A Q&A about book design amid the changes in publishing

Katie Peek over at A Canary in the Data Mine: Explorations of Data Analysis and Information Display blog posted an interview with me on the topic of book design and the changing world of electronic publishing.

By |March 11th, 2010|Categories: Book Design|Tags: , , , , , , |Comments Off on A Q&A about book design amid the changes in publishing

Designing for the iPad

The day after. This is a book design blog, so you’d expect me to write about iBooks, the dazzling ePub reader built into the iPad. But I’m not. (Well, I will a bit). And I’m not going to write about what features are lacking in iPad (first generation, after all) or if there’s even a market for this type of device: duh. And I’m not going to waste time debating the backlight. There are a lot more important things to do, such as figuring out how to design content for this new device. Notice: I said designing content, not designing e-books.

iBooks is a response to the market-driven phenomenon of people wanting to read hundreds of pages of text on a computer screen. Is that the best we can do, read text on a screen? Personally, I want to use an ultra-modern computing device for engaging with content in ways not possible merely with text. (Of course, I’m talking primarily about non-fiction here. I love literary fiction & the interplay of words, sentence after sentence, though I still prefer my novels in print. But that’s just a personal preference.)

And I’m not talking about enhanced e-books, which often mean no more than just some multimedia tacked onto the end. Adherents of e-books are constantly stressing the importance of breaking away from the concept of the printed page. Yet, the ePub reader on iPad uses a page concept & strongly reinforces the concept of the physical book (transplanted to the screen).

I’m interested in breaking away from the concept of the page & the physical book. But I’m not too interested in a lengthy stream of re-flowing text. The page, the physical book, & even the re-flowing text are all great in their own ways if you want is to read 80,000 words on a topic. But I seldom have that much time. But I am interested in learning. And don’t we read non-fiction because we want to learn?

Maybe I only need a stimulating 10,000 words arranged in even smaller, bite-sized chunks seasoned with imagery for obtaining an overview of a topic. A multi-touch screen allows me to interact with the content, furthering my retention of ideas. A playful, game-like component pulls me further into the narrative. (Remember, narratives don’t have to be linear or even textual.) I would buy such a product, a content app that started me along the journey of exploring an unfamiliar topic. I love to learn, I love to read. So what’s next: I would then purchase a more in-depth book on the topic (either in print or as an e-book).

Listen up publishers: you just sold me two separate products. Think about that.

How can digital media aid in learning about a topic in a visually engaging manner? That’s the challenge we should address in designing for the iPad. The iPad gets us a big step closer.

As I think about designing content for the iPad, I’m not thinking so much about ePub. I want to breakout of whatever constraints & restrictions imposed by the ePub rendering engine. The iPad provides a robust canvas. When I think of paid content on the iPad, I’m not just thinking e-books. I’m also thinking apps.

The app development environment for iPhone is superb and is the basis for the iPad SDK. There’s an NDA around the iPad SDK beta. So, no specifics here.

Here at sorodesign we are working to develop some apps for the iPhone & the iPad that revolve around content but are not at all what one would think of as e-books or even enhanced e-books. We’re experimenting. Designing for the iPhone & the iPad requires creativity. That’s exciting.

And what is required from all of us for devices like the iPhone, the iPad, & similar products from other vendors that will come along: new ways of writing, editing, designing, publishing, & reading.

By |January 28th, 2010|Categories: Book Design|Tags: , , |20 Comments

e-book DESIGN (some Q & A)

We’vet just finished the e-book guide 4 Perfect Days in Buenos Aires. It was a process full of questioning many things that are, should or could be different from printed books. (Another post will address why PDF and not some other format for this e-book.)
Here I’ll share some of the topics that we came across while working:

ORIENTATION: portrait or landscape?

By thinking that we are designing a ‘book’ the impulse is always to go with a known book format (portrait), but since the screen is landscape, it’d be useful to follow that format if the e-book is intended to be read on screen.
However, when we read a print book we are always looking at a landscape format from the moment we open the book: the double page. So finally, I decided to go landscape, but as double page to keep the book familiarity and avoid the feel of a PowerPoint presentation.

Should we use COLOR or B&W?

Should we do it full color? We can! So why not?

A full color e-book can be done for the same price and will be more attractive since it’s full of graphics… ok, let’s think about the audience: what if the people want to actually print it and take it with them? Remember this is a tourist guide!
WHAT TO DO? We decided to work on 2 versions: a screen version with images & full color for people to enjoy, read and look at while planning the trip; and a print version that is B&W with a simpler layout. So by printing 11 letter-size pages of the print version then the reader can have the complete text to go.
Here an example of the screen version and the print version:

One complicated part we encountered was a double page with an architectural walking tour that included buildings photos: in this case we just left the map in the print version with references (so people could find the buidings) without images and included the text of that section:

To keep the feel of the book, the print version has the same text orientation (landscape), so by slightly modifying the original grid it was ready:

TYPOGRAPHY: screen font or book font?

I wanted a font family that could be used for the whole project, including the print version. The Rotis family was the choice because of the maximum readability and many options to combine the different levels of hierarchies of headings and text. The main text is set in Rotis Sans Serif and the headings are Rotis Serif & Rotis Semi Serif.

With or without LINKS?

