fonts and typographyDigital Book World had an article yesterday on fonts and typography on ereaders. The author was not impressed with the new Bookerly and Literata fonts:

Commentators have tossed around celebratory remarks like, “the Kindle finally gets typography that doesn’t suck” and “e-readers rejoice!” But many of us in the cheap seats—that is to say, the production business—have been snorting, and expressing our deep skepticism about these typographical ‘innovations.’

Fair enough. While I have grown fond of the Bookerly font over the last couple of weeks, I’m hardly celebratory about it. I was also quite happy with Palatino and wasn’t unhappy with Cecelia when it was the best option for me on my old Kindle Touch. (Can’t stand it now, though.)

Perhaps I’m just one of those odd ducks who doesn’t properly appreciate fonts? When I get absorbed in a book, I barely notice the font or typography. Large expanses of white space don’t bother me much, although I generally keep my font size small enough that it’s not a problem. However, I do have some preferences for how a book looks on my ereader page, and this statement was somewhat chilling to me:

…setting the type “flush left/ragged right by default and more or less eliminating hyphenation on words less than seven characters long (and then with a minimum of three characters before or after a hyphen) would more directly address the problem of poor text setting” on many e-reading devices.

When I say I don’t notice fonts or typography, there is one exception. I detest flush left/ragged right. I can’t explain why, but when a book is hard-coded to ragged right, I notice it, and my enjoyment of the book decreases. Brandon Sanderson’s self-published books are all hard-coded to ragged right. I do buy them, and I do enjoy them, but it’s always oddly relieving to go back to a book which is full justified, large gaps and all.

My point is that when it comes to reading, ereading or otherwise, there’s rarely a one size fits all approach. I’m certain what I find pleasing on a screen would horrify a professional book designer. (The author of the DBW article had a pretty strong reaction to seeing her mom’s Kobo and the word layout thereupon. My reaction to the screen shot was more along the lines of “what’s the problem?”) I’d like to retain the flexibility to arrange words on a page in a manner I find pleasing. I’d rather a publisher or book designer didn’t make those decisions and leave me little room to change them, if their decisions get in the way of my reading enjoyment.

Of course, if they do, there’s always Calibre which will allow me to undo their elegant design and make it look pedestrian and the way I want. 🙂

Am I alone in my preferences or are there some other full justification fans out there?


  1. I detest ragged right with a comic loathing fit for a pyschoanalyst’s chair. But block style paragraphs in books are my bête noir. Extra lines between paragraphs are also out of favor. I like thick, long, full text that goes on for pages.

  2. The ragged right problem is in part a screen-size issue. Justification can work fairly well on larger tablet-size screens. Justification often looks dreadful on smartphones. Hyphenation has similar issues. Attempting to justify and hyphenate on a small screen and you end up with a tangle of too much or too little whitespace and too many hyphenated words. Unfortunately, the distribution system is such that the same epub is released for both. Make one look good for one type of reader on one platform and it looks awful for other readers using other devices.


    In one sense, we’re facing a similar problem today with ebook typography as existed with the efforts in the late 1980s to make digital (think Laserwriter) printers look as good on paper as had traditional typesetting with solid metal fonts. There the problem was making an abstract, mathematical description of how a font should look conform with what actually resulted when those curves and shapes were mapped into dots at typically 300 dpi.

    The attention directed today at creating special fonts for digital devices is one legacy of that struggle. It’s an attempt to create a cheat at the font-description level. That wasn’t the typical response in the 1980s. People did not want contrived fonts to look as good as they could at 300 dpi. They wanted already existing, top-quality fonts to look good in spite of printer limitations.

    Companies such as Adobe solved the dots-look-bad problem by creating font-specific hints that adjusted how that math description was translated into dots. Some hints were so radical that only in 2002 did Adobe admit that in some cases the hints radically changed how a particular character appeared on paper.

    Similar hints are needed for ereaders and page layout. One fix would be to abandon line-by-line breaks for something better. Adobe’s InDesign has long had a paragraph composer mode that doesn’t calculate line breaks line by lines. Instead, it looks at an entire paragraph. It might break line two after a “the” rather than before to create just enough added space on line eight to avoid ugly whitespace on line ten far below. It works to made the entire paragraph as a whole look good. Ereaders could do much the same—that is if those who sell them (I’m looking at your Amazon)—cared enough about how books look to add that ability.


    Some people will be upset with what follows, but I suspect that the fuss about this is like that between fast-food restaurants and those what want to eat in places where the total experience matters more. Those who eat fast food in the ebook world want a fast-fix for their word/story hunger. Nothing outside the flow of words matters to them, least of all the on-page experience. Those who complain about the ugliness of it all are those who prefer a cafe with a varied and more personal menu and a atmosphere more congenial to eating as a total experience than simply shoveling the food in.

