E-Book format not perfect?

Read what can cause an imperfect e-book format.

Printed books have been with us for hundreds of years. Digital books, also known as electronic books or e-books, are an entirely new breed of book.
We are all familiar with the general appearance of printed books, their sizes, common font types, chapter and page layout, binding and so on. But this was not always so. In the beginning of the art of printing books, accepted conventions and rules did not yet exist.

The size and shape of printed books was more often determined by what hand-operated printing press and paper was available to the printer. Movable letters were hand cut (of wood in the beginning) or molded and cast in lead by each printer. Illustrations were hand cut in wood or on the surface of other materials that were easy to carve. Thus, early books were highly personal and unique products that came in almost endless varieties. As materials and techniques improved over time, particularly with the advent of industrial standardized products, so did commonly accepted standards for printed books. Nowadays a book buyer pretty much knows what to expect from a printed book of a certain genre.

Digital books or e-books are to a certain extent akin to early printed books because of e-book formats and the variety of screen sizes found in book reading devices. The screen size of a digital book reader essentially limits how many words fit on a line and how many lines on one single page. The total number of pages of an e-book can be different depending on the reading device that opens the book. Unexpected changes in e-book formats are always possible from one reading device to another even with a perfectly and professionally formatted e-book. For example, a e-book that is formatted perfectly in the original Kindle book reader often displays erratically in the latest, most advanced Kindle Fire. But who gets the blame for it?
The author or the publisher, not Kindle or Nook or a substitute “device” on a tablet or desktop computer.

Furthermore, book reading devices have a limited selection of font styles. That limits the e-book format to fonts that are preloaded into the reader as default fonts. This causes a problem when an author writes the manuscript of his book in a font type that is available in some devices but not in others. In this case electronic book readers will replace the original font with a preloaded replacement font, which changes the overall e-book format, of course.
Since not all fonts are created equal as to the space a single letter occupies on a line of text, the layout of the line, the paragraph and even the page will change from one book reader to another. As a result pagination will change, chapters might not end where expected often leaving a line or even a few words behind.
Purist book lovers do not like to see orphans. And they will complain in their book reviews to no end.
As if the meaning of a sentence changed simply because a single line got stranded all alone on a following page.

Images introduce another very significant cause for imperfect e-book formats. The reason is that text flows around images or by-passes them top and bottom. In either case insertion of an image into a text page will significantly change the layout of that page – and of many following pages, even chapters. Authors of fiction, the great American contemporary novel for instance , do not have to worry about it so much. Their books are mostly columns of text that do not interrupt the original e-book format at all.

As if this were not enough, many ebook readers need images to have a given size (400×800 or the like). Pictures that have different sizes are automatically converted by the conversion software to the default size. The final size of the image is then determined by the reading device that adjusts it to fit the screen size of the reading device.
Talk about creating havoc in the e-book format. An image that shows perfectly in a printed book or in a .pdf file (Acrobat Reader) may come out distorted and require toggling sideways to be seen completely. That’s not the author’s or publisher’s fault either.

Authors and publishers of non-fiction books with many pictures, tables and diagrams bear the brunt of the problem. What looks fine on a traditional Kindle may be a disaster on the latest Fire or Nook, what is a perfect e-book format in a pseudo reading device on a tablet wrecks the layout on another with a different reader. The same applies to the many Kindle substitutes that are available for desktop computers and laptops.

Technical developments and progress never stops, particularly not in the field of electronics. Therefore it is difficult for a self-published author to test a given book layout with all digital reading devices on the market and their equivalents.
Mishaps are bound to slip through the cracks.
Book lovers who also love to own and use the latest gadgets are usually the first to scream murder and to accuse author and publisher of sloppy e-book formatting when the issue is actually created by their own reading device.

The developers of software for electronic reading devices contribute as well to imperfections in the production of e-books. Most authors use word processors to write their works. Programmers on the other hand originally designed their software to emulate typewriters. They did not have in mind special requirements of book production and e-book formats. Consequently not all features needed for book manuscripts are readily available in word processing programs.
For example, books normally do not use the straight quotation mark (‘ ‘) but rather the curved version (“ “). A typed manuscript must be modified to produce a perfect book. Unfortunately, most word processors cannot do that.

Another trouble maker is the ellipsis, represented in word processing documents by three spaced dots (. . .). Three dots and an ellipsis are treated differently by software that converts manuscripts from word processing documents to clean book text. Book processors and conversion programs used by major e-book sellers (like amazon.com and nookpress.com) treat the ellipsis as one letter. Therefore it either stays at the end of a line of text or, if a new line is required, puts it at the start of the new line. Not so with the three dots. They are considered the equivalent of three letters and therefore often are split – one or two dots on one line and the remaining on the next.
Book purists will scream in horror and tear their hair out over such a sacrilege.

Finally, quotation marks can be another source of trouble. Some of the widely available programs that convert word processing files into file formats that are accepted by e-book sellers do not convert them correctly. They may just turn up as gibberish. Worse yet, I have met a case where the local conversion program represented quotation marks accurately but the Amazon ebook processor turned them into meaningless symbols.
Guess who gets the blame from overly zealous book reviewers?

So, next time you pick up your digital reading device to enjoy the latest detective story or documentary work, do not get all bent out of shape over minor imperfections in the e-books format. They most likely are not the fault of the author or publisher but rather caused by technical peculiarities.
The e-book format may just be fine in another digital book reader.

What can a self-published author do to avoid these pitfalls or at least to limit them as much as possible?
One of our authors will tell you in the next article on this topic.