What Is Needed

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Copyright © 2012 by John D. Berry
Originally posted at johndberry.com

Books are digital. This is not, strictly speaking, true; but it’s about to be, with a few honorable exceptions. Already today, pretty much all commercial books are produced digitally, although the end product is a physical one: ink printed on paper, then bound and marketed and sold. Already, the selling may be done as often online as in a bookstore. Already, the same books are being issued more and more in electronic form—even if, as yet, the e-books are mostly very shoddy in conception and execution.

But that will change. In order for it to change in a worthwhile way, we have to spell out just what form these books ought to take.

So what’s needed? How do we make good e-books? What should a good tool for designing and creating e-books look like and do? What should the result—the e-book itself—be capable of? And what should the experience of reading an e-book be like?

Last question first. If it’s immersive reading—a story or narrative of some kind—then you, as the reader, should be able to lose yourself in the book without thinking about what it looks like or how it’s presented. This has always been true for printed books, and it’s equally true for e-books.

But e-books present a challenge that printed books do not: the page isn’t fixed and final. At the very least, the reader will be able to make the font bigger or smaller at will, which forces text to reflow and the relative size of the screen “page” to change. That’s the minimum, and it’s a fair bet already today. But the reader many read the same book on several different devices: a phone, a laptop, a tablet, a specialized e-reader, or even the screen of a desktop computer.

For a real system of flexible layout in e-books and e-periodicals that might be viewed on any number of different screens at different times, what’s needed is a rules-based system of adaptive layout. I like to think of this as “page H&J”: the same kind of rules-based decision-making on how to arrange the elements on a page as normal H&J uses to determine line endings.

The requirements for this are easy to describe—maybe not so easy to implement. We need both design & production tools and the reading software & hardware that the result will be displayed on.

A constraints-based system of adaptive layout

The interesting problems always come when you have two requirements that can’t both be met at the same time. (For example: this picture is supposed to stay next to that column of text, but the screen is so small that there isn’t room for both. What to do?) That’s when you need a well-thought-out hierarchy of rules to tell the system which requirement takes precedence. It can get quite complicated. And the rules might be quite different for, say, a novel, a textbook on statistics, or an illustrated travel guide.

OpenType layout support. This means support for the OpenType features that are built into fonts. There are quite a few possible features, and you might not think of them as “layout”; they affect the layout, of course, in small ways (what John Hudson has called “character-level layout”), but they’re basically typographic. Common OpenType layout features include different styles of numerals (lining or oldstyle, tabular or proportional), kerning, tracking, ligatures, small-caps, contextual alternates, and the infinitely malleable “stylistic sets.” In complex scripts like Arabic, Thai, or Devanagari, there are OpenType features that are essential to composing the characters correctly. None of these features are things that a reader has to think about, or ought to, but the book designer should be able to program them into the book so that they’re used automatically.

Grid-based layout. It seems very obvious that the layout grid, which was developed as a tool for designing printed books, is the logical way to think about a computer screen. But it hasn’t been used as much as you’d imagine. Now that we’re designing for screens of varying sizes and shapes, using a grid as the basis of positioning elements on the screen makes it possible to position them appropriately on different screens. The grid units need to be small enough and flexible enough to use with small text type, where slight adjustments of position make a world of difference in readability.

Media query. This is the name used for the question that a program sends to the device: What kind of device are you? What is the resolution of your screen? How big is that screen? What kind of rendering system does it use for text? With that information, the program can decide how to lay out the page for that screen. (Of course, the device has to give back an accurate answer.)

Keep & break controls. These are rules for determining what elements have to stay together and what elements can be broken apart, as the page is laid out. This means being able to insist that, say, a subhead must stay with the following paragraph on the page (keep); if there isn’t room, then they’ll both get moved to the next page. It also means that you could specify that it’s OK to break that paragraph at the bottom of the page (break), as long as at least two lines stay with the subhead.

Element query. I’ve made up this term, but it’s equivalent to media query on a page level. The various elements that interact on a page—paragraphs, columns, images, headings, notes, captions, whatever—need a way of knowing what other elements are on the page, and what constraints govern them.

H&J. That stands for “hyphenation and justification,” which is what a typesetting program does to determine where to put the break at the end of a line, and whether and how to hyphenate any incomplete words. Without hyphenation, you can’t have justified margins (well, you can, but the text will be hard to read, because it will be full of gaping holes between words—or, even more distracting, extra spaces between letters). Even unjustified text needs hyphenation some of the time, though it’s more forgiving. When a reader increases the size of the font, it effectively makes the lines shorter; if the text is justified, those gaps will get bigger and more frequent. But there are rules for deciding where and how to break the line, and a proper H&J system (such as the one built into InDesign) is quite sophisticated. That’s exactly what we need built into e-book readers.

