Tuesday, March 15, 2011

As It Was in the Days of Kindle...

We live in the days of Kindle. There's no denying that e-book readers have much to offer; users can carry thousands of books around with them. Cost of production is virtually eradicated. And the trees saved…well, as I said, there are many good reasons to invest in an e-book reader, and use it regularly.

But here's another thing. The most popular e-book readers--like Kindle--don't support graphics. Users are offered a few simple type options, and a range of sizes, and that's pretty much it. The thinking is that this reduces file size, I think, and is supposed to enhance reading efficiency.

It also strips books of their visual elements--their illustrations, their page layouts, and their font stylings. Does this matter? Well, yes. Quick now, which of these words is the "holiest?"


Which of these was written by someone in tie-dye and a medallion, which by someone wearing barrettes, and which by men laying the foundations of a nation?


A book's design--the fonts and illustrations used, the size of the type and margins, even the amount of space between the letters and lines--can create a powerful image, even before we read a word. They set the stage for the book's content every bit as much as the sound track and lighting set the stage for a movie. And all of that is lost on most e-book readers. It's a bit like watching a movie--with the image and the soundtrack turned off. Or reading Shakespeare, rather than watching it performed.

Our history as a literate species begins with pictures--pictures on cave walls, pictures on cathedrals, pictures in devotional books. In ages when most could not read, stories were told--and told powerfully--in pictures.

We've been a visual species from the beginning, a literate species for a few thousand years. The walls of cathedrals bore the Church's message to the masses far more than any printed document. As children, our first books are picture books. The visual and tactile experience a printed book can provide is still impossible to replicate on the most popular e-book readers.

Some readers are beginning to move into the graphic world; Barnes and Nobles' Nook offers a graphic, color experience--and the hope that our future may include books that replicate the graphic, emotional experience that designed and printed books offer now.

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Sherry Wachter has been designing and illustrating all sorts of things--including books--for nearly fifteen years. She has written, designed, illustrated, and self-published two novels--one of which won the 2009 Best of the Best E-books Award--and several picture books. She does not own an e-book reader. To learn more about book design or to see her work visit her online at Magic Dog Press.

26 comments :

  1. Which is one of the reasons I like my Nook. It's a step in the right direction.

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  2. I didn't get the kindle. I got the color Nook and am glad I did. But, I do long for those long ago days when printed books were king. But, there are compensations. I can afford to read more books through eBooks.

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  3. In 10 years (or less) the technology will be there I'm sure to carry all typefaces and images.

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  4. To each his own. Depends on what you're looking for.

    The Kindle focuses on the reading experience, with less gimmicks. Since I'm easily distracted, gimmicks are a bad thing for me. Also, the Kindle is easy on the eyes, so I don't get as tired as I used to when reading. I love the Kindle experience.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://morganmandel.blogspot.com

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  5. The option for illustrations, typography, etc. is an important factor in ePublishing; all eReaders will have this option eventually.

    The bigger issue is keeping advertisements from littering a story.

    But I suspect (hope) there will be a button to take care of that nuisance.

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  6. I got a Kindle, but I do mourn the loss of design elements. Good book design thrills me, pure and simple. Your illustration about the girl in barrettes, etc. said so much. Well done.

    I used to have a resume service and I enjoyed the work very much. I stopped once all people were interested in was a word dump on Monster.com. Why? The loss of the design elements--which not only say "professional" or "creative," but also enhance the hierarchy of information in a variety of ways.

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  7. I'm considering publishing some of my picture books on Nook, Linda and Ann, so I've started doing a bit more digging into what they offer, and how it replicates (or does not replicate) the design experience.

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  8. Thing is, Morgan, a good book design shouldn't be a distraction--it should help to focus and direct attention, and enhance and simplify the reading experience. And that sort of design is lost on the Kindle, too. That said, though, I think Liza's right; it won't be long before the technology catches up to us and there will be classes in designing a book for e-readers. It's a different technology, and wonderful in many ways--this is just one of its limitations, as I see it.

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  9. I'm not sure I understand why advertisements would need to be in the stories any more than they'd need to be in a printed book, Oliver. I don't have an e-reader (other than my computer) so if someone can elucidate this I'd be grateful.

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  10. You're right, Kathryn--good design is a lot more than just making the page pretty--it's a way of ranking information, and making it more accessible. I'm planning a post on choosing a good font for a book, and I've got this wonderful page from the Canterbury Tales to serve as an illustration of what NOT to do. The font is lovely, calligraphic, all the things the artist in me loves--and yet it was a terrible font choice for text. The Bayeux Tapestry is actually much better. And yes, I DO read stuff in languages other than Middle English!

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  11. That might be the selling point for me with an e-reader. I've been holding off just because I'm so unsure about what to get, but color might do the trick for me. What I can't understand is how illustration would translate to such a small screen. Seems like the only option for kidlit is the iPad or a regular computer screen. Has anyone tried the Nook with an illustrated children's title?