I find it useful when a multi-page document (e-book in this case) has anchors from the Table of Contents linking to the corresponding pages in the e-book. Also since this is an e-book all Web sites mentioned in the e-book are actual links embedded in the document.


To be consistent with the landscape look of the whole project, the cover was done in the same style, so when opening the document all the pages are the same size, including the cover.

By |February 23rd, 2009|Categories: Book Design|Tags: , , |3 Comments

The future of book design

Book design will diverge down several paths and has a surprisingly healthy future.

1) E-books based on a reflow format (i.e., suitable for small devices) will be based on common style sheets and exhibit a fairly uniform appearance. There will be a set of small (in size) firms that customize and refine these style sheets. Publishers will mostly outsource the format conversion since the ever changing variety of devices requires continual reformating of material. There will be some firms that profit very well from providing this service.

2) E-books based on PDFs also will be very popular due to the variety of light-weight computing devices with large screens. (The whole PDF vs reflow format for e-books is misleading unless one assumes that small, palm-sized devices will completely replace all other forms of desktop, notebook, and tablet-sized computers.)

3) Some material traditionally only published in book format will shift to Web delivery and “book” design for this genre actually is Web design. Many challenges for publishers in this segment who have not yet figured out how to monetize Web sites. (If publishers have not figured that out in the last 15 years, will the next 15 years be much different?) Many opportunities for new publishing firms to emerge to fill the gap for producing and monetizing engaging content using digital media. Many opportunities for designers since elegant Web design is neither simple nor cheap.

4) Print-on-demand establishes a significant market operating in bookstores, libraries, big-box retail outlets, and direct shipping to consumers. All those books still need designing and the PDF byproduct can feed directly into pathway #2 above as well as #1 with conversion services offered in pathway #1.

5) Print book designers will still flourish as some publishers will realize that a niche audience is willing to pay a premium for a wonderfully designed book, heralding a surprising renaissance in book design. Also, print book designers can design PDF-based e-books with no problem since PDF is usually a byproduct in the print book design process.

By |December 22nd, 2008|Categories: Book Design|Tags: , , , , , |8 Comments


Yesterday we talked about some of the problems with the current generation of e-books. And by e-book we’re not talking about the types that require a proprietary hardware reader. We mean just digital files (usually PDF) that can be purchased online.

Travelfish is a company that specializes in producing downloadable guidebooks (eGuides) to travel spots in Southeast Asia. Each guide is available in PDF and costs around $2.95 – $3.95. For each eGuide book Travelfish tells the prospective buyer exactly how many pages and maps are included as well as other relevant information to help make your purchase decision.

And one of the things I like the best is that Travelfish provides screen snapshots of the interior layout of the eGuides.

travel e-book

That tells potential buyers that Travelfish isn’t trying to hide anything, isn’t attempting to rip someone off with a crappy e-book. Travelfish just put a little effort into making what appears to be a quality product.

I also like the low pricing of the Travelfish guides. I see a lot of e-books that charge the same as a printed hardcover volume. I think that a smaller page count along with a smaller price creates a better e-book product. Most books, even in print, don’t need to be 300 pages and an e-book certainly doesn’t need to be that long. Also, the low pricing should make the purchase an impulse buy for many people.

We think that Travelfish has a good model for the ways that e-books should be developed and marketed.

By |June 1st, 2007|Categories: e-book design|Tags: , |6 Comments


We’ve noticed that there’s a lot of demand for designing e-book covers. And as with all books there is quite a range of quality among the books. Many, if not most, e-books are not very well written. But maybe that’s also true with printed books if one counts all the self-published titles in existence. (There are some very good self-published books, but I think everyone knows that there are also a lot of bad books, too). Some of the e-books we’ve seen are nothing more than Word document files of less than ten pages.

And some e-books are just outright scams. There seems to be a lot of that floating around on the net. And, yes, you can waste money on printed books, too, but at least with print you can see what you buying in the bookstore before purchasing the thing. Most Web sites selling e-books don’t provide previews of any inside pages or even tell you the number of pages.

This brings us to the trend in designing e-book covers where an image is created to make the e-book resemble a printed book, appearing three dimensional with a spine.

We’ve done this ourselves for clients when requested. Here’s an e-book cover and Web page that we’ve designed:

e-book cover design

This isn’t a post to promote that particular e-book, which is why we’re not linking to that particular Web site. We just wanted to address this trend in designing e-book covers. Since we believe in design, we believe all books deserve a good design. There’s an interesting philosophical question as to whether design should be used to promote certain activities but we’ll leave that discussion to the pundits.

But we would like to call for e-book authors not to request an e-book cover that resembles a printed book. You don’t need that. If you want that, then we’ll design it for you but think about why you feel the need for it. What you need, as with any cover, is a compelling design. Indeed, with an e-book you also need a very well designed Web page. Far too many e-books are promoted from poorly designed Web sites.

Also, we would like to see more e-book authors pay attention to the layout and formatting of their interior pages. There is a lot that can be done in PDF. And e-book authors should also provide a preview of a few pages to prospective buyers. With just a little more work, by making a quality product, a quality e-book, you surely can sell more than if you just go for the quick buck from the unsuspecting, naive consumer. Let’s see more quality from e-books.

By |May 31st, 2007|Categories: e-book design|Tags: , |4 Comments