In digital typesetting systems, the rules of H&J determine which words should be included on a line, which words should be run down to the next line, and whether it’s OK to break a word at the end of the line – and if so, where. A system like InDesign’s paragraph composer can do this in the context of the whole paragraph, not just that one line. A human typesetter makes these decisions while composing the page, but when the font or size might be changed at any moment by the reader, these decisions need to be built into the software. In “page H&J,” where the size and orientation of the page itself might change, the whole process of page layout needs to be intelligent and flexible.

Up until now, in the digital work flow, the software’s composition engine has been used in the creation of the published document; the human reader is reading a static page. But now, with flexible layout and multiple reading devices, the composition engine needs to be built into the reading device, because that’s where the final page composition is going to take place.

It’s easy to create a document with static pages that are designed specifically for a particular output device—a Kindle 3, for instance, with its 6-inch E Ink screen, or a 10-inch iPad. I’ve done it myself in InDesign and turned the result into a targeted PDF. But if that’s your model, and you want to target more than one device, you’ll have to produce a new set of static pages for each different screen size and each different device. Wouldn’t it be better to have a flexible system for intelligently and elegantly adapting to the size, resolution, and rendering methods of any device at all?

Photo: a 17th-century Mexican handbook, about the size of a hand-held device, from the collection of the Biblioteca Palafoxiana, displayed during Typ09 in Mexico City. With ink show-through from the back of the page, which will probably not be a feature of e-books.

Books Without Pages: Reading Beyond the Skeuomorph

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Skeuomorphism, the idea that digitally designed “objects” should mimic their real-world counterparts, is decidedly out. Ask any designer of digital anything these days.

In 2012, designers, amid much controversy, hailed the dawn of the “post-linen” era (linen had been a trademark texture of Apple’s mobile devices, per an edict from on high), which was taken by many to be synonymous with the “post-Jobs” one. (See this October 2012 New York Times piece by Nick Wingfield and Nick Bilton to learn more.)

When Jobs died, his “spiritual partner at Apple,” Jony Ive, was named Senior Vice President of Design and, with the announcement of iOS 7 at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), Apple declared the death of skeuomorphism.

Still, in 2014, skeuomorphs abound—in Apple software and beyond. Think of all those icons on your laptop and mobile device screens: the address book, the camera lens, the time-honored trash can. And there are auditory skeuomorphs: the shutter-click sound emitted by most camera phones when taking a picture. The click, of course, doesn’t come from a mechanical shutter on phones with camera apps but from a sound file in the phone’s operating system. Ditto for “analog” mobile phone ringtones, which hark back to a bygone era in the evolution of physical phone technology.

But tying digital experiences to physical ones, in addition to creating usability challenges (in music production, a physical knob or dial is much easier to operate than its digital representation), may limit our creativity as we envision future books. And the most obvious “knob” of digital books has to be the animated turns of deckled pages on tablet-based e-books.

Page turns are fast losing favor with designers and readers alike, who are choosing, where possible, the “swiping” alternative. Swiping from right to left moves the screen’s content in that same direction. I almost said, “Swiping from right to left turns the page,” which just goes to show that I’m still as stuck in the old skeuomorphic paradigm as anyone.

Must we see page turns to know that we’re reading a book? Do they provide a needed transition—a pause or breather between units of text—on which we’ve come to rely? Are they a comfort? A nostalgia? What might happen if we stopped defining books as units of thought broken down into other units called “pages”? Could dropping this convention give way to shedding other skeuomorphs endemic to e-books and free our imagination further? In a future no longer concerned with skeuomorphic concordances, can a “real page-turner” become a “real swiper”?

We certainly don’t need to continue representing facing pages; they’re an artifact of physical bookbinding and serve no practical or aesthetic function. But I think that digital narratives will always need to be broken down into discrete, quantifiable bytes—both for easy reference and to help orient the reader and give her a sense of her progress through them.

Pagination seems key in that it manages expectations. Before we begin reading, we want to have a sense of what our time commitment will be, so that we can make an informed choice about engaging with the content. With physical books, the very heft of the tome often settles these questions, however imprecisely. And we can always flip to the back of the book for a page count.

Likewise pages (and lines of pages) act as critical points of reference and orientation. While reading, we might make a mental note of an interesting passage on page 43 and then refer back to it a bit later. Or we may want to reference the passage in a critical exegesis. One of the boons of digital book design is that the reader may choose to adjust font size to their need or preference, thereby customizing the reading experience. But changing font sizes reflows text and alters page and line counts, making such referencing and orientation a fraught exercise.

