The latest edition of UI guru Jakob Nielsen’s newsletter showed up in my inbox this morning, and it focuses on a topic near and dear to my heart: ebook formatting.
One might think that ebook formatting would be nearly perfect in 2014, but as we rapidly approach the Kindle’s 7th anniversary the Neilsen Group reminds us that badly formatted nonfiction ebooks are not hard to find.
To my disappointment classical texts such as Shakespeare’s plays have very little electronic support. Most versions available do not support annotations, or, when annotated, risibly follow the limitations of the paper medium, as in the screenshot below.
And there are still ebooks that fail to make use of links as a way of hiding text, in particular text that needs to stay hidden:
Custom sections that can be optionally read by those interested can be easily supported through hyperlinks, yet ebooks still have to take advantage of it. A “spoiler alert,” for instance, is unnecessary: instead the spoiler text could be placed on a separate page, accessible through a hyperlink. By inserting it in the text, the editors force the readers to go through those spoiler pages until they find the spot where they can continue reading.
And then there’s the issue with tables, images, and other illustrations. Sigh:
Textbooks and other non-fiction books frequently supplement text with figures, tables, and images. These are essential learning tools, but, somewhat paradoxically, their deployment in digital books is suboptimal. From the beginning beautiful images on high-resolution screens were a tablet strength, yet the illustrations found in ebooks are often low resolution and look unappealing. And the interactions around figures and tables are cumbersome. For instance, many times figures are shown on a separate page than their captions or tables may be split across several pages.
With all the problems that the Neilsen Group found, does this mean that ebooks are still as badly formatted as they were 7 years ago?
In a word, no. Or at the very least you can’t prove it from that single post.
While some ebooks do have problems like the ones mentioned here, it’s not a good idea to extrapolate from a single set of examples to all of a given category. (It would be like looking at that one post in the Neilsen Group website and concluding that web formatting was stuck in the 2000s – yes, it is that bad).
I don’t own very many nonfiction ebooks, but I do own enough that I can say that I have very rarely had issues as bad as the ones illustrated above.
For example, I recently bought a bundle of books on writing (the NaNoWriMo HumbleBundle, to be exact). Almost all of the books were well formatted; in fact, the only badly formatted ebooks all came from the same author.
The rest of the books looked just fine on both my ereaders and tablet, and while that doesn’t prove that formatting issues are uncommon it does suggest how one should look at this issue.
Rather than look at these examples as a representative sample of the state of nonfiction formatting, I choose to see them as a list of worst practices. They are to be avoided when formatting ebooks.
What about you? How often do you encounter badly formatted nonfiction ebooks?
Update: A reader has pointed out that a lot of nonfiction is sold in PDF (and to a lesser degree, fixed layout Epub) – something that did not even occur to me. This puts a different spin on my experience, and it explains why I had encountered so few bad ebooks.