Tagged: ebook

DigitalAladore 1.5, EPUB3 Edition!

Is DigitalAladore 1.0 looking crummy on your ultra high def 10 inch tablet screen?

Well, give DigitalAladore 1.5 a try! Following the workflow outlined in previous posts, I generated an Aladore EPUB3 edition. The images are much bigger and the CSS is slightly tweaked with larger screens in mind. Personally, I still find reading ebooks on tablets a bit unsatisfying, slightly too big and bright. But I think this version will look pretty good! However, at over 9MB it might be slow to load on your e-ink reader.

So with out further ado, you can find the new EPUB3 at Internet Archive,

DigitalAladore 1.5: Aladore, by Henry Newbolt (1914, epub3), https://archive.org/details/AladoreHenryNewbolt3

Lets Read Together: Chapter One



SIR YWAIN sat in the Hall of Sulney and did justice upon wrong-doers. And one man had gathered sticks where he ought not, and this was for the twentieth time; and another had snared a rabbit of his lord’s, and this was for the fortieth time; and another had beaten his wife, and she him, and this was for the hundredth time: so that Sir Ywain was weary of the sight of them. Moreover, his steward stood beside him, and put him in remembrance of all the misery that had else been forgotten.

And in the midst of his judging there was brought into the hall a child that had been found in the road, a boy of seven years as it seemed: and he was dressed in fine hunting green, but not after the fashion of that day or country. Also when they spoke to him he answered becomingly, but in a speech that no one could understand.

So Sir Ywain had him set by the table at his own side, and now and again as he judged those wrong-doers, he cast a look upon the child. And always the child looked back at him with bright eyes, and even when there was no looking between them, he listened to what was being said, and smiled as though that which was weariness to others was to him something new and joyful. But as the hour passed, Sir Ywain felt his mind slacken more and more, and whenever he saw the boy smiling, his own heart became heavier and heavier between his shoulders, and his life and the life of his people seemed like a high-road, dusty and endless, that might never be left without trespassing. And though he would not break off from his judging, yet he groaned over the offenders instead of rebuking them; and when he should have punished, he dismissed them upon their promise, so that his steward was mortified, and the guilty could not believe their ears.

Then when all was said and done the hall was cleared, and Sir Ywain was left alone with the boy.

But the steward, looking slyly back through the hinges of the door, saw that his lord and the child were speaking together; and he perceived that they understood one another well enough, though how this should have come about he was not able to guess, having himself heard the boy answering to all questions in none but an outlandish tongue.

Then he saw Sir Ywain rise up, and suddenly he was aware that his lord was calling for him loudly and with a hearty voice, as he would call for him long since, when they were at the wars together. And when he went in, Sir Ywain bade him summon all the household.

Now when the household were come into the hall they stood at a little distance from the dais, in the order of their service, and Sir Ywain stood above them in front of the high table. And beside him was the boy, and before him was his own brother, who was now an esquire grown, with hawk on wrist.

Then Sir Ywain bade his brother kneel down, and there he made him knight, taking his sword from him and laying it on his shoulder, and afterwards belting it again round his body. And he took the keys from his own girdle and the gold spurs from his own feet, and said aloud: I call you all to witness that as I have done off my knighthood and the Honour of Sulney, and given them to this my brother Sir Turquin, so also by these tokens do I deliver unto him the quiet possession of my house and goods and the seisin of all my lands, to hold unto him and his heirs for ever, by the service due and accustomed for the same. And henceforth I go free.

How Sir Ywain was led away of a Child

Then his brother, who was both glad and sorry, and moreover was still in doubt how this might end, stood holding the keys and the spurs, and looking at him without a word. And he looked also at the child, and he saw that for all the difference in their years, the eyes of Sir Ywain had become like the boy’s eyes: and as he looked his heart became heavy, and for a moment he envied his brother and feared for himself. But in his fear he moved his hands, and the keys clanked and the spurs clinked together, and his heart leaped up again for joy of his possessions.

And all this Ywain saw as it were a great way off, and he smiled, and forgot it again instantly. And the boy took his hand, and they went down the hall together. And when they came to the door to pass out, the steward got before them and bowed as he was used to do, and he spoke very gravely to Sir Ywain, reminding him that this same afternoon had been appointed among the lords, his neighbours, for the witnessing of certain charters.

But Ywain and the boy looked at one another and laughed, and the steward saw that they laughed at the lords and at him and at the very greatness of the business: and he was enraged, and turned away and went to his new master.

