Any Guidelines Out There?

When I started thinking about polishing the draft Aladore EPUB, I hoped to find some clear design guidelines and best practices for creating ebooks.  However, I found very little!

Most of what is available is narrowly focused on a particular distributor (e.g. Amazon), usually discussing the publishing process not specific design details.  Thus, there are many guides for how to submit your work to a commercial distributor that will do secret magic behind the scenes to create the ebook for you, but hardly anything about how to do it yourself.

Furthermore, many guidelines focus on a single device (e.g. iPad). Although this side-steps some issues trying to accommodate the confusing inconsistency of ereaders, designing for a single device is not very sustainable because of rapid change.  For example, many people design based on the specs of the lucrative iPad and proprietary iBooks (a modified EPUB3 with tougher DRM). The iPad had a small set of build in fonts, so designers tend to reference those specific fonts in CSS. However, Apple suddenly changed the set of built in fonts, rendering those specific styling instructions useless. Embedding fonts to avoid this issue is rare with EPUBs since it would increase file size and complexity, as well as introduce legal licensing concerns.

In general, ebook design is a balance between print typography and web design, so resources from either field are partially relevant. Here are a few ebook specific resources that I found helpful:

  • Rebecca Springer, “User experience for illustrated non-fiction ebooks”, Ebookcraft 2015, https://booknetcanada.wistia.com/medias/upl69kizz6. Speaks about the user’s “hierarchy of needs” and specific areas to optimize user experience.
  • Joe Clark, “Web Standards for E-books,” A List Apart, March 09, 2010, http://alistapart.com/article/ebookstandards. Talks about the typical publisher workflow of MS Word to InDesign to HTML, which is fails to utilize the possibilities of semantic markup. Lists specific techniques that print layout designers do that should NOT be done in digital (in part because the rendering engines do it for you).
  • “CSS Property Reference”, EPUB 3 Accessibility Guidelines, IDPF, http://www.idpf.org/accessibility/guidelines/content/style/reference.php. Lists the subset of CSS2 elements that should be supported, but are not required.
  • Matthew Butterick, Practical Typography, http://practicaltypography.com. Butterick’s fascinating web-book platform has many tips and “rules” for typography. Interesting, but not actually very practical for epubs, since devices don’t support much of the styling he advocates.
  • Artie Moffa, “The Yellow Buick Review” blog, https://yellowbuickreview.wordpress.com. A hands-on project about representing poetry in ebooks, in some ways similar to Digital Aladore.
  • EPUB Zen Garden, https://web.archive.org/web/*/http://epubzengarden.com. Modeled on CSS Zen Garden, unfortunately this site is now defunct. However, Caraya has a packaged version available on GitHub, https://github.com/caraya/epub-zen. It uses an old version of epub.js with a drop down menu to switch between CSS styles. Its a great way to quickly switch between style options to see how they effect the rendering. Unfortunately, the epub.js is a buggy.

Finally, when considering the design of the Aladore ebook, I also looked closely at the original print editions of Aladore to get a sense for how it was first formatted and how its unique character might be represented.  The design of books is based on a thousand years of reading practice, there is no reason to re-invent everything!

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