Digital book designers are faced with a choice: include a progress bar, which removes dependence on page numbers but confounds easy referencing of the content, or include pagination. The latter yields a further choice: assign page numbers to every new page of the reflow (so if the 450-page book is now 7,000 pages, reflect that in the pagination) or tie the maximum page count to that of the physical version of the book, or to a particular font size. In the former case, page count can be daunting, and a deterrent to engagement. In the latter, any increase in font size will maintain the 450 pages, but the reader may now be faced with multiple “page 4s” to accommodate the fixed count. Clunky. Confusing. Unreferenceable. And we’ve once again tied ourselves to the physical world!

Good creative solutions for digital books, which offer no tactile cues, remain elusive. How do we move beyond the page paradigm? It may seem a small matter, but I think that examining our attachment to features of physical books—discerning which are artifacts of physical production and which are fundamentally supportive of the reading process in any format—can be a first step toward imagining future books whose integrity isn’t compromised by the drag of ancestral ties.

Improvising Scripts: Flexibility, Control and Systems for Designing Books on the Fly

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I spend a lot of time improvising. Besides the daily requirements of a knowledge worker in our modern economy, I also teach and perform longform theatrical improvisation. In this art form, there is a very loose structure of acts that the performers simultaneously perform and create in front of the audience. There are “best practices” we practice and teach that enhance the experience for all involved, from the new player to the audience member. The core idea is “Yes, And.” If an idea is offered, it is accepted as truth and everyone builds on top of it until a world is developed. Each person on stage has as much say in that world as anyone else. It is built in a truly collaborative way; all participants are equally responsible for the outcome. Every offer is looked at as a gift, and the audience discovery happens at the same moment as the performer discovery. The process values intuition. acceptance, flexibility, and imagination.

Del Close (the history teacher in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off), the father of this genre, tells us to treat everyone, including the audience, as “poets and geniuses.” The theatre that I perform in, that I helped build, was an adaptive reuse project. It was a small barbershop in Central Phoenix that we transformed into an intimate theatre that seats 33 people. In our space, the audience shapes every show because we can see and feel each person in this cozy space. As an improv community, we’ve had to develop a certain kind of resilience to the energy of a sleepy or generally low key audience at the top of a show—with some mixed results. Sleepy and low key shows are a snake biting its own tail.

I broke away from a scripted performance background after years of working in that structure with a benevolent dictator in the director (and an absolute dictator in the playwright). I realized I was expending my energy towards another person’s vision, sometimes in a way that really clashed with my own thoughts and vision. Acting requires us to ask permission to perform: auditions, rehearsals, line notes, opening nights. The final goal is reproducing the rehearsed performance in a consistent way so that the Friday night patron gets the same quality as the Sunday matinee patron. It becomes a fairly rigid set of notes in the stage manager’s notebook in the end, and it is a transgression to deviate from this vision past the last tech rehearsal. The process values thinking, control, consistency, and precision.

Masters of the longform improv craft bring precision and consistency to the work in a different way through deep listening skills, trust, and imagination. They never look out of control despite the fact they have no idea what will happen in the next second. In the best improvisations, the audience leaves saying “They totally cheated, they wrote that.” It looks like a script, walks like a script. It must be a script. It is an infuriating compliment to any group of improvisors. Hopefully they return an hour later to the next show and realize it is completely different. It would be impossible to write and refine the quantity of shows that are performed in improv theaters across the country.

Both the scripted and improvised performance paradigms are great lessons in cooperative or collaborative work. The core difference is a focus on process versus product. Scripted performance is product focused: a refined, definitive end that can be repeated. Improvisation makes the process ultimately the product. The process is repeatable, while each product or outcome is unique. Our theatre advertises this as a feature: “It’s different every night.” Because of this, performer preparations are very different. Scripted theatre is a focused, detail oriented, discrete period of time. An actor can give too much of themselves to the project and will have some time to recover after the show closes. Longform improvisation is a marathon: every weekend there are new performances. It runs all year round. Stamina and a big picture awareness make it sustainable for an improvisor.

I found myself thinking a lot about this over the course of the three book sprints that make up our Sprint Beyond the Book experiment. I was charged with the content workflow and publication of the document, in whatever format was required  for the particular sprint. The three events came with very different parameters, depending on the collaborators involved.

First work flow

Iteration 1: The Future of Publishing

The first sprint involved a platform that was in development by one of the collaborators. It was rigid in its requirements for publication. I was asked to produce the following:

  1.  A flattened PDF, non-interactive—basically a set of images collected in one document
  2. A list of external links referred to in the content
  3. A folder of digital assets, including images and videos that will be embedded in the content
  4. A list of titles and captions for each digital asset
  5. The location and page number for each link, video, or image so they can be manually entered one by one in the platform.

