Fun With Formatting: Emails and Text Messages in Ebooks

“An epistolary novel is a novel written as a series of documents. The usual form is letters, although diary entries, newspaper clippings and other documents are sometimes used. Recently, electronic “documents” such as recordings and radio, blogs, and e-mails have also come into use. The word epistolary is derived from Latin from the Greek word ἐπιστολή epistolē, meaning a letter” (from Wikipedia)

All well and good, but what do those look like in an ebook? Notes and letters have a fairly standard format: offset margins, extra space before and after, sometimes italicized. Visually, it is easy to clue the reader in that they are looking at a note or letter. But what about an email? Or a text message?

I recently completed a book where the writer used emails and text messages. One chapter consisted entirely of emails and another chapter was a text message conversation. This particular author writes funny, quirky, sexy, offbeat romances. She likes her ebooks to be pretty and to stand out from the crowd–she wants them to look fun. (Which is tons of fun for me.) She wanted the emails to look like emails and the text messages to look like text messages.

textemail1For text messages inside the body of the ebook I used a sans serif font, bolded, and offset.

Would readers be confused if the text message looked the same as everything else? I doubt it. I know, from my own reading (and I read a LOT!) that visually interesting ebooks stand out. I am delighted by small touches–ornaments, unusual formatting, pictures–that break up the solid chunks of text.

For the chapter that consisted entirely of text messages, I pulled out the stops, using color blocks and right and left text alignment:

textemail2This is a tad over the top, but it fits with the playful tone of this story. For a story with a more serious tone, I would probably not use color blocks. I could use deep right/left margins to make the text messages appear to be in centered blocks. I might give them a border, too, to keep them from running into one another. Or, left align the text and have extra space between the messages. The key would be, as in all things ebooks, consistency. Pick a look, stick with it, and readers will happily follow along.

On to emails. I’ve formatted emails before, but this was the first time that I had a long string of them. The headers had to be included (because they are an important part of the story). I considered (briefly) placing each on its own “page.” But no, that would have killed the sense of rapid back and forth. This is what I came up with:

textemail3I set off each header with two lines (horizontal rules) and sans serif font with the sender bolded. For the body of the email I used regular serif font and a block paragraph style. To my eyes there is no mistaking these as anything other than emails. It’s a style that would work for any story that has emails, whether in a string or as a stand-alone.

So there you go, one way to handle text messages and emails. What about the rest of you? Have you found a fun/interesting way to make emails and text messages stand out in your ebook? Inquiring minds want to know.


Samples are from Penny Watson’s Sweet Adventure. Sweet-Adventure-ebook-cover-blue2

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11 thoughts on “Fun With Formatting: Emails and Text Messages in Ebooks

  1. I like Source Sans pro for both emails and texts (sexts?!?). it’s open license and is a very low overhead on the eBook (~100KB for the regular face, and an ~100KB for bold). The horizontal rules on the headers look good. I’ll have to try that out.

    • Thank you, Paul. Adding that to my list. I rarely embed fonts in my ebooks, but I’m always on the look-out for fonts that are unencumbered in case I need to. (I haven’t dealt with sexts yet. I feel deprived….)

      A little tip for people who want to mix up the fonts: One thing I have noticed about sans serif fonts is that they tend to be on the larger side. So I often adjust the font-size by a tenth of a point or two just to keep it in line with everything else.

  2. Here’s some stuff to try for you “texts” formatting. Start by adding this CSS to the block elements which have the background color:

    .bubble { -webkit-border-radius : 1em; }

    That will give you a nice rounded border around those elements.

  3. Now, for extra credit, you might want to turn it into full-fledged speech bubble the way the iPhone displays text message exchanges. I don’t have my ebook production machine handy, but something like this CSS should put a little triangle on the bottom near the left rounded corner:

    .bubble {
    position:relative;
    padding:.5em;
    margin:1em 0 2em;
    color:#fff;
    background:#075698;
    background:-webkit-gradient(linear, 0 0, 0 100%, from(#2e88c4), to(#075698));
    -webkit-border-radius:1em;
    }

    /* creates triangle */
    .bubble:after {
    content: “”;
    display: block;
    position: relative;
    bottom: -1em;
    margin-right: 3em;
    width: 0;
    border-width: 1em 1em 0;
    border-style: solid;
    border-color: #075698 transparent;
    }

    • Hi William. I’ve used rounded borders before and they render very nicely on the majority of devices. But a text bubble? Ooh, I have the try that. (and find a zillion uses for it). Thanks!

      I will add one note about coloring bubbles (because I, of course, have learned the hard way) test, test, test the colors on an eink device to make sure they don’t render so darkly that the text becomes difficult to read.

      • Agree about eink devices. In fact, I would recommend (at least for Amazon) using separate styles for color devices and eink devices. Of course getting the media queries right for that is fairly tricky, but it can be done.

      • Ugh, media queries. I always get so tangled up in those. But yes, in some cases they are worth the hassles. Though in the majority of cases, most colors render beautifully in grayscale. Just have to watch out for the dark colors. Of course, if one did want to use a dark background color, one solution would be then to change the font color. 😀

        I’m a little disappointed that so few formatters make use of color in ebooks. It’s an easy enhancement.

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