poetry.jpgTravis Nichols has an article in the Huffington Post about how poetry is poorly formatted in ebooks. He mentions an AP article about poetry that quotes poet Billy Collins as saying that if the original line of poem is beyond a certain length the ebook will be formatted to add an extra word to flush left the screen. This will result in a three line stanza becoming a four line stanza and messing up the poem.

He goes on to say:

Obviously, the ideal situation would be for the e-book conversions to go smoothly and preserve the layout of the published books, but all reports seem to indicate what we’ve got now (ugly and sparse) is what we’ll have for at least a year or two. No one in the eBook marketplace has yet put poetry front and center on the priorities list, and since the Collected Larry Eigner, lovely as it may be, is not likely to burn up the best seller list, it’s hard to imagine anyone with a monied stake in the game re-prioritizing any time soon.


  1. The basic problem is that the “page” is too narrow, right? I’d say this could be solved by changing the orientation to “wide screen”, but at least with the Sony Reader, the software doesn’t reflow the text to the new width, but upscales the “narrow” page to fit the wide space.

    It’s downright stupid. Sure, for normal reading, shorter lines are better, but if we could rotate the orientation we could use the column formatting ability in (at least) epub. Wouldn’t that be grand? And then there’re books where longer lines are good, like poetry and programming books. But no… Sony or Adobe decided that instead of using one of the main features of epub (reflowable text), that it would be better to upscale the page to fit.

  2. The basic problem is not the screen width, it is the lack of hanging indents. Most conversion houses just insert poetry as a flat paragraph, paying no attention to the need for more structured formatting. You can certainly make eBooks have great looking poetry, but the majority of conversion houses don’t have that on their radar.

    This is another reason we need to be creating files specifically for the Kindle, too, not just running a conversion from an ePub and saying it is done. There is only one way to do hanging indents on the Kindle, and it is not compatible with the standard CSS approach.

  3. @Joshua
    Ah, I see. Since it’s totally and easily doable (at least) in epub, I just assumed hanging indents weren’t the problem, but that word wrapping was, which I have heard others complain of. So basically the main problem is that conversion houses/publishers are lazy and suck at making ebooks. Well, welcome to ebooks, because that’s largely the current state of things.

  4. Yup, pretty much. Being a conversion expert myself, and running a company that converts eBooks, I run into this problem all the time. I work very hard to ensure my books look the way they are supposed to, but so many publishers are willing to settle for less, it is not surprising we have issues.

  5. I believe that a very high percentage of ebooks released by the “big six” publishers in the past two years were outsourced, mostly to India. It was a “quick and dirty” way to get a lot of their titles listed quickly on Amazon, etc. It also resulted in quite horrible ebooks containing all sorts of egregious errors.

    Very few publishers are doing the work themselves. I have been preaching the merits of editing manuscripts in tagged ASCII to publishers for more than a decade without result – they were happy with workflows based on Word. Now I’m getting “how do we do it?” calls. Very frustrating, because many of these people are friends running small publishing houses and they have a nasty problem finding a way to move the workflow from Word to XML.

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