The platform was geared towards rights management for publishers, so the document could be updated and pushed out to those that had the platform and subscribed to the title. The platform was not accessible on every operating system, so we published the content on a web site as well, organized by themes. (As a bonus layer: the performative aspect of the sprint was set to happen in Germany, and I was located in Arizona.)

I developed a set of master pages in InDesign for the book layout, a template, and fed each article in to those pages as I received them. The template was designed for reading on a medium sized screen, like an iPad. It was meant to be viewed as single pages, not spreads, though it didn’t break if viewed otherwise. I had spreadsheets for the links and digital assets. My approach became very outcome focused, including rehearsals and demonstrations for nervous parties. The design was determined before the content existed, something I truly abhor as a designer. The system needed to be retrofitted to the content as the sprint progressed, making our goal of three publications during the process difficult to meet with the expectations of good typography, layout, organization of content, and imagery.

The script broke. We published two incomplete versions on the platform. One complete version was retroactively published as a somewhat interactive PDF for download, using the same template designed for the original platform.

Workflow 2

Iteration 2: Knowledge Systems

The collaborators changed shortly before our event, which forced a decision to either start fresh or stay the course. We decided to stay the course with a minor shift: we would produce a semi-interactive PDF in addition to the website. The template was simplified for Microsoft Word, giving more people access to edit and change the document as it developed. The content was exported from the site as a collection for each writing-and-publication session (in our terminology, “mini-sprint”) with a tool built for creating anthologies from websites. This sprint had everyone in the same location, which made communication easier.

This script broke this time as well. We published one incomplete version online during the event.

A second incomplete version was published shortly before the third sprint, with “known issues” listed in the post. After the sprint was over and refinements became limited in Word, the content was brought into InDesign once again to expand the options for layout and typography.

Iteration 3: To be announced

I have decided that I am not an expert in this: alone I don’t have the the best answer. My benevolent (or absolute) dictation has fallen short in the experiments. So I’m putting my faith in a purely collaborative process this time, one in which each participant is equally responsible for the outcome, where the process is the product. These documents are performative and living. The overall shape of the final product will change as the conversation develops and it will depend on everyone that is performing. I hope the energy of the audience will impact the development as well, just like if we were in a 33 person theatre in Central Phoenix.

The Future of Imagination

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In one way, a book is a remarkably crude, blunt tool.

Its component parts are rudimentary and primitive. It consists of words, and these words don’t do anything other than sit there and beg to be read. An author constantly asks her readers to picture this, imagine that. Books are needy.

Looked at against richer media, it’s kind of amazing that books still exist at all. They don’t move. They can’t carry a tune. They’re simply not capable of the kind of visual beauty that we can get elsewhere in the media ecosystem. They require an investment of time and active attention that no other media form demands, and that is supported nowhere else in our daily lives.

Latimeria Chalumae

Image by Alberto Fernandez Fernandez

In a way, they’re a bit like the coelacanth — a holdover technology from a much earlier era, a strange evolutionary dead-end that somehow never died.

The thing about books, though, is that it’s not their primitive components that make them work. It’s the imagination of the reader, and that is an incredibly potent—and timeless—media tool. The power of a book comes from the act of reading it.

So the question of the future of books is really a question about the future of the imagination.

If we start from that premise, I believe there are two questions that naturally follow:

1) Assuming that the book itself is an evolving technology, however crude, how can we use technology to not only preserve, but amplify its power as an engine of the imagination?

And

2) What do we want the act of imagination that we call “reading” to look like and feel like in the future?

I don’t think either question has a right or wrong answer. But I think they’re both essential questions for any writer, or any serious reader, for that matter, to consider.

As to the first question, I have some dogmatic sentiments about what is and isn’t an appropriate use of technologies to augment the act of reading. I think everything else I believe flows from a personal core philosophy that reading is an act that requires focused attention. I also consider this question primarily as a storyteller, and I realize that not all books exist to tell a story. But as a storyteller, I believe that anything that distracts from the primary act of tracking words and their meanings puts distance between reader and material and disrupts the engine of imagination.

So how do we add to the experience of reading without breaking the engine? Again, I don’t think there’s a correct answer, but I believe that’s the right question for authors to ask. I can think of some interesting case studies that might point the way towards a future I would be excited about.

Robin Sloan’s “The Truth About the East Wind” (2010) is a short story with a subtle audio track, with cues triggered by scrolling down the length of the single-page text. About halfway through the story, a sound effect begins—a whistling wind—so quiet as to be imperceptible. As the reader keeps scrolling, the wind grows in volume until, by the end, it’s a howling squall (or that’s how I remember it, anyway).

What’s cool about “East Wind” is that, as a reader, you don’t need to do anything other than read, and as a consequence of that one act, the text comes alive in a way that dawns on you only gradually.

