Why a Printed Book and an e-book Need Different Information

We are going to start this section by looking at why the trickiest problem that stands between us and our goal exists. This problem is that the information we need to include in the a file to be printed is almost diametrically opposite to that which we need to include a file that will be read on a e-reader. This may seem odd, as you may feel the they both contain the same information, namely, your novel. To understand this difference you have to understand the difference between content and style.

Now, the content of your book is the words you’ve written and the style is how those words appear on the page. Pretty simple, yeah? Now, with the printed version of your book, content and style are fairly concretely linked, it isn’t really possible for someone to change the book’s style in anything other than a fairly trivial way (such as making the font bigger by holding the book closer.) To all extents and purposes, in the printed book, you have absolute control over the way everything will look. If you want to choose a font that is impossible to read and font size that requires even those with the best eyes to need a magnifying glass, no one can stop you.

However, what I am going to say next, depending on your background, will either come as a great relief or great heresy. When publishing your book in electronic format, you have practically no control over the styling. You can set what can be considered as style suggestions, but whether they are honoured or not depends on the e-book reader and the reader’s preferences. And if you try to force the issue (or don’t take enough care), you can actually make your book unreadable. If you are a bit of a control freak about the presentation of your book, it would be good to start coming to terms now with the fact that you are going to have to give this up (for the electronic version at least).

Before the non-control freaks out there start celebrating about how easy the electronic version is going to be to create if it just requires stripping out the styling, I have to warn you that, unfortunately, things are never that simple. Instead of style information, what the e-book version needs is context information. Conversely, the printed version doesn’t care at all about context. It doesn’t even care that the shapes it is going to print are words, nor does it care that those shapes on the first page represent your book’s title. The electronic version, though, very much wants to know which of the various characters represent your title so that, when it is loaded into an e-book, the e-book can display it in its index. It also wants to know where all your chapters start and end so it can navigate directly to them, and it, most importantly, wants to know which bits are the words of your story so it can render them in the way the reader has requested.

Now for the why. There are a few reasons why you can only suggest, rather than dictate, how the electronic version of your book is formatted. The first is down to device limitations. A good example of this is in the case of fonts. To be able to use a font, the e-reader has to have the font installed. There are millions of fonts out there, there is no way that all of them can be installed. It is possible to embed the fonts you want to use in your novel, but this requires a more advanced device to be able to read them, which would make the e-reader more expensive, so it isn’t currently supported in many devices.

The second reason why you can only suggest how your book is styled is that e-book readers can just ignore. Left to there own devices, people sometimes make questionable choices or just mistakes. E-readers sometimes enforce technically unnecessary rules because they believe it will make the experience better for the reader. There is nothing you can do about them. If you come up against one, don’t fight it. You won’t win and, once you’ve got over the frustration, you’ll probably realise that what you were trying to would have only worked on a limited number of device configurations or wasn’t really that important after all. For example, you can try to set all your text to be centre aligned on a kindle, but it won’t be. There is no reason why this is the case, except that in 99.99% of cases it would be a mistake, so the kindle ignores you.

The third reason is that not all readers of your novel are the same, so they will have their device set up differently. Take the example of font size. If your book is being read by someone with poor vision, they might well want or need to make the text bigger. Now, if you’ve tried to be cleaver and relied on the size of the font to do something you shouldn’t (such as centring a bit of text by putting x number of spaces in front of it), when the font size is changed, everything is going to look very ugly.

The final reason, and often the most frustrating, is because of the way text flows when it is read on a e-reader. Because you don’t know how big the text is going to rendered nor whether the device is going to be used landscape or portrait nor a myriad of other factors, you don’t know how big a page is going to be. This means that any formatting you want to do that is relative to the page isn’t going to work. These problems tend to manifest themselves most when you have important information that you want to include in a header or footer. It can also be a problem if you have a diagram that needs to be close to some explanatory text. Often the solutions available will work for you. For example, footnotes can be included at the end of the chapter, rather than the bottom of the page, and navigated to by clicking. But sometimes it can require a big rethink of how your book is laid out, especially if you are writing an academic text book.

The upshot of all this is that our master document will have to include all the style information required by the print version, all the context information required by the electronic one plus the style suggestions for it, and that, when exported, the unneeded information will be discarded.

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