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  12. And non-fiction reading like garden books and cookbooks heavy in illustration. How do those convert on a Nook? Obviously my reading is very different from Morgan's as the Nook now seems like it offers the only features I'd be interested in with the iPad, but in a much smaller, more comfortable reading size.

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  13. I think this post is a good argument for the fact that some books will always do better in paper than as an e-book. For strictly reading a novel for the entertainment value of the story, I am leaning more and more toward e-books. For enjoying a book for pictures, design, etc, I turn to paper. And I do believe that more design elements will be added to e-books as this new technology evolves.

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  14. An iPad allows you to use the Kindle app for the Kindle experience and the Nook app for the Nook experience. Best, however, is the iBook app that provides the design experience—typography, color illustrations, etc.— as well as the interactive experience that some books have.

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  15. I heard an interesting comment from a publisher who said she has a Kindle and she loads it with books that she reads. She still buys "real" books, but with an eye to the aesthetics - they have to be appealing in their design. Her comment was that she now sees real books as more objets d'art, if you will. I thought it was an interesting shift in consumer buying.

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  16. Though I love my Kindle, it's true that something is lost. That's especially true when line breaks are important, as with poetry.

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  17. I've been doing some digging into Nook, Dani, which offers a graphic interface, and claims to be a good option for children's books. I'm hoping to get one or two of my books onto that platform in the near future, so I can see how it works. From what I've seen, it should also be possible to include some simple element animation, which would be great for kids' books. Now I'm wondering if it offers read-aloud capabilities. If so, the options for including some really exciting teaching features as add-ons to simple storybooks become very interesting. It's not the same as a picture storybook--I can't feature parents letting their kids carry an e-book reader to bed with them at night--but I can see where it could be an exciting new medium all on its own.

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  18. And as for cookbooks, can you imagine a cookbook that offers the graphic treatment cookbooks require--and video clips illustrating assembling the recipe? I could see this becoming a crossover between cookbooks and cooking shows, with all sorts of tools available--or not available, as the user chose.

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  19. I'm with you, I think, Maryann--I suspect that there will always be a place for both printed books and e-books. I for one am very glad Kindle exists, since I sell far more of my Kindle books than I do of my paper books--but there are simply some applications that e-readers don't do as well. And there are some where e-readers are simply impractical. Also, I find myself wondering if it's really a good idea to allow our knowledge base to become so locked up in electronics that, when the Big One hits and the power grids go down and everybody's Kindle runs out of battery we're back to scratching our heads and wondering just how it was that we preserved our foods before they came to us canned in Safeway.

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  20. So you're saying, Becky, that iBook replicates the visual experience pretty accurately? That's good to know. What e-book platform does that work on? iPad? So we're down to having lost the tactile experience of the book for us grown-ups, and needing something that will withstand gumming and drool for the toddlers among us.

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  21. I love the idea of books as art objects, Gayle. I have to say I'm leaning that way in the books I've been designing. What I'm finding is that the vast preponderance of my sales are e-books (Kindle, since that's what I've got them on, but I can see from the comments here that I really need to step up my research into other formats), but I'm still not willing to give up the aesthetics of design. However, since e-books have become such a viable alternative it frees me up to be more creative in my layouts, since I'm less dependent on meeting the requirements of national distributors for my sales. It means that I can produce beautiful, beautiful books for the "books as art" crowd (your friend and me, at this point) and still have my book widely available as an e-book, where most of my sales happen.

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  22. True, Bob--
    Any poem that depends on typography and shape for its meaning (e. e. cummings, and some of the metaphysical poets, for instance) would lose much of its meaning. Besides (and I know this is the Luddite in me) there's just something about the experience of sitting down with a book of Shakespeare that isn't replicated by pixels. Also, I'm a big underliner and writer-in-the-margin. It's a great way for me to really understand something I'm studying. Unless readers include a feature like Acrobat sticky notes and mark-ups, I would find an e-book unsatisfactory as a study tool.

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  23. I, too have the NOOKcolor. Love the interactive kids books (as does my grandson). Hubster got it for journals and magazines, because he needs the color illustrations.

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  24. I like what you have to say about interactive children's books and Nook, Terry. Sounds like that's a program worth exploring. I'm wondering how widespread its use is compared to Kindle.

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  25. Nook Color review:

    http://www.engadget.com/2010/11/16/nook-color-review/

    Long and useful.

    Dani

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  26. I love both of my Kindles, they're easy on the eye and easy on my carpal tunnel syndrome wrists, and I read so much faster on the Kindle. I would only need illustrations in a text book or such, not a novel. Because of my three year old, I will get an iPad sometime so that her books can be in color however and she can play educational games and such but for now, she has the Story Reader. I have not yet seen the need for the Nook for me and I don't miss the glare. And the Kindle does not have ads on it. ;)

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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