There’s a reason we talk about “losing yourself in a good book”. When the medium, the text and the reader operate as a single, smoothly-running unit, you can spend hours with your head deep in a book, oblivious to the outside world. Words flow through your eyes and convert seamlessly into ideas and images within your brain, in what feels like an effortless, almost magical process.
Our goal as publishers, then, is to optimise a reading system to remove any distractions and barriers to this flow. There’s only so much we can do about the reader – i.e. ourselves – but the medium and the text can certainly be optimised to make reading as smooth a process as possible.
Much has been written about the relative merits of paper, eInk and backlit screens, and how they affect the reading experience. Amazon are rumoured to be introducing a further permutation with a backlit eInk screen in their latest Kindles. The physical properties of a device certainly have an effect on the ease of reading – the soft texture of paper is very easy on the eye, for example, and doesn’t distract from the task of converting words into thoughts and ideas. However, the physical properties of the delivery mechanism can often be a distraction from the real problem with an unsatisfactory reading experience. And that problem – particularly noticeable when reading on digital devices – is poor typography.
Good typography, like good film editing, should be invisible. If you find yourself noticing words as you read, or stumbling over text layout, then typography is getting in the way, rather than helping you to process language. As soon as you notice it, typography has failed in its job.
Printed books tend to have very good typography. I’d go as far as to say that this is a large part of what people are referring to when they say they love traditional books. Specifically, printed books have five typographic advantages over their digital counterparts:
- The text is edited and typeset for a single display size, orientation and aspect ratio
- Text layout is designed on high-end layout systems for a fixed text layout with skilled human involvement
- The delivery device’s physical properties are tailored to provide the best typographic environment for text layout, with optimal line lengths and margins
- Pagination can be optimised to suit paragraph length, illustration positioning and annotations
- Illustrations and diagrams can be tailored to suit the specific properties of a single known layout and page size
Effectively, a book can be considered as a content delivery device running a single app with one purpose, with a fixed display size and aspect ratio, where everything about the device’s properties has been optimised for the typographic needs of that one particular app.
In comparison, eBooks are device-agnostic, with text that reflows to fit the current device’s properties. All five of the typographic advantages above are reversed:
- Text has to be able to reflow to suit any screen size, orientation and aspect ratio, and is not tailored to any one optimal set-up
- Text layout is calculated automatically on a low-powered device based on generic layout rules
- The delivery device is often multi-purpose (e.g. iPad), with physical properties defined to support a multitude of use cases, rather than optimal properties for reading
- Pagination is based on automated rules, rather than being hand-tailored and tweaked for a single set-up
- Illustrations and diagrams have to be able to fit on a lowest-common-denominator device, sacrificing clarity for portability
Of course, there are advantages to an eReader – such as weight, capacity and accessibility – but typographical precision is always lost as a trade-off for flexibility. The (non-Fire) Kindles go some way to mitigating point three – they, too, are essentially a single-app device with a fixed display size and ratio – but they still suffer from content designed for flexibility rather than precision of layout.
Each of the typographical limitations mentioned above can get in the way of seamless reading. The problem is exacerbated when one or more of the five are combined. These factors, more than the physical properties of a device’s screen technology, tend to be the barriers to fluent digital reading.
Until eBook typography can match the quality of a crafted, printed book, eBooks will struggle to elicit the same instinctive love as their beautifully-typeset physical counterparts. Given that typographic precision is mutually exclusive with portability of content, we may never reach that goal, however good display technology may become.
Do you disagree? If so, let me know – I’m @daveaddey on Twitter.