Dom’s pet hate corner #2

html.pngOkay, not HTML per se, but HTML when it applies to eBooks.

HTML for web sites? Brilliant idea, and even it if it wasn’t, I’m not going to suggest changing it now.

But when the idea of eBooks was first floated, we had a completely clean slate; we could have gone anywhere, done anything. Instead, we plumped for a technology that had already shown how difficult it is to get the same look and feel across different devices.

I guess that HTML offered two main advantages at the time:

  1. Familiarity – everyone’s seen it, so most designers know how to use it.
  2. Ubiquity – yes, it’s everywhere.
  3. Non-proprietary – we could have gone with Microsoft’s DOCX format, or Adobe PDF, but despite being almost as ubiquitous as HTML, they’re pretty much owned by their creators, and that doesn’t sit well with folk.

The problem I have with HTML is that it’s great for rendering to a given set of rules, but not so good for accurate typesetting, which is something we’ve enjoyed with printed books for hundreds of years.

Like many self-publishers, I have versions of my books for the Kindle, iOS, and print versions Createspace and Ingram Spark. The printed versions are easy to produce with a little practice and a good word processor (I use Mellel because its style handling is superb). If I want to tweak spacing or move a hanging line back a page, no problem. If I’m not happy with the way a font renders an ellipsis character then I can craft my own. Now, this may not seem very important, but I think an attractively typeset book helps to keep people reading (though of course nothing can save a book if it’s telling a really poor story).

With HTML, these anally-retentive little tweaks can be much harder. My ellipsis trick  can be made to work, but because of the slight rendering differences between iBooks and Kindles, I need a version for each device if I want things to show perfectly.

Yes, today’s devices do have advantages over traditional print books: your readers can pick the font and text size they’re most comfortable with for one thing. (Every so often I pick up a book at Waterstones and wonder what manner of superhuman can handle text that small over a long period of time.)

But some days (like today) when I’m struggling to get a paragraph with a image inside it to look just right, then I wish that we’d gone for something a little closer to PDF: what’s on your screen is what your readers get on their device.

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