    And that’s where all this impacts ebook sales. Survey Kindles readers and you’re get results much like you’d get if you surveyed those who eat regularly at MacDonald’s. They could care less that the entire experience, especially the ambience, is deliberated designed to keep customers from lingering. In food, it’s feed and move on so the chairs can be filled by more paying customers. In ebooks, it rush through one book to get to the next, something Amazon no doubt likes.

    But keep in mind that such a survey is only looking at those who are eating fast-food. There’s a host of others who, disliking the ugly ambience and the MacDonald’s all-look-alike atmosphere, avoid them. With restaurants that matters not. All sorts of eateries exists. But the ebook market is so new and so dominated by its MacDonald’s-like company, Amazon, that the market for other types of reading experiences is virtually unknown. A reader’s chance for a better reading experience is so unknown, that many who might become ebook readers never consider the possibility that it could exist. Ebook reading is for them Kindle reading and thus ugly.

    In short, in the ebook world, almost all that exists are look-alike MacDonald’s offerings from Amazon with their virtually identical reading experiences and trite differences. Readers don’t get real variety. All they get are minor choices like with or without pickles. That’s not good for the future of ebooks and needs to be shoved aside.

    Never forget that new does not have to mean ugly. The first movable type printed books, such as the Gutenberg Bible, were beautiful works of art. Those creating them weren’t merely technicians. They were also talented artists.

    Digital publishing isn’t following that same fruitful path. The first ebooks on Palm Pilots were awful. Almost twenty years later, much the same is still true. There’s no excuse for that.

    • @Michael, for what it’s worth, I don’t often eat fast food. Nor do I rush through my books, although I am a naturally fast reader. One of my main joys in life is lingering over good food with a good book. For me, the words on the page matter much more than the page itself. When I still read paper books, I never stopped to examine the typography. In fact, some books would introduce themselves by telling me the wonders of the font chosen for the particular book. My usual reaction was “kinda looks like the last book I read.” I’ll freely admit to being pedestrian in this area, and I’ll also support the desires of readers who do appreciate the look of the words on the page. I totally love how Kobo allows either ragged right or full justify, depending on your tastes. I get that even that option won’t satisfy the discerning reader, but it’s at least a step toward accommodating all of us.

  3. @Svetoslav, not “my” blog. I just edit it. Someone else selected the template. And oddly enough, I can deal with it on the web better than in a book.

    @Greg M, man after my own heart! I despise block style paragraphs. I won’t admit to how long I spent last weekend fixing the HTML in a lengthy fanfic so Calibre would recognize the paragraph breaks and convert them from block to indented. Although, again, it doesn’t bother me on the web. Just in books

  4. Interesting analogy on fast-food. I’ve thought along the same lines myself – only applied with a broader brush to ebooks in general, self-publishing, and prices. Some readers just want a quick book to gulp down, hold the literary finesse, then have another. So for some people formatting, style, even spelling and grammar, can go on the wayside if it’s fast and inexpensive.

  5. Juli, perhaps you just need time to acquire the proper taste. Examining how a book looks is like reading the first chapter or two for typos. If a publisher has put forth effort into either, it’s a good indication they’ve worked hard in other areas too.

    Also, keep in mind that I publish for myself and layout for other publishers books (mostly science and history) that push the limits of what can be done even with print.

    For instance, Chesterton on War and Peace is a collection of articles written by G. K. Chesterton during the WWI era (1905-1922). It constantly shifts between historical background and footnotes about specific issues written by me, and Chesterton’s own words written for the very literate readers of the Illustrated London News. Trying to cram all the complex formatting to make Chesterton on War and Peace readable into a mobi format is utterly impossible. I know because I have a similar collection of Winston Churchill source material I got from the Kindle store. Constantly shifting from source to source, it’s almost unreadable.

    Matters are getting better though, at least with epub. In the near future I hope to release a fixed layout version of the Chesterton book. The latest InDesign in conjunction with iBooks will even let me shade or color the background to my own commentary, to distinguish what I say from what Chesterton wrote. There won’t be aa Kindle version though. I’d look dreadful.

    My frustration is that Amazon cares so little about appearance, that their attitude dominates the market much as if “dining out” meant MacDonald’s. Good ebooks either don’t get published because they can’t be done properly for the 70% of the market that Amazon owns. Or like that Churchill collection, they get done poorly. Even when the dismal state of Kindle books improve, those books may never get improved.

