A Call for Beauty in E-Books

Illuminated Manuscript Koran, The right side of a double-page illumination, Walters Art Museum MS. W.575, fol. 2b by Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts

A few weeks ago, I finished editing the proofs of my new book Epistolophilia. It was a great feeling to see the text typeset, designed, and looking official (and beautiful). This, in combination with some back and forth about cover design a month or so ago has got me thinking about how books look. And whether or not, as e-books gain traction, we may be hearing the death knell of book design as a profession.

My new e-reader is what sparked all this. Not long ago, for the first time ever, I paid good money for two electronic books. The transaction was fast, easy, and the product light-weight. But there was one real drawback for me: design.

There is none.

Instead of a carefully chosen font and luxurious white space around images to rest a reader’s eyes, the text pours into the page haphazardly. Large spaces gape between words without rhyme or reason, and endnotes (of which I am not an enemy, and yes, I realize this makes me a minority) are rendered basically unusable.

For some reason, the electronic jumble of text bothers me less when I’m reading books from Project Gutenberg (like Middlemarch). These are free, and no one is making any money off them (I don’t think…), so I don’t expect a paid designer to be in the mix.

But electronic books that cost about as much as a paper copies? These too should come in contact with the hand of a designer before they reach my screen.

A friend and I disagree on this point. He claims that all I have to do is play with the text on my e-reader: I can manipulate both font style and size myself!

And he says this like it’s a good thing.

But I don’t buy it. It feels like a con. It feels like work that the publisher should have paid for. It feels like a designer out of a job. And it feels like disrespect for both reader and writer.

And so, here’s my new call: a bit of beauty in the e-book business please!


[Photo: Illuminated Manuscript Koran, The right side of a double-page illumination, Walters Art Museum MS. W.575, fol. 2b, by Walters Art Museum]

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7 Replies to “A Call for Beauty in E-Books”

  1. I completely agree with you, Julija – and by the way, what a beautiful name.
    I’ve recently started using the iPad for reading through my travels. I don’t see where enough design goes into the layouts and the art. I miss the aesthetics involved with holding a book in my hands and seeing the care a person put into their work. I realize that the e-format is evolving, and I hope your suggestions are heard.
    Kind Regards,
    Heidi Lee

  2. Hi Julija,
    I saw your post via She Writes, and you make a good point. Ebooks have (finally) gone mainstream, but book design is still very important.

    My husband and I have been producing ebooks since 2003 and the technology has changed dramatically in the last few years than for all the years prior. With the various readers and formats, if you don’t know what you’re doing, the final product will look messy and will be hard to read.

    You can tell an ebook that has been properly formatted from those that haven’t. There are different formatting requirements for PDF, ePUB, PRC, LIT, etc., and if you don’t know what you’re doing…

    I recently got a review copy of a book from a major NY publisher to read on my Kindle, and I have to say it was not formatted properly for the device and that made a HUGE difference not only in reading the book, but navigating within the book.

    But, I do agree with you that book design is still very important regardless of print or ebooks. As ebooks gain popularity, the reading public will demand (if they don’t already) that ebooks are just as visually appealing on their reading device as a print version. Authors and publishers should take time to do it right–or hire someone to do it for them. It’s not impossible. We do it for a living.

    I love print books AND ebooks, and I DO want to read ebooks that are properly formatted and visually appealing.

  3. We are all losing out not only on the tactile pleasure of holding a book but also the visual pleasure of cover, paper, typography, layout… not to mention knowing (without looking at the cold “156 out of 15888 pages” at the bottom of the e-page) whether we’re a quarter, a half, or almost finished. I also have a stash of bookmarks that sit in a cup at my desk, unused.

    I believe in the beauty of type, of design, and I don’t believe that this has to be lost on e-readers. All you have to do is look at the beauty of so many of the apps on the ipad.

    A lover of books and printing in general, I come from a magazine background (and one where design was intrinsic to the character of the publication), and am pleased to see how some magazines not only simulate the printed pages, but surpass them…especially some fashion and food magazines where the images are so beautiful (far more high-definition than one can achieve with offset printing) that it actually makes you want to touch them (or eat them, in the case of a food magazine)! I prefer reading my magazines on my ipad even though (and this will end soon, as it’s a big waste) I receive the hard copy too.

    So, yes, I so very much agree with you, but I don’t think all hope is lost. Man (and woman, of course) loves beauty, and we are in the infancy of e-readers. I am certain that the quality of the e-reading experience will only get better.

  4. I rather like the ability to choose text size in spite of the horrible line and page breaks–my eyes aren’t so good anymore. But illustrations, charts, maps–hopeless. Book designers need to take a page from some of the magazines I get on my iPad–e.g., book designers of the future will need to be pretty computer-savvy.

  5. the article:
    Hi All,
    thanks for your comments. The digital issue is something we’re all still figuring out, so I’m interested in all your experiences and thoughts. Tracey (above) sent me the following links. The latter is the cover in question — it’s a very cool YA book cover that “bloops” as you run your mouse over it. The cover gave me hope that there’s movement in the direction of beauty. Thanks, Tracey!


    the cover


  6. I’m just getting over here from SW. I have to agree that there is no excuse for taking the idea of design out of the publication of e-books. I’ll always be a real book reader. My Kindle is for convenience and travel because I like the feel and beauty of a book. I actually read the page at the back of books that tell you what font was used. I choose one edition of a classic over another frequently based on the design features. I don’t expect e-readers to give me the equivalent to the Book of Kells, but now they don’t even try.

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