Then Sir Turquin came hastily after them, and he laid his hand upon his brother’s arm and bent his head a little, and spoke to him so that none else should hear, and he said: What is this that you are doing; for no man leaves all that he has, and departs suddenly, taking nothing with him. But those two went from him without answering, and they passed, as it seemed, very swiftly along the road under the woodside, and were hidden from him. And again, as he stood still watching, he saw them going swiftly above the wood where there was no path, but only the bare wold before them.

Keep reading: get the Digital Aladore ebook at Internet Archive!

New Aladore EPUB!

If you have been following along, all that prototyping, testing, and tweaking eventually brings us to a NEW Aladore EPUB! I am calling it DigitalAladore1.0, because there might be some more versions to come (for example conversion to epub3 standard)…

This is an EPUB2 file which should render well on dedicated e-ink readers for a high quality reading experience. The text is much better than the auto-generated editions I encountered at the beginning of this project (here is one of the source editions on Internet Archive with a crummy PDF and epub available). We have done a lot of work to go beyond the first Digital Aladore draft edition. The images are nicer, the underlying mark up is sensible, the metadata is complete, and the epub package is put together correctly. And we did it all with Free software.

This is a major milestone for Digital Aladore, but I still have more to say (of course).  For example, I uploaded the new epub to Internet Archive, which I think is an amazing resource: we need to talk more about free distribution and the public domain. Lets save it for another day! For now:

DigitalAladore 1.0: Aladore, by Henry Newbolt (1914), https://archive.org/details/AladoreHenryNewbolt

User Testing?

Since I couldn’t find many specific guidelines for designing the ebook (most materials are mere suggestions for how to provide content to commercial distribution systems such as Amazon that create the ebook for you), I decided to complete some informal user testing.  To explore what styles seemed to work from a practical perspective, we surveyed a wide range of commercial ebooks from my collection and EPUB3 examples provided by IDPF. We tested the books on three devices:

  • SONY Reader PRS-T1: 6 inch e-ink screen, 600×800 px, grayscale, touch-screen and page turn buttons.
  • Nook HD+: 9 inch backlit LED screen, 1920×1280 px, color, capacitive touch-screen and home button.
  • Laptop with Readium app: 14 inch backlit LED screen, 1366×768 px, color, mouse.  Readium is an open rendering engine designed to improve support for epub3. Currently, the reading app is available as a Chrome browser extension.

We flipped through pages, changed font sizes, and clicked on the table of contents. The two main factors considered were performance (does it quickly and consistently render), readability (is it legible, easy, and pleasant to read), and aesthetics (did it look professional and did we like it?). We did not consider more complex issues such as accessibility. After selecting a few good examples based on our reading experience, I surveyed the markup using Calibre.  The built in ebook editor makes it is easy to open up the file to inspect the XHTML and CSS.

I discovered that the markup was a mess! The XHTML is filled with strange overly complex tags, empty elements, and meaningless attributes. Some EPUBs generated from Adobe InDesign put almost the entire book in span tags. It turns out publishers’ workflows are still based on creating the traditional fixed layout text, then exporting ebook derivatives (often outsourced or left up to distributors such as Amazon). This technique misses out on the possibilities of efficient content management that focus on separating text and styling.  Check out “Publication Standards Part 1: The Fragmented Present,” by Nick Disabato (A List Apart, May 22, 2012) for more discussion of this issue.

Our user testing also pointed out many bad examples of styling, highlighting things to avoid. For example, many books use the <pre> tag to format sections of poetry. Often the lines would be proceeded by tabs and also given a margin in the CSS. This resulted in the text ending up off the screen on the SONY Reader. The designers obviously tested their designs on a larger tablet. We also found differences in the performance of the ebooks. Some took abnormally long to load or looked considerably different on different devices. These short comings made the use of some books a frustrating experience. It emphasizes the need to create an efficient markup and styling that won’t confuse or bog down devices, that falls back to a good base HTML.

We also noticed that a legible cover and properly embedded metadata were important. All the reading apps default to displaying only the cover thumbnail—thus if nothing is on the cover, it complicates finding the book. Many ebooks also had metadata omitted or incorrectly embedded. This meant that they displayed random file names instead. Since the user can’t quickly browse the physical book to extract information (backcover, spine, title page) and get a feel for the contents, the ebook cover and metadata seem to take on greater importance.

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!

Ebook Design Challenges…

Designing an ebook is complicated: its somewhere between print and web design, but presents many unique challenges.  In this section, 6.5 Ebook Design, I want explore the design process for the final Digital Aladore EPUB edition.

