Graphics Caution: Formatting eBooks

I was reading this book I’d been really enjoying and then, with no warning at all, the book crashed and burned in a big way. I was so annoyed I stopped reading — as in forever– that book, but I still had 20 minutes to go on the treadmill. I went through my Kindle and in a moment of vicious glee began to delete books that pissed me off. Well, I removed them from the device. It felt good. Really good.  I really think Amazon should have an “up in flames” option for when you remove a book you hated. There’d be a whoosh and then flames consuming the book….

Anyway, then I reached a book I hadn’t read yet, and it was like finding gold. Only, as it turned out, not. There were strange and odd language errors and then some careless ones and I started to feel sad.

I was reading in the Kindle app on the iPad. So far, I haven’t messed with any defaults, which means I read black text on a white background. The story opened with a chapter header like this:

White Background

White background

This is the default setting of a white background with black text. At first, I thought, hey, that’s kind of cool, plus it fits with the tone of the book. But then I wondered what would happen if the background were black with white text? Well, it looks like this:

heading on black background

Set to a black background

This is probably not the intended effect. The edginess is gone and now it just looks kind of lame.

And what if the background were sepia?

Sepia background

Sepia Background

Oh. Wow. That’s just. Ick.

I’m pretty sure that the rendering engine doesn’t have access to the reader/app settings so you couldn’t prevent these two unsightly results by swapping in a different color combination depending on the setting. I Googled to see if it was possible, but didn’t find anything after not looking all that hard. I expect the answer is no. That would likely end up being a security hole. (If you can look at the reader settings, you’re that much closer to changing them. Then again, I’m not the engineer. Maybe that’s OK.)

This is what a lot of writers don’t get; the user’s preferences can mess up your notions of how your eBook should look. (That, by the way, is a sly hint that perhaps a different notion is in order.) What’s more, those user preferences might rise to the level of need. Google quickly got me to a page where a user with macular degeneration noted that a very large font plus gold text on a black background made reading easiest.

Not to mention, this header is an image. It does not re-size up or down with the text. Therefore, it’s quite possible that a user will find that header image unreadable. They will not know this is the prologue. Or Chapter whatever because the information is contained in an image that is not available to them.

And that is why an image is a very poor choice for conveying textual information.

A more elegant solution to this issue is html and css. I’m pretty sure I stand by my earlier musings that gray might be an appropriate choice for something like this. You could put a css border around the header text and achieve a similar effect. I think.


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2 Responses to “Graphics Caution: Formatting eBooks”

  1. llaph says:

    Using images to convey text, while pretty sometimes, is massively stupid and limiting to an audience.
    I am blind and listen to books, before e-books became more popular I relied on books scanned in using OCR that I got from They still scan in text books that are donated and convert donated e-books into the daisy format so that they can be read using other means. I can use my I-Phone and nook/ibook apps (kindle app does not work with voice over … stuuuupid) to read/purchase books now. Which is great and lets someone who could not read something read it.
    In one book that I read there was a “note” left for so and so that said this … all I got to hear was “image”. Then the text continuing. It has happened with chapter headings and other divisions. I generally pick up what is happening, but something like a note where there is not even a footnote or something telling me what the note actually said … is very frustrating. (I still have nfi what that note said …) I think it is lazy too, there is software that lets you scan an image that has text on it, but that should be for pdfs or things along those lines, not a spot or two in a book. I don’t think things like that are even worth the trouble and make me wanna say “screw it” and stop reading a book sometimes.
    E-books are great … they are easier to buy, let people who usually thought they were restricted in what they could read read something, and make it so that more people can share what they create.
    Things like this just frustrate me … people who can see take it for granted sometimes that everyone who reads their stuff can see and only care about the pretty. The thing is is that there are more and more ways that visually impaired people can have access to things. That means the audience people have has been expanded some and choosing to cater to them too is something people have to think about. I guess it is kind of like maybe putting in handicap ramps or something so everyone can get in a building? That phrase about not knowing what you have till it is gone is pretty apt … I remember what it was like to have perfect vision and things like this irritate me.
    Thank you for this post, I wish other people get it or think along similar lines as you in things like this.
    I am pretty bad at translating what I am thinking into words that make sense….

  2. llaph: Thank you so much for your comment and your perspective. I think authors don’t hear often enough about the needs people who are visually impaired.

    You did make a lot of sense, by the way, and I am very glad you came by!

    Bookshare makes it easy to provide them with books and now that they can take ePubs, it’s even easier. I’m in the process of getting my ePubs sent to them.