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From The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

The interplay of text and image in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (2008) is an elegant example of design and illustration that exists seamlessly around and among the text of the story. Dave McKean’s illustrations lead the reader from one page to the next—they follow the momentum of the reader’s eye so that processing an image is something that happens in parallel with reading the text that surrounds it.

If I had to distill any sort of guiding design principle from these examples, I think it would be the notion that as the book evolves, the media that augments it should function in parallel to the text, and not at oblique angles and tangents. A book becomes a deeper collaboration between author and experience designer. And it demands a deft touch from both.

If that’s the case, then the act of reading doesn’t actually change much. It’s still a focused, directed act, and it still requires the reader to call on her imagination. And maybe, just maybe, something even richer will emerge.

Reading a book might become an experience in itself.

As a writer, I think the greatest possible accomplishment is that your readers will have a memory of the act of reading your work, and not just of the content. There’s a future where our power to create texts that achieve this effect is even greater. That’s the one I want to see.

Is It Long Enough to Grab My Attention?

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With all this hand-wringing about how no one has any attention span left anymore, that people only read on their phones while walking from the car into the house, or in those few moments in between checking Facebook and writing a hundred text messages an hour, I wonder why I just don’t feel such pressures.

When I think about deciding to read something I wonder: Is it long enough my attention? Or will I just get into the story and find that it is suddenly over? I don’t want to jump from screen to screen and story to story. I’d rather be seduced by the simple flow of words. I want to begin at the beginning and be lured on to follow the tale to its end, an end that shouldn’t come too soon. Otherwise why even begin?

I don’t think I’m the only one to feel this way. Long novels still get written, and still get read. People do want to get immersed in the story. In fact, it might be the most immersive stories that best survive the transition from printed page to swiping screen. If you care enough about what will happen next, then you stop noticing what it is you are reading on and get carried away by the way the action finds itself in words.

Writing held firmly in the firmament of words has always seemed more pure than media, which wants to immerse us in worlds by giving us extra fixes on the imagination that perhaps we don’t really need: pictures, movies, and sound that may add to the experience but distract from the purity of language working on its own.

We are supposed to be talking about design in this sprint and all of us seem to agree that electronic books are under-designed; that they do not use fonts, leading, line width, and line spacing to the best advantage. While giving the reader endless options for customization, they do not teach us what makes one book more beautiful than another.

But wait a minute—do I mean to say that how the book looks might be more important than what it says? I just finished arguing for the clarity of language as opposed to any ornamentation of what needs to be said, so who needs design? I’m learning here from John D. Berry, a fantastic book designer who has had a hand in the look of so many of the favorite titles on my home shelves, and he said one rather remarkable thing: You have to choose the line length only after delving into the way each author writes. Different language suggests different layout, and one shouldn’t give up on this opportunity when faced with the allure of digital convenience.

Whatever goes in to our three-day book jam, it should be designed in a unique and powerful form that gives an example of how the next generation of books might be fashioned, and conceived.

Sending the Right Signals

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What’s in a book? This is the question we ask, albeit unconsciously, before deciding to buy a physical book. We want to know that the book is worth the cover price, and the time we’re going to spend reading it. Of course, we can’t truly know in advance. But a book sends us signals—cover art, quotes from authors, number of pages—that we can use to guess at its content and quality.

What signals can and should digital books send? The answers matters, because the digital world is so competitive. Contrast these scenarios: arriving at the start of an article via a link on social media; looking at a book after picking it off a bookstore shelf. The latter is much more contemplative. And on social media, in fact almost everywhere on the Internet, we are used to encountering short chunks of text. So digital books don’t just have to compete with other digital books—they often have to compete with the rest of the Internet.

Here’s an aside that makes that point. I was chatting recently with a designer at the company where I work. She’s smart and loves to read, but she told me she almost never reads long articles. (In this context, “long” means anything over 2,000 words.) She said that she never knew if the investment in the story would be worth it. In other words, the long articles she was seeing weren’t signalling her correctly.

Of course, digital stories can borrow all the techniques used in print. They can and do come with cover art, endorsements, summaries, etc. But digital offers us an untold number of different ways of signalling quality. What are the other options? I don’t know the answer, but here are two ideas that I think are interesting:

A better version of Amazon’s “search inside the book” feature. It’s pretty horrible to use at present, but Amazon’s tool is great in that it allows readers to sample a large work, just as people will open a book and read a random page before deciding whether to buy it. What might a better version of this tool look like?

Make the structure visible. I often look at the chapter page of a book before starting it. I’m not even sure why—the page doesn’t usually tell me anything particularly useful. I guess it’s an attempt to gauge the contours of the mountain I’m about to climb. What might a digital contents page look like? There’s no need to replicate the print version. Could the contours of a book could be expressed graphically, for example?

