Typography is about reading – and so are ebooks

Amazon’s latest UK Kindle ad shows how little care it takes over the typography of the ebooks that it hosts. This is their latest full-page ad in the Guardian. I can just about forgive the opening words in ALL CAPITALS, because, although letterspaced SMALL CAPITALS are much nicer, even William Morris resorted to chapter openings in the all-up style. The real give-away is the confusion of the hyphen with the dash. My first reading of the opening sentence assumed a Joycean style, mimicking ‘riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s’, followed by ‘doubt-but’ (what a disbelieving goat does?). But no, I was supposed to read those tiny, close-up horizontal marks as dashes – and then the parenthetical clause should become clear. Except it doesn’t. And William Boyd is a parenthetical stylist, a major dash-monger, with three on the opening page of Ordinary Thunderstorms, all decisively mangled by Kindle. He also believes in the use of the hyphen when creating compound adjectives: ‘pale-faced’, ‘even-featured’, ‘charcoal-grey’. Oh dear, they get mangled too, as Kindle thinks that they are non-breaking hyphens, and so studiously avoids correctly justifying the line preceding them to ensure that the compounded words are not (as they should be) divided by a line break. Here by the way is the printed original:

How can so little care be given to the presentation of text on a[n electronic] page? Do publishers care, or even realize, what is happening to the texts they lovingly commission, copy-edit, and proof-read, when they enter the electronic domain? 
I wonder, especially if they sub-contract the ebooking of their print files to Amazon, rather than apply quality control themselves. Here, for example, is a complaint on Amazon about a student edition:
‘The reason for the poor review is not anything relating to the translation, but the rendering of text not only in this book, but many of [this publisher’s] translations released in this series. The main problem is that the text is not rendered in a clean manner, so that, for example if you highlight “Livy” in the introduction of this text it is rendered “Liz7"” when you look under “highlights and annotations”. This means that if you search for “Livy”, your search will not find this word. This has been a constant problem in a number of this publisher's books. I have contacted them about the issue but have received no response. I would recommend [another publisher’s] text which provides a clean rendering of the text as well as hyperlinks to the footnotes which this publisher does not provide.’
The image below is not from the text criticized, but shows what happens when a printed book is scanned, word by word, to produce a searchable PDF. 
And the original print edition:
Note how the running headlines, which orient the reader so successfully in the print edition, are very little use in the ebook.
Not that other publishers are blameless: the following screenshots are from an edition of the Canterbury Tales, where we can see
  1. headings not identified as such, because they do not ‘keep’ with the following text; 
  2. headings (such as ‘NOTES’ which are at the wrong level in the heading hierarchy;
  3. misaligned note cues causing text misalignment;
  4. verse not correctly formatted, so that a turn-line does not indent, nor does the start of a line assigned a line number align correctly.

And here is the original printed page, showing text and notes simultaneously:
But at least this edition of Chaucer has line numbers. Another publisher's edition of Wilde simply omits them, leaving the reader floundering helplessly in relation to a citation in any other edition or critical text, or indeed in relation to the edition’s own notes, which are identified by line number, but are not accessible by hyperlink from the text.

Let’s look at the original print edition, and see how effectively the reader is oriented by indentation, headlines, line numbers, and page numbers; and how easily one can look up a note at the back of the book, and know where to return to in the main text.

In comparison with the inadequacies of consumer electronic texts, printed books are still miracles of compact, considerate texts that care for their readers, and how they are used.


Here’s an interesting link to a TeX implementation of justification on a Kindle.

Edit 2

Thanks to all the readers who picked up my misreadings and misspellings.