In a few earlier posts, I touched briefly on optimizing the EPUB for reader devices by creating smaller XHTML files, cleaner markup, and reasonable image sizes.  However, up to this point we haven’t looked closely at styling the ebook.  While the draft version of the Aladore EPUB is useable and readable (an improvement over the gibberish filled automatically generated ebook or overly compressed PDF provided at Internet Archive), a book is more than raw text.  The designer must make decisions about how to most effectively present the content. The format, layout, typography, and design elements are influenced by practical and aesthetic concerns, and informed by the user model.

In the draft Aladore EPUB, there is no CSS or inline styling, thus the presentation is left up to the defaults of the reading app rendering the book. These defaults can be wildly different, having even less consistency than web browsers. For example, some readers such as Nook, automatically indent paragraphs and add a slight margin from the edge of the screen. Others do not, leaving the text uncomfortably close to the edge. This hints at the challenges of designing and styling an ebook. The file needs to be flexible enough to meet user needs and expectations in a highly diverse and non-standardized environment.

Ebooks are used on many device types, including e-ink readers, tablets, phones, and computers. This presents several hardware challenges:

  • Screen sizes vary from tiny to huge. A ebook perfectly styled for the average 6” e-ink screen can look strange on a 10” HD tablet. In general, styling needs to be based on relative measures, not specific dimensions.
  • Screen refresh rates vary considerably, since dedicated ereaders can save battery with minimal refresh rates. However, these low refresh rates often cause interactive features to produce strange looking artifacts or not function well.
  • Input method, the devices support interacting with the document via several different means. Some older ereaders have only a few hard buttons allowing very minimal interaction with the text, other than turning pages. Newer ereaders and tablets have touch screen only which allow a more tactile and gesture based interaction. Computers are mostly mouse and keyboard focused which allows more detailed inputs, but creates a considerably different experience interacting with the text.
  • Hardware specs vary considerably. E-readers tend to have low end processors and small memory to maximize battery life, thus any rendering that requires processing or loading large files becomes cumbersome.

These issues are compounded by a number of software based challenges, since ebooks must be rendered by a reading application. Users are aware that they have a choice in what web browser they use and that there is slight variety in how each browser renders content. Designers use a variety of techniques, such as browser CSS prefixes, to create markup that will render consistently in the different browser engines.

Dedicated ereaders typically have a built in reading app with a specialized and proprietary rendering engine developed by the device maker (often based on Adobe Digital Editions). Since the app is essentially hidden, users are not really aware it. There is very little information available about the different engines. Tablets can install independent reading apps, so the user can choose one based on the functionality and look they want (more often the commercial ecosystem they buy from). However, since these rendering engines are more niche, less standardized, and less well known than web browser engines, there are not as many techniques for designers to automatically account for differences. Furthermore, results from EPUBTest demonstrate that support for the full specifications of EPUB varies considerably and is low overall (if you want to try it yourself, a set of epub3 books can be downloaded to systematically test devices for functionality and feature support).  Because of these challenges, there are few specific guidelines for styling and formatting ebooks.

Ebook UX

The main objective of this section of the Digital Aladore project is to create a polished EPUB2 edition optimized for ereader devices.

Anytime we are designing something, from websites to houses, we should be thinking about the end users. How will the features of the object support an enjoyable and efficient user experience? Even in a very informal design context (such as here in the one man Digital Aladore UX Design Center) our products are molded by how we imagine the user–in this case, the potential readers.

My user model is based on my own experience (as an avid reader of early fantasy novels and user of an ereading device), informal feedback from friends, and MobileRead forum content. I imagine users of the Aladore ebook will be focused on reading the novel in a linear fashion, yet are not interested in strict pagination (like a PDF). Instead they would value clear, readable text reflowing and customizable to suit their particular device. However, they also do not want to be distracted by the technology or innovative features of the ebook. They have expectations of a document genre based on experience reading print novels. They expect the design of the book to reflect the character of the content, or at least not clash with it. For example, take a look at Middlemarch using the Terminal CSS style from EPUB Zen Garden:

Terminal CSS, EPUB Garden.

Terminal CSS, EPUB Garden.

EPUB Zen Garden was inspired by CSS Zen Garden, but unfortunately the site is no longer live (the designs are reproduced in the epub-zen project on GitHub).  A user who selects the Terminal style is likely looking for amusing novelty, not efficient reading or the traditional experience of the novel.  The green screen style is unexpected, distracting, and changes the atmosphere. Furthermore, this style would not function on an greyscale e-ink reader.

Designing for ebooks is complicated by the fact that users will have a diverse mix of devices for reading. Since the function of dedicated ereaders is fairly simple, users update their device less frequently than phones or tablets. I imagine users, such as myself, with e-ink readers that have lower end specs from five or more years ago. Since a focus of Digital Aladore is openness and sharing, the ebook should not exclude these users. This suggests the need for flexible design that supports a wide range of screen sizes from phone to tablet, screen types from e-ink to retina display, and hardware specs. Since devices with larger screens and more powerful processing can use PDF versions of Aladore, this project focuses on optimizing the ebook for e-ink readers. I imagine users having devices such as Sony Reader, Kobo Touch, or Nook Simple Touch in addition to newer e-ink models.

