On Book Design and InDesign
Book design is an old art. Its leading practioners know a lot about what makes a book look good. As one such artist told me, in what at first seemed like a koan, “Book design is precise down to the pixel.” He was referring to print, and what he meant is that the physical page is a constraint, and so are the additional choices you must make, about margins, number of lines per page, characters per line—probably 65 or fewer based on the ability of the human eye to find the beginning of a new line after finishing the one that came before—font size for each different kind of text, leading or line spacing, and more. There are too many constraints and the decisions cannot be made independently. Change any attribute by a single pixel, and something else has to change to accomodate it, or, at the very least, the lessons of a thousand years of book aesthetics will be ignored.
So how does that work in the world of ebooks where the very notion of a book page is fluid and changes at the whim of every tablet or phone manufacturer, whether a user holds their device in portrait or landscape, and while the user is given the option to change font or font size with a few swipes of the finger?
The answer is that algorithms drive software to do the layout on the fly, and the designer’s original intent is only partially realized at the moment of user experience. The hardware and software are changing fast, so things are getting better, but for designera or authors who care, care a lot, about how their creative work appears, the results are often not good enough. Of course, in the end, it’s the words, that count. But food is more than calories, or vitamins, etc.
InDesign and e-book creation
Adobe Indesign is one of the leading applications for book design. It generates the files that e-book readers read and render. We used it at Melvillean Press to design Moby Dx. In the short time since APE was last updated, its guidance, its recommended workflow for the use of Indesign to create ebooks has gone out of date. Here is my recommendation.
Use InDesign CC. You buy a subscription, and it’s not cheap, but you’re guaranteed the latest features and fixes. There are bugs, as always, so fixes count.
- .pdf This file format, can be read on computers and every phone or tablet I’ve seen, and all ebook reading software I’ve seen, but it is page-oriented and does not flow or offer the font flexibility that we think of as being part of e-book. InDesign is as WYSIWYG as I know how to discern, and device independent. You can’t sell a pdf book on Amazon.
.epub This e-book format is favored by Apple’s iBooks, and Kobo, and others not including Kindle. The design elements that I went to such effort to build into the Indesign files of Moby Dx—based on the teachings of Bringhurst and other experts, and which render so beautifully in its pdf—are beyond the capabilities of InDesign’s epub export engine and every epub reader tested. I expect that whatever I know today will soon be out of date, so rather than explain everything I’ve learned, I’ll give you the following general advice and offer to tell you more if you buy the book and then get in touch with me. Advice: Use InDesign’s power to create nested styles and dropcaps very very sparingly.
epub readers are not created equal. Beginning February 10, we began offering Moby Dx in epub format. It renders well, very well, we think in iBooks on iPad. Choices of font, in the reader, make significant differences in the fidelity of rendering. It renders poorly on Kobo running on iPad. Same file. Different readers. Different, very different user experience. Is there a Kobo-specific optimization to InDesign files that would make Moby Dx look good on Kobo? I didn’t find it. The day is only so long. Also, two epub simulators for Mac, Calibre and Adobe Digital Designs, fail to render like iBooks, so don’t trust them if your target is iBooks.
.mobi This file format is the one that Amazon and Amazon Kindle wants. InDesign does not export mobi, it exports pdf and epub. To get mobi, you need an app called Kindle Previewer developed by Amazon. Previewer takes InDesign’s epub and converts it to mobi and then simulates its appearance on various Kindle devices. Calibre also does this, but I don’t think it does as good a job, so I’m using Previewer. There are now 5 Kindle devices and at least two Kindle apps (for iPad and iPhone). To date, no Kindle device renders the Moby Dx mobi file as well, or as faithfully to the original design as iBooks renders the epub. You can read a mobi file on Kindle for iPad (or iPhone), but do so only at your own risk. Kindle for iOS (iPad or Kindle) requires yet another format, azk.
.azk When you buy a book on Amazon and have it sent to your Kindle device, Amazon first converts the mobi file (that the author or publisher uploaded) to azk format if your registered device is an iPad or iPhone. Kindle Previewer can also generate azk files. At this time, February 10, 2014, the azk conversion and the Kindle for iOS cannot render Moby Dx nearly as well as epub on iBooks. If you are going to use Kindle for iOS, use the pdf. It’s still the most beautiful choice. Note: in the same way that the complete design had to be stripped down in InDesign to create the epub that looks good iBooks, that file has to be stripped down even further for acceptable rendering on Kindle for iOS.