    Keep in mind that we’re not forced to choose between dismal, all-alike with only user tweaks allowed world of Kindles and a single publisher-imposed format. It’s possible for ebooks to offer several well-done options. Someone who likes elegant, could have an elegant version designed by the publisher. Someone who likes large text to deal with vision problems, could have a special version. again as something designed. You could simply choose one or the other.

    The problem is that we often don’t have that option. We get one standardized version with an Amazon-approved font, or we get a patchwork of formatting decided on a whim by a reader who’d rather—if they’re like me—someone else had taken the time to make a book look good. I no more want to choose how a book I’m reading looks than I want to choose and cook the food in a restaurant when I dine out. That is their responsibility.


    There’s an additional issue that’s only slowly being worked out. That’s the legal right to use professionally done fonts in ebooks. For print, it’s typically simple. You buy a font and can then use it in as many books as you want. For digital, matters can get much more expensive. Often those doing layout must buy the rights to use that font for each book they publish, even though included fonts are encrypted in ways that that make stealing them hard (DRM). It’s like the fears publishers and music companies have about going digital. That is going to have to be settled before ebooks can look as attractive and varied as their print cousins.

  6. On my e-ink reader I strongly prefer left justified – ragged right.

    In paper books, full justified looks good. It looks *so* good, that you usually do not notice how the book is laid out. E-ink readers are different from paper books. The screen is smaller than the size of a typical paper book page, plus there is margin (I am looking at amazon with their choice of Wide, Very wide and Ridiculously wide margin). Plus, until very recently all e-ink readers had relatively low resolution screen, forcing us to use various tricks to get the font rendered in a decent way.

    The result is that when I look at a fully justified text on Kindle, without hyphenation, it looks jarring. Since I dislike the way Kindle displays the text I got different e-ink reader where I can choose small margins (to get longer line, so the spacing between characters is less uneven), fine control over line height and font size, hyphenation. It is not as good as a printed book done by a good typographer, but at least not jarring.

    The first programs that could render entire paragraph so it looks good – not just individual lines of text – were LaTeX and inDesign. They both ran happily on a 486 computer that had much slower and weaker processor and less memory than modern e-ink readers. I do not understand why Amazon and other e-ink reader manufacturers do not use better software to lay out the words in an e-book. They could even use LaTeX and they would not need to pay extra royalties or anything.

    If you wish to have the book done in a very specific way, you can always use a good typesetting program and create a pdf file with page size exactly the size of e-ink screen. You can have nicely balanced lines, your preferred justification, ligatures, hyphenation done according to your rules … anything really. All e-ink readers out there can display pdf file with appropriate page size.

  7. I spent my working life publishing newsletters, bulletins, flyers, etc. To me there is something beautiful about a nicely printed book. I love the little notes about what font was used. I love books that have paper that is ragged edged – it looks expensive and makes me feel like I’m holding a real treasure.

    I’m not a fan of fully justified text if it delivers rivers of space on a page – whether it’s a printed book or an ebook. I find my eye noticing the “river” and I fall right out of the story as though I’d fallen in that river.

    I’ve yet to read a book on my Kindle that is pretty to look at, they are simply functional words on a screen. I’ve learned to look past the typography and sad fonts and spacing so that I can enjoy the book itself. As much as I love my Kindle, I wish my hands could handle holding a printed book so that I could go back to buying them (or getting them from the library).

  8. An EPUB (or MOBI) comes with defaults for visual appearance: justification, font, font-size, leading, margins, … o.k., but all of that is changeable, because ebooks where rendered by the viewing device on the fly. And the device can alter the appearance based on user input. So what you’re lamenting about is not »why this font«, »why that justification«, etc., it’s: Why the hell is the browser of my reading device programmed so badly!? As Kobo shows us, there are better ways (even though they’re still not fully satisfying) with giving the user more choice over the (typographical) appearance of his reading experience.

    In my eyes (please let me know, if my experience misses reality badly) these ebook browsers are »one shots«: programmed as cheaply as possible and for only one device – next device, next browser. ADE is the basis, o.k., but there are so many good functionalities that could be programmed into such a browser to enhance ADE’s capabilities: better dictionaries for hyphenation (LateX, hunspell), LateX multiline composer, allowing definition of alternate stylesheets and presenting them properly to the user (e.g. etc. – it’s a long list. But sadly no one invests into such additions.

    Au contraire: Look at amazon. Amazon has a big family of reading devices. Do they react consistently, because they all share the same mother? Nope. Nearly every amazon reader renders content differently and has to be handled differently with special CSS media queries. A pain for all ebook developers/publishers!

    So let’s do not blame designers, typographers, publishers – the format is a open format, it allows nearly everything – let’s dart malignant glances towards the developers of reading devices …

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