E-readers must strive to be better

It’s a rainy weekend afternoon in Tokyo, and American expat Craig Mod is sitting in a sleek coffee shop reading a book on his new iPad, test-driving it. But distractions are abound. Not in the crowded coffee shop or out on the colourful Tokyo streets, but right there on his iPad.

He muses: “Distractions come to my attention trying to read on this iPad, such as: sloppy typography, misspelt words, confusing page breaks, widows, orphans, broken tables.

“These and more pull me from the narrative spell. In that moment I realise, although I’ve had this substantial object of glass and metal for a few weeks, I haven’t managed more than ten pages of anything.”

Mod, a writer, designer and publisher in his mid-30s, wonders what the problem is.

“It’s not the screen – I’ve happily read several novels on my iPhone,” he thinks. “It’s not the weight – it feels fine when resting on a table or my knee.”

So, what then?

“The problem is much simpler,” Mod says, making some mental notes. “iBooks and the Kindle app are incompetent e-readers. They get in the way of the reading experience and treat digital books like poorly typeset PDFs. We can do better.

“We have to do better!”

Mod likes to think about these kinds of questions: What’s wrong with current e-readers and how do we rebuild them? What meta-data do we create when engaging with digital text, how can e-readers embrace it and how does that change readers’ relationships with books?

Of course, who cares about the e-bookstores are if it’s painful to read the e-books in the first place?

Mod again: “I barely prefer the Kindle app over iBooks – it’s simply the less horrible of two bads.

“Both of these applications treat e-books little better than cheap PDFs made from scanned physical books. If we want an e-reader capable of fully embracing the digital advantages of our e-books, we need to start rebuilding.”

According to Mod, printed books and e-books are both text at their cores. “Book designers long ago established rigorous rules for laying out text blocks so they disappear to the reader,” he muses. “They took pride in turning the physicality of a book into a tool for efficiently and elegantly getting information into the mind of the reader. As any good typographer knows: the best typography goes unnoticed.”

“Our e-readers [today] seem to have forgotten this heritage. They’ve forgotten that their core purpose is simply to present text as comfortably as possible; to gently pull the reader into the story. Every other aspect of experiencing a book is predicated on this notion.

Mod wants to see e-readers improve on these core issues:

Hyphenation: Why is hyphenation proving to be so elusive? “Eucalyptus on the iPhone does a fine job with it. If they can, then so should Apple and Amazon,” he says, adding: “Hyphenation isn’t as big a deal for longer line lengths. But if one advantage of digital books is large font-sizes for the visually impaired, then hyphenation must be implemented. The impact hyphenation has on readability multiplies as the point size increases.”

Ragged-right text: “There’s something sociopathic about major e-readers not including this option,” he says.

Smarter margins: “Line length and margins are intrinsically tied to the type and size of
font being used, and the shape of the page (or screen). Like Instapaper, you could give readers a choice of leading, margins and font size. But readers aren’t typographers. They shouldn’t have to choose. These are page design fundamentals, based on rational proportions. Our e-reader layout algorithms should be competent in balancing these variables.”

Copy and paste: ”That we can’t copy and paste is an insult. The rationale behind this
restriction is obvious: publishers don’t want readers to easily extract entire books. It’s a form of DRM through obnoxiousness.”

Typesetting: Mod says that currently, printed book typesetting is far more nuanced and elegant
than any Kindle or iBooks edition, adding: “Add to the equation that many digital books are OCR scans with broken tables and sloppy page breaks, and you have to wonder just how anyone thinks they can charge a near equivalent price for an inferior reading experience. A reading experience made inferior not because of the device, but because of a lack of consideration in the presentation. A reading experience that can be made better with a stronger focus on fundamentals.”

Mod’s mantra is essentially, let’s focus on the fundamentals. Improve e-reader typography and page balance. Integrate well-considered networked features.

“Respect the rights of the reader and then – only then – will we be in a position to further explore our new canvas.”