How Publishers Can Make Ebooks More Reader Friendly

I am now around twenty-five thousand words into a book project (details to come), and I’ve already given some thought to the book’s packaging. In today’s world, “packaging” includes ebook formatting as well as print design.

My goal is to format my book, both in print and in ebook, so that it is as reader-friendly as possible. Unfortunately, most other publishers fail miserably at that task. Here I offer my ideas for improving today’s books as published in multiple formats.

First, as a point of contrast, I’ll mention a bad experience I had recently with book formatting. I purchased Blackwell’s (extremely expensive) A Companion to Ayn Rand, an excellent book in every way except for its ebook formatting. (I purchased the Kindle edition as the print version is even more outrageously expensive.)

So what’s wrong with the book? It is sloppily formatted, for one thing; a number of the endnote markers do not properly link to the notes. That’s not too big a deal, but you’d think that for an asking price of $43.99 the publisher would go out of its way to provide a clean text.

The book has two more important problems.

First, it provides parenthetical citations in the text along with a list of references. In the print version, running down a complete citation, then, means flipping back and forth from the parenthetical citations to the references section—which is annoying. Things are even worse when using the ebook, as it’s not easy to flip back and forth to the references section. My solution to this—an imperfect solution—was to load the same book on my mobile device as well as on my desktop so that I could look at two sections at once. If an ebook requires the simultaneous use of two different devices to read it, that’s an indication the ebook is badly formatted.

Second, the book does not indicate page numbers. I’m just not going to use Kindle “locations” for a citation; doing so would be ridiculous. There needs to be some standardized way to cite passages from a book—which means (usually) the use of real page numbers. Several years ago I outlined a very simple way for publishers to include real page numbers in ebooks, but, to my knowledge, no publisher (except me) has done this. (This is more relevant to nonfiction books.)

I want to emphasize here that Companion is a very good book as far as its contents go; my complaints here pertain only to the ebook formatting of it.

For my own project, I’ve already written a preliminary draft of a little section on formatting. I might revise this text for my purposes, but I thought the draft might offer some ideas to other publishers struggling to figure out how to produce a book that translates well from the printed page to a free-flowing ebook. Here’s the relevant text:

Page Numbers: In free-flowing ebook versions (as opposed to the print version and the pdf), I have inserted page numbers in the text in subscripted brackets so as to allow for standardized citations. I find it extremely irritating that other publishers do not offer clear page breaks in ebooks. I realize that Kindle does offer a way to roughly track pages relative to the printed version; however, this does not clearly indicate where pages begin and end. (A representative from Amazon confirmed to me that this is the case; see our exchange.)

Citation Style: In all cases I include all of the relevant information (such as the publisher) in a citation. I realize this creates some redundancy; however, I find the alternatives even more annoying. I strongly dislike the practice of using abbreviated citations in the text and then listing all the works cited elsewhere. As a reader, that causes me to look in two different places to figure out how to run down a given reference—something that’s especially hard to do when using an ebook. I also dislike using “ibid” or truncated citations after the first reference; again, that causes me to waste time looking through the notes for what I need.

Citation Placement: In a pdf or on a printed page, I strongly prefer that endnotes appear at the bottom of the page, so that I do not have to continually flip back and forth. (This doesn’t work well for authors who run on in their notes.) However, with ebook versions in which text flows freely, it is not feasible to display the text and the citations simultaneously. My solution to this is to put the citations at the bottom of the page in print and in the pdf and at the back in free-flowing ebook versions. With free-flowing ebooks, then, readers can go back and forth between the text and the notes by using the internal links. In order to keep straight on which printed page an endnote appears, in the free-flowing ebooks I add the relevant page number in brackets next to the endnote. Again, this facilitates standardized citations.

Ebook Formats: This work is available for sale only through Amazon in print and Kindle. However, I recognize that some readers might prefer a pdf or epub version of the text. As a courtesy, when feasible and at my discretion, I will send purchasers of the print or Kindle version the other versions as well. If you would like me to consider emailing you a zipped file containing the various ebook versions, please email me at [omitted]; with your request, include proof of purchase from Amazon and a statement that you will not share the files with any other party without my explicit, written permission.

No Index: I am not including an index with this work, as I doubt indexes usually are useful given modern technology. As noted above, purchasers of the print book may request the ebook files as well, so they can use standard digital search functions to locate particular names and terms. Although I can imagine scenarios in which an index might be more useful than a simple digital search, I didn’t think it would be more useful here. Another reason not to include an index is that indexes do not translate well to free-flowing ebooks.

A Note to Other Publishers: If you read the remarks above, you’ll notice that I actually paid attention to the needs of ebook readers along with the needs of print readers and modified the text accordingly. I sincerely wish that other publishers would make similar efforts rather than waste my time (and other readers’ time) with stupidly formatted texts. Most publishers seem not to have figured out yet that it’s the Twenty-First Century.

September 30, 2016 Update: In my book Reclaiming Liberalism and Other Essays on Personal and Economic Freedom, I offered a modified version of the plan described above, as described in the publication notes:

To facilitate standardized citations of this book, ebook editions include subscripted, bracketed numbers corresponding to the beginning of pages in the print edition. (The ebook is free-flowing, so of course a bracketed number may appear anywhere on a display screen.)

The print edition uses footnotes, so each note appears at the bottom of the page on which its note marker appears (and no note splits between pages). In ebook editions, the notes appear together near the end, and hyperlinks shuttle between note markers and notes. To reduce the need to flip pages, each note includes all of the relevant citation information, except where “ibid.” or an abbreviated citation could be substituted on the same printed page.

Image: Volker Oppmann (ONKEL & ONKEL)