Thinking About the Page

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The book page is an artifact of the delivery medium: it’s written or printed on a physical sheet of paper (or a carefully prepared sheepskin turned into parchment, or a section of a papyrus scroll). The two-page spread is simply an artifact of our codex form of book-binding, which always opens to two facing pages. But what’s a page in an e-book?

The onscreen page isn’t really the medium on which the content is displayed so much as it is a window into a part of the content. The part that’s being displayed is the “page,” but how much content fits onto that page depends on a lot of factors, such as the choice of font, the size of the fonts, and the space between lines. In the resizable, reflowable world of e-books, the “page” is constantly changing.

It also might change if you go from reading a book on your laptop to continuing to read the same book later on your phone; the screen size and shape can be entirely different. It’s not just a matter of scaling the whole page up or down in size. (Though if you’re reading a fixed layout, such as a PDF of a page from a printed book, then that’s exactly what you’re doing. Which is why it’s such an unsatisfactory way to read a book onscreen, unless the PDF has been designed for the format you’re using.)

Web designers and interactive designers sometimes refer to the “viewport,” which is the screen or the part of the screen that the content is displayed within. (When I say “the part of the screen,” I’m thinking of the way most web browsers and many apps impose a scrim of “chrome” around the live part of the page: buttons or frames or navigational tools, anything that’s not the basic content.) This is a useful way of thinking about it. Just as the printed text fits onto the physical page, the digital text fits within the bounds of the viewport.

Although a book of long, continuous text functions as a single flow from beginning to end, there are other kinds of books that involve a complex set of elements, both text and visual, that have to be arranged somehow with respect to one another. Think of a cookbook or a textbook. On the printed page, the book designer can arrange the elements appropriately, so the book is easy to use. The list of ingredients comes before the step-by-step recipe, for instance, and is clearly delineated as a separate element, or the footnotes and sidebars and numbered illustrations are set apart from the running text in a way that makes them easy to find when you want them, yet keeps them from getting in the way while you’re reading the main text. A good designer is always thinking about each visual element, including plain old paragraphs of running text, in relation to the space on the page and its edges.

How do we do that on a digital page that keeps changing? Can we design a complex “page” based on the size and shape of the viewport? Unless we’re going to restrict the reader’s ability to change things—font size, for an obvious starting point—then we’ve got to invent rules and patterns for how the elements on the page will behave when something changes. Creating the design and production tools that will give a designer that ability is one of the most important tasks ahead of the e-book industry.

In my experience of designing books and periodicals for many years, I’ve found that the most important single factor that makes a paragraph of text readable is the length of the line. Not the physical length (3 inches or 20 centimeters or whatever) but the number of letters and words that fit on each line. The usual rule of thumb in English is that a line of about ten words works well (with an “average” word of five letters plus a space), or 60–70 characters per line. Obviously that might change from one language to another, and it would be entirely different in a written language that uses ideograms rather than letters (Chinese, for instance), but I’m sure each language has its own rules of thumb. Also obviously, the ideal line length might vary from one writer to another. (I know that from experience. I once designed a book of essays by shamelessly swiping the page design of another book of essays by a favorite writer of mine, designed by an excellent book designer; but the pages I designed didn’t work as well. It took me a while to realize that the writer of my book habitually used words and phrases that were hard to break, so I kept getting too-wide spaces between words in the lines, despite my best efforts. And it wasn’t that he used long words; it’s much easier to find a hyphenation point in a word like dissimulation, for example, than in through or enough.) Rules of thumb are just descriptions of useful patterns; they always have exceptions.

I’m always amazed at people who look at websites by having their browsers “maximized” to the full width of a laptop or desktop computer screen. Unless the website has been designed to accommodate this, the lines of text are almost always much too long to be comfortable to read. The same problem comes up in printed business documents with inadequate margins; a page of 10-point Times New Roman spread across seven or eight inches is simply not easy to read. (It’s worth keeping in mind that Times New Roman began life as a newspaper typeface; it was designed to be read on newsprint in narrow columns.) Line length matters.

A smart digital page would adapt its layout to the size and shape of the viewport. [I wonder if we also want to give users more options for understanding their choices. People could voluntarily go through a short tutorial/quiz that informs readers of the contextual differences between, say, sans and serif, and how that can affect the reception of content. I also want every text to have an “author optimized” option, which is how the author/designer would like you to read it (including information about the best kind of device for the content). You don’t have to agree, but at least it could give the reader a less generic starting point.—AL] On a little phone screen, the text would be in a single column of short lines; on a laptop screen with a maximized window, the same text might appear in two or three columns, each of a comfortable line length. If the reader boosted the font size to a much larger size, the three-column page might rearrange itself into two columns. The smart page simply wouldn’t let the line length get too long for comfortable reading.

