs and websites. Readers are as apt to pick their favorites by how they look as by the information they contain. If a blog is unpleasant to look at, it hurts. With the rise of tablets as the preferred reading device, the differences between ugly, plain-jane and stellar are going to become increasingly apparent. The producers who kick up their game and make an effort to make ebooks visually interesting and pleasurable will have the advantage.

      • See, I think it’s one of those unconscious things. A reader might like one book better than another book but not realize why. Or maybe a better way to describe it is to say– a reader may feel more comfortable with one book. In the end, yes, excellent formatting will have the edge. I’m not sure it does yet.
        I’ve noticed that some of the worst formatted books have the best sales – and quite often these are not especially well-written books or even good stories. But what these books do have is author recognition which tells me loyalists don’t care about formatting. Thus if your name is big enough and you have a large enough following you and your publisher can get away with poorly formatted ebooks and marginal content as well.
        I believe the extra effort is worth it. But I think the general reading public is a little behind.

      • The digital book industry is out of synch right now. The device makers are doing one thing, publishers are doing another, and readers are still getting used to the whole thing. I imagine a large portion of consumers are still in the “new toy” stage of ereader ownership.

        It will synch soon. Readers will treat ereaders like televisions and computers–content matters more than the device.

      • I agree, Jaye. readers will notice something that pleases them about a well-formatted ebook, and eventually come to be disappointed if they don’t see that, even if they can’t define it. You will, of course, hasten this by raising the bar for the rest of us.

      • I’m trying, Bridgett. In case anyone thinks I’m full of it, take a look at what the big publishers are doing now. Their ebooks are improving. A lot! They wouldn’t be investing in improving the formatting unless it made financial sense.

  2. I think it matters very much. My own efforts have failed, but I definitely have a better reading experience with ebooks that are formatted with care than with those that are not. The ebook for Felix Palma’s The Map of Time is gorgeous and though I couldn’t stand some of the literary devices the author used, I think the look of the book influenced my review, resulting in a higher rating than I would have given him otherwise (not that an international best seller needs a good review from the likes of me).

    • I know exactly what you mean. I am far more forgiving of the visually attractive book than of one that is ugly, broken or thoughtless. And if it looks like a manuscript? I don’t even want to start reading it.

  3. Jaye, the interesting thing (read “drawback”) about the Kindle series is that the provide the notion of “beginning” and that the specified beginning is what is displayed when the book is first opened. I do not like this. I prefer the way the Nook series handles this — it shows the cover when first opened. Let the reader flip through the legalese, the ToC, the acknowledgements, even the preface! Yes, I have seen Kindle books open up on Chapter One when there was a Preface in front of it!

    As to e-books looking better, I say “Hooray!” If the big publishers have been paying attention, they’re really just playing catch-up. You’re setting the standard to which they’re trying to match

    • If the formatter uses html to build their ebook and hand-codes the opf and tocncx files, they can make the “beginning” begin wherever they desire. I like my books to open on the title page. Because, though, of the way the Kindle devices are set up, the only way to get the cover to display as the first “page” would be to insert a cover.html page and that would put TWO covers inside the book. Kindle doesn’t like that.

      And yes, the big pubs ebooks are definitely getting better. One thing I really don’t like, though, is that too many are using InDesign and locking the fonts or justification, which screws up the user features. When my eyes are tired, I really need to adjust the line spacing and margins (which I far prefer over increasing the display size). It’s annoying when I can’t.

  4. Jaye, I’m probably several decades older than you, and I’ve been reading since I more or less taught myself around age six. That’s a heck of a lot of print, the early years of it, hardbacks from respected traditional publishers. And you know what? I don’t care whether the book is hardcover, paperback, or digital — all I’m concerned with is ease of reading. That’s quite aside from proper editing, which is a different issue. I don’t have a problem with any of the examples you show, except for the sans serif font. Pretty is fine, but I don’t read for pretty, and I doubt that many readers do. I don’t require reading to be a visually aesthetic experience, unless images are an essential part of the book. I admire your devotion to formatting and design, but it’s likely that you’re in a very small minority that will be growing even smaller as the years pass. And for those, I’m sure that exquisitely printed and bound, and very expensive, books will always be available.

    • We’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one, Catana. I’m not saying ebooks have to be fancy. I like fancy because that’s me and it’s fun to make them fancy, but as for adding true value, I admit that’s iffy. When it comes to taking care in layout, design and style, I think it matters a lot. Not in a quantifiable way, but in the subliminal effect it has. People tend to gravitate toward pleasant experiences. They might not consciously note what was pleasant, they sure as heck remember when they have a negative experience. A reader might start out reading any old thing, not caring what it looks like because the interesting thing is the fact that have a portable device that can “instantly” produce a book. Once that particular thrill wears off, and it always does, they’ll pay more attention to what they are reading and how it is presented. I don’t know if you have a tablet, but I’ve noticed something about my reading habits. If I’m reading on the tablet and i get bored or fatigued or frustrated, I’ll pop over to the internet and check email or twitter. That’s not a good thing for the writer of whatever I’m reading.

