Writing an E-Book has me thinking a lot a about format. PDF files are based on printed paper sizes first and viewing with a computer second. I got to wondering about standards, where they come from and why we use them. Did you know that the standard gauge for American railroads (the 4 ft. – 8 1/2 in. distance between the rails) is the same spacing used by Imperial Roman war chariots?
Of course we didn’t base our railroad design on the Roman chariot. The Romans built their roads in Britain (among other places) to accommodate their chariots. When horse drawn wagons gave way to the first “iron horses” in Britain, it was only natural they use the same roads with the same ruts. The Americans borrowed from the British in the early days of railroading and the standard simply evolved out of circumstances.
So does a paper standard for E-Books make any sense in a digital world? Paper comes in sheets of definite size while the computer excels at scrolling. Traditional printed books give the reader clues in the form of the table of contents, page numbers, formatting, etc. The PDF version of turning the analog pages of a book are hyperlinks in the text and an index or thumbnails alongside the text.
Readers need to find their way around inside a book. They need visual clues no matter what the medium. Electronic reading devices are springing up like weeds after a rainstorm and each has it’s own screen size and format. There are no standards yet. If you format for all possible conditions, you can’t format at all because the device itself will wrap text depending on screen size and the font size choices the user makes. You lose all the visual clues with a plain text file.
I’m sticking with PDF for now. Does that limit me? Yes, but I think it’s worth the limitations because I can provide the visual clues that a reader needs. I struggled with the page size but settled on 8 1/2 X 11 inches. Why? Because this format is easy to read on a typical computer monitor and can be printed on demand. Yes, I know my E-Book won’t work on a small screen, but I’ll worry about that tomorrow, when we have standards.