This is one of the reasons that we still need “pages.” A continuously scrolling page, like the archetypal web page, is only feasible if there’s only one column of text; otherwise, you’d have to keep scrolling back up to the top to continue reading in the next column. When people say they don’t like multi-column layouts on a web page, they usually mean this. Multi-column layout requires pagination.

The New New Media

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Exit Doormat: Serial format. 2′ x 3′ x 1″ or 60 x 90 cm x 2.5 cm in metric system countries. Sends you out towards your day with a bit to chew on. Latest bestseller is a RPG based on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) in which your character is assigned based on your social network and the chemical breakdown of the residue on the bottom of your shoes when you return home every day.

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Headbox: Cubic long-form media. You stick your head in the hole at the bottom of the head box in order to dedicate yourself solely to the experience of the medium. Typically used in hour-long bits over the course of a week or so, or one transatlantic flight. Can be stacked in the living room or garden after consuming so as to beg conversation about the experience. Latest bestseller is a voluminous box constructed of crude ore on the dawn of the Iron Age by Neal Stephenson.

Sweet Notings: Stories are packaged in confectionery form and played from within your skull when you suck on the candy. Both serial and long-form versions are available. Popular format for short excerpts from longer devotional texts. Latest bestseller is a hour-long bittersweet lollipop by Nicholas Sparks.

Adventure Shoes: Long-form travel literature built into appropriate footwear genre. Stories can be consumed aurally as you travel, or can be read off the bottom of your soles when you’re cooling your heels. Latest bestseller is a peripatetic retelling of the history of the Panama Canal, packaged in black rubber boots, by Bill Bryson.

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People Watching Glass Apps: Short-form AR format. Popular at cafes. You just set your eyes on interesting passersby, and stories are projected around them. Latest bestseller is a site-specific work by Lewis Black, Delusions of Grandeur, which was offered at the TED 2025 conference.

Toy-based Omni-media: Serial format targeted at children under 12. Toys, songs, accessories, shows, videos, clothes, games, books, magazines, camps, and curricula adapted to popular character properties. Your children will adopt specific character narratives and then allow this property to pervade your home until such time comes that each character becomes “too childish” for your offspring, whereupon another character set is selected and the omni-media experience repeats.

Celebrity-based Omni-media: Serial format targeted at adults. Same as Toy-based Omni-media, only centered around Actual Famous People rather than fictional characters.

Literary House (for Andrew Losowsky): Extended intermittent long-form multi-media real-life game experience. You reside for an extended period in a house blessed or haunted by a narrative. Aspects of the narrative are ingrained in the decor, interaction, and, in particularly bespoke circumstances, confederate actors that can act as roommates or neighbors. Most spectacular recent example is the gothic Usher house which was sold for $11.5 million in 2023.

“Why Am I Here?” the Man Asked

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What’s the purpose of a “sprint beyond the book”? I guess I’m here to find out.

I am both a book designer and a writer about typography and design, a typographer and an editor, an editorial designer and a reader. All those aspects of publishing and reading seem completely interrelated to me; I’m always surprised when someone concentrates on only one part or another. This “Sprint Beyond the Book” seems like an invitation to explore the ways in which all these parts fit together—not just today, or traditionally, but also in the future.

I’m not interested in just jettisoning the past of publishing and leaping bright-eyed into the unformed future without a thought. Nor am I interested in just re-creating the past of publishing in new forms, though I am committed to maintaining the strengths and the best traditions of book publishing and extending them in new ways.

E-books have followed the pattern set by other new technologies: like the earliest movies, which imitated stage plays, e-books have been imitating printed books, as though transferring a page spread from a printed book onto a screen would somehow be satisfactory. The reading medium is different. Besides obvious differences like backlit projected light rather than reflective light from a printed page (and the in-between forms of e-ink and its progeny), the most fundamental thing about how we read onscreen is that there are many screens: they’re not the same size, nor the same resolution, not necessarily the same aspect ratio (shape), and we look at them in a wide variety of physical situations (sitting at a desk, holding a tablet or laptop in, well, our lap, or peering at a phone screen in bright sunlight on a windy day).

As readers, we’ve gotten used to being able to change how what we’re reading is formatted—most obviously by increasing or decreasing the size of the letters. Just the act of changing the font size changes everything about the composition of the page; all those aspects of text design that a good book or editorial designer pays close attention to (and that a reader should never even notice, if they’re successful) get screwed up when the format is malleable.

What we need, then, is book pages that are smart, that adapt their design intelligently to changing circumstances; book designers of the future need tools that let us make decisions about how the design ought to change, so that we can set defaults for an e-book that will make it inviting and easy to read. (The user—the reader—may well change their settings from the defaults; but 99% of people never change the defaults at all, so they’d better be designed to work well right from the start.)