      • Jaye, I’m with you on this (sorry Catana). Plain versus fancy — fancy usually wins, unless it outfancies itself. Too much fancy is possible, and when it draws attention to itself over the story, it’s crossed the line.

        As far as formatting on the fly goes, I think the options you describe for the Kindle series don’t have the same functionality on the Nook series. Oh, I can adjust most of the options, but only if I ignore the publisher’s defaults. It’s an all or nothing proposition, outside of the font size.

        By the way, I believe Sigil gives you some better control over the OPF. (Yes, another shameless pkug for Sigil, just ’cause I like it so darn much!)

  5. My hubby and I were talking about a friend of ours who rents matching chairs whenever she has a large dinner party. She owns 8 chairs, but if she’s seating 12, rather than rent 4 chairs and mixing them in, she’ll rent all 12.

    I said, “People actually notice that?”

    Hubby said, “They’ll notice if she doesn’t.”

    I think that’s the kind of thing we’re dealing with in ebooks. Guests at my friend’s party might not be able to articulate why they felt her home was so beautifully decorated, they just know that they felt welcome there, because their hostess saw to every detail.

  6. Jon, the user controls on the early models of Kindles are fairly crude. On the Paperwhite and the Fire they are quite sophisticated. The built in menu bar on older Kindles defaults to “Chapter 1” as the beginning. Other models give the user more control, but even so, the default is there unless the formatter designates another beginning point.

    When I format I don’t want to do anything that interferes with the reader preferences for fonts, line spacing, or margins. Unfortunately, a lot of people who use Word or InDesign or Scrivener run a constant risk of overriding those user features. Even something as simple as using a font that Kindle doesn’t know what to do with can make the fonts option lock, and wouldn’t you know it, it always locks in an ugly font. Publishers need to be extra careful with those.

    I don’t have a Nook, so I don’t know what they can do or how their Go To menu is set up, or if they even have one. When I do an EPUB I put the cover as the first page in the tocncx so it comes up first. i hope that means it actually does that on the Nook.

    As for Sigil. I’m figuring it out slowly. It’s a lot of fun–especially that real time previewer, but it’s definitely got a nasty side to it. Keeps me on my toes. 😀

    • Good article, Maggie. This line says it perfectly: Something about it got in the way of readability.

      I’ve passed on print books just because they look cheap, ugly, amateurish, or difficult. I’m starting to do the exact same thing with ebooks.

  7. The chapter headings definitely give a nice touch. The problem with images and dingbats on the heading is that the minute the reader turns to sepia or night background on the Kindle Fire, it will show the image with its white rectangular, background. It doesn’t help that Kindle Fire renders the transparent alpha layer on PNG type images as white (d’oh).

    The EPUB3 spec allows for a “night css” sort of option that could mitigate this (you could have one image for white backgrounds, and another for black backgrounds), but implementation is probably far, far away in some magical world.

    • I know! And it irritates me no end. (I’m still trying to figure out why the Fire has a black background option. Sepia, okay, I guess, but black?) That’s one reason I’m experimenting with formatting techniques to reduce the occurrences of “white boxes.” I’ve been going through your book, Paul, 😀 to learn about boxes, borders, shading and other nifty tricks.
      (Shameless plug: If you’re serious about kicking up your ebook formatting game, any of Paul Salvette’s books and his blog are excellent resources. Up in the sidebar on this page is a link to his design and development book.)

      • The black background is good when you are in a car or bus at night, which is where I do most of my reading but that’s probably the exception not the rule. Night mode is available on Kindle for iPad too. This is the reason you should never set the color black to your font in the CSS. It will “disappear” when you turn on night mode.

        Careful with the boxes and borders, Smashwords will reject them of course in an EPUB since it’s not just a text file, haha. Got any cool tricks with those?

  8. You made my eyeballs cringe, Paul. Heh.
    I try to NOT include anything that affects the user controls (tempting as it is, at times).
    We shall not speak of Smashwords at this time. I cannot for the life of me figure out what is going on with them. None of their “error” messages make any sense. Ridiculous.

  9. The older I get the more aesthetics matter…and as for your older reader who doesn’t care much about style but does demand that something is easy to read I think that’s what good design is all about and what bad design (or absence of thought) can damage. I’m about to delve into self publising and I see that I need to read all your archives…glad that they are there

    • Hi Bridget, Welcome to the Wild West of self-publishing. Glad I can be of help. I have a feeling that if the publisher makes it their number one priority to ensure the ebook works properly, the number two takes the time to ensure the book is laid out nicely and cleanly with thought given to the reader’s “comfort” then the publisher won’t have any problems.

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