Unfortunately, ereading devices and applications have very inconsistent support for the EPUB specification, which means it is hard to create designs that will behave consistently. Some devices ignore all CSS, only render a small subsection of the styles, or override them by default. Most devices also allow users to change style settings such as font and font size. For example, the native Reader app on Barnes & Noble Nook overrides any included styles by default, setting its own font, font size, line spacing, text-indent, and margins. The user must open the options and toggle “Publisher Defaults” on to view the ebook with its built in styles.  This means even if you spend time creating the perfect XHTML and CSS markup, the reader may never see your design!

While there are significant challenges to presenting a consistent representation of the document to users, good design of the ebook will still support user choice, accessibility, and usability.

Having a solid markup will create a sustainable and flexible product that can “play nicely” with the world of web standards. In a presentation titled “A Cautionary Tale About Poor Ebook Markup” (Ebookcraft 2014), Liza Daly gave examples of the common bad practices in commercial ebook markup such as using attributes to create elements that already exist and adding tables as images rather than using html. These habits make the book less accessible to services such as text-to-speech and enhancements for the visually impaired, but also limit its discoverability on the web. Although most reading devices do not support the semantic markup possibilities of EPUB3, Google does. Machines are already using the full markup to “understand” content for better search, indexing, and creating snippets.

So while the main objective of Digital Aladore is to create a good reading edition of Aladore for users of e-ink devices, I also hope to create a flexible and reusable text that efficiently utilizes standards to be more human and machine readable. This will ensure the ebook is usable (and enjoyable) for a wide variety of current and future readers.



Draft EPUB released!

Since I have been holding the Digital Aladore world in suspense for too long, I decided to release a draft version of the EPUB.  I uploaded it to the Internet Archive Community Texts collection for easy distribution:  https://archive.org/details/AladoreNewbolt

Draft cover image.

Draft cover image.

This version of the EPUB is minimally formatted.  The cover is pretty ugly.  And there is no stylesheets, so it won’t look very fancy.  But, it has the most up-to-date edited text, all the images, and it works!  So enjoy!

P.S. I also uploaded the plain text version to the Internet Archive page.

Poe’s Blackwood articles

In the last post, I mentioned that Aladore was first published in Blackwood’s Magazine.

While researching the publication, I noticed that Edgar Allan Poe wrote two short humorous pieces ridiculing the overly sensation stories typical in these magazines.  They were originally published as “The Psyche Zenobia” and “The Scythe of Time” in the The American Museum of Science, Literature, and the Arts (Baltimore: Brooks & Snodgrass) November 1838.   The stories were retitled “How to write a Blackwood article” and “A Predicament” in later collections and can be found in a number of free online editions of Poe’s writing.

As a quick test project, I decided to make a mini ebook of these two short stories.

I used two source files (witnesses) that are in the Public Domain and easy to access:

1) An edited HTML version from Project Gutenberg in The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Volume 4 (of 5) of the Raven Edition, eBook #2150, released 2008.  http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2150

2) A scanned copy of The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Volume IV (New York: A.C. Armstrong & Son, 1884) available at Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/worksofedgaralla04poeeuoft

To create the ebook, I used the great open-source editing software Sigil, which I will discuss in more detail in a future post.  Unfortunately, the project is no longer actively developed, but for more info you can check out:



For this test project, I started with the HTML text from Project Gutenberg and checked it against the scanned original making edits and upgrades as needed.  Sigil helps package everything together to create a proper EPUB file (more on epub another day).  I created a quick cover from a screen shot of a scanned book page, and an automatic table of contents. Then I edited the embedded metadata file.  Sigil automatically validates the EPUB, and it is good to go!

Unfortunately WordPress doesn’t allow upload of epubs, so I can’t just immediately share it here…

I need to find a good home for distributing the file, but for now I put it up on ge.tt.

Two stories by Edgar Allan Poe relating to that “justly celebrated publication” Blackwood’s Magazine: http://ge.tt/1FcuEHz1/v/0

Updated file location: Internet Archive, Community Text Collection, https://archive.org/details/PoeBlackwoodArticle

P.S. If you are sick of reading, some nice person also created a Public Domain audio book version of these two stories available at LibriVox:


P.S. I also forgot to mention that the stories are full of some stereotypes and language that is offensive to modern ears, as you might expect from nineteenth century satire…