As the type designer Cyrus Highsmith has pointed out in his witty little book Inside Paragraphs (2012), the paragraph is the fundamental unit of how we read any extended text. And it’s the formatting of that paragraph that makes it readable. Starting with the invention of the word space in the Middle Ages, we’ve found ways to orchestrate and annotate the written word to make it easier to read. That’s what punctuation is all about; as Robert Bringhurst (1992) says, it’s essentially musical notation, telling us how to read the words. The typographer’s tools—line length, font size, color, spacing between letters and words and lines—all exist to help the author communicate and the reader hear.

So we’ve got our job cut out for us: to make up new forms for the book that preserve the values of reading and writing and publishing, while extending them into new areas and discovering what we can add to the art of cultural transmission.

Unbound Pages

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Originally published in The Magazine, Issue #13, March 28, 2013

Reading is a cultural act. What we preserve in writing and pass on through reading is our cultural knowledge, whether it’s instructions on how to change a lightbulb or a lyric poem written in response to someone’s death. For more than half a millennium we have relied on printed books for transmission of culture, along with an ever-expanding cloud of printed ephemera.

In recent decades, our dissemination of written knowledge has expanded without the need for physical printing. But we’re still learning how to read the unprinted word; and the people who lay out pages for readers are just now figuring out how to present those words in an easy-to-read form. That form isn’t always the same as the ones developed for books, magazines, and other members of the print family.

As the late Bill Hill liked to say, “No one ever asked us to upgrade to Reading Version 2.0.” Bill Hill was the co-inventor, with Bert Keely, of ClearType, software developed at Microsoft (one of my former employers) to increase the apparent resolution of type, making letters onscreen appear sharper. “We tend to take reading for granted,” said Hill, “since we learn how to do it at about five years of age, and we continue to use the same basic technique for our whole lives.”

Read Me a River

The mechanism of human reading hasn’t changed since we were puzzling out what shamans scratched onto tortoise shells or squinting at a bill of lading in cuneiform pressed into a clay tablet. Our eyes haven’t grown any bigger or shrunk any smaller, our arms still hold what we’re reading about the same distance from our eyes, and the size of the letters or other symbols that we’re comfortable reading for any length of time still falls within a narrow range.

If you’re reading this on an iPhone or iPad, you see the result of a whole series of decisions about how to present these pages in iOS in an attractive and readable form. It’s a static page—scrollable, but otherwise unchanging, except that the lines break differently if you turn your device from a vertical position to a horizontal one. (Different choices were made for the web, where there are more variables.)

The iOS app for The Magazine [where this article originally appeared] determines its articles’ typeface, set at a particular (but adjustable) size and with a particular amount of space between the lines. It also determines the margins around the text block, and all the other aspects of the appearance of the page.

But what is a page? In a printed book, that’s an easy question to answer: the page is one side of a sheet of paper. Or more precisely, the surface of one of the sheets of paper that, when they’re folded, trimmed, and bound, make up the book. The content of that page—text, titles, illustrations, captions, whatever—has to fit somehow onto that surface. The essence of a book is a lot of pages, bound together, with text sprawling across those pages in sequence, page after page.

The same can be true on a screen (any kind of screen, from a phone to a home cinema). Just as you’d lay out a page of text to fit on the printed page, you can lay out a screen “page” of text to fit on the screen. If your book is going to be read on several different kinds of devices, you can design the pages differently for each device (an iPad screen, for instance, versus a Nexus 7). But that’s still a static format: one page to one screen.

Another approach is to think of the screen as just a window onto a large page: you scroll up or down or right or left to see other parts of the page. We think of this as unique to computer screens, but in fact it reflects the way books were often composed before the format we’re used to—separate sheets bound down one side—became common. (That is called the codex format. Not to be confused with a software codec.) With an ancient scroll, the reader held the two rolls of the scroll, one in each hand, and read the page that was displayed in between. (Unlike what we see in mock-medieval movies when a proclamation is being read, book scrolls were held horizontally, not vertically.)

The “page” then was a block of text, written in relatively short lines and read, like a codex page, from top to bottom. The scroll was essentially a series of pages side by side, with the unseen pages rolled up on either side. The normal page of a scroll had lines noticeably shorter than a lot of our modern books, and the handwritten letters were usually larger than the printed letters we see today in, say, a newspaper or a mass-market paperback. But not by much.

On a screen, the fundamental design question is whether to make the page larger than will fit on a single screen, so that you have to scroll down or sideways to read, or to design a page that fits exactly into the visible area of the screen. (With a real physical scroll, the motion of “scrolling” moved from one page to the next, not down a single long page.) What you’re reading right now in The Magazine takes the former tack; you have to scroll down to read the rest of this article.