Digital design and other shiny toys

Fun and games with the Kindle

Posted on by Paul

Recently I made a flippant remark on Twitter about ebook design being like the web in the 90’s, and the Kindle like Internet Explorer 6. This is a more considered version of that remark.

The web didn’t start as a commercial medium so the early days involved lots of experimentation, mistakes, happy accidents, and truly awful design. It was great. However, working with the various web browsers could be troublesome and everyone from that time remembers Internet Explorer. Now it’s not a bad web browser, but back at version 6 or 7 it was a pain in the f*cking arse. It was the most widely used browser, but quite clearly the worst. Honestly, it couldn’t do anything right. There was a whole industry sector dedicated to working round its bugs and quirks. I remember spending half the design time for jobs just getting things to look reasonable in it.

Anyway, things are better now there are industry accepted standards and best-practices for the web. Clearly, I’m a masochist because I’ve now moved into ebook design where things are oddly familiar. Ebooks are big business and the industry giant, Amazon, is shifting loads of the things. However, the actual process of creating ebooks is still a bit of a mess and the most common ebook reader, the Kindle, a bit of a dog. In no particular order, some of more irritating things about the Kindle (from my lofty perspective as an ebook designer):

  • The Kindle uses a proprietary ebook format instead of the industry standard EPUB.
  • You can’t specify a font (even one of those installed on the device) by adding it to the style definition for the page <body>. If you don’t know HTML or CSS (lucky you) this is pretty basic. It’s like setting the default page font in a word processor. Instead, the Kindle forces you to apply the font to custom style rules or individual elements on the page. It isn’t difficult to work around this, but it just adds unnecessary code to the style sheet and shouldn’t be required.
  • The KindlePreviewer application isn’t quite accurate. There are several Kindle models and I don’t know about you, but I can’t afford them all. I have the major ones but also use the KindlePreviewer to simulate devices on my Mac. As well as covering the devices I don’t own, this is more convenient than constantly copying files to the Kindle, testing them, deleting them, then repeating every time I make an edit. Unfortunately, the KindlePreviewer doesn’t simulate the devices perfectly, and each time it gets updated a major function seems to disappear.
  • No support for image transparency. This may not sound serious, but being able to place images on top of any element and know they’ll blend in is quite useful.
  • No support for SVG images. These images are vector based so can be scaled without any loss in quality. I use them in ebooks for the iBooks app on the iPad all the time and they look great.
  • The promised audio / video support in the new KF8 format doesn’t amount to much. Every time I research this I get new, conflicting information and have lost work because features clients need can’t be achieved.
  • The whole MOBI / KF8 thing. Older Kindle devices use the MOBI format while newer ones use KF8. When you create a Kindle ebook you actually get both formats packaged as one file. In theory we should design for the newer, more capable KF8 format and let KindleGen automatically translate it to the older MOBI format. In practice, what we have to do is create a simplified design for the older devices. This is the bit that really reminds me of Internet Explorer 6.
  • The Kindle uses a proprietary ebook format instead of the industry standard EPUB. This is worth repeating.

To be fair, there are quite a few things that annoy me about iBooks, Adobe Digital Editions and others, but the Kindle really is a pain to work with. However, I’m writing as an ebook designer. Using the newer Kindle devices such as the Paperwhite touchscreen is quite pleasant. Right, now I’ve vented I’ll get back to working out why my image captions won’t line up on the second generation Kindle e-ink.