The Philosophy of E-Book Design

At Nine Commas we specialize in handling the e-book design and conversion process for you so that you can focus on what you do best – write!

We have a few internal maxims we adhere to when designing any e-book.

An e-book cannot be a carbon copy of the paper book in terms of design.

The look of a paper book has been pre-set, and then printed on paper. The printed page cannot alter its form and the method of presentation of its contents. Every single person in the world who has that particular edition of that particular paper book will be looking at the exact same design of the printed page. Each single person will have the exact same paper book.

With e-books, that’s not the case.

An e-book is re-flowable; it changes “shape” based on the reader’s preferences.

To read e-books, you need e-readers. Each e-reader is essentially the same when it comes to functionality, but there are subtle differences in how they work. The rendering engine that displays your content can be different, the firmware on the device also, the supported resolutions of the screen vary, the screen technologies vary too (some support color, some are black & white). Plus, the e-reader offers display customization options.

That’s where the reader’s personal preferences come into the equation. The font, size, margins, spacing… everything can be adjusted to fit the reader. One person will want larger fonts, another will prefer smaller fonts. For the former, your 100 page book in paper form will suddenly be transformed into a 300 page book; the latter, with the tiny letters, will only have 50 pages to read. Maybe someone prefers wider margins, maybe one likes larger spacing. The choices are endless.

Each option one changes in the e-reader will alter the whole layout of your e-book.

You have worked so hard to come up with an elaborate book design that will have intricate chapter dividers, chapter title styles, custom fonts, illustrations, this and that. It would look great on paper! And then you set to try to match that design in your e-book.

And you succeed.

But then, one reader sets the font from your default 12 to 14. And all your work is “destroyed”, with the press of a button. This reader will not see your e-book as you want it; he’ll see it as he or she wants it. And the fancier the e-book, the more chance of something going wrong.

This is where e-book design comes in.

Most self-publishing authors simply write their book in a text processor and then upload it to a self-publishing service. Unfortunately, this often results in glitchy products that are sometimes unreadable. Publishing platforms like Kindle Direct Publishing offer the conversion tools authors can use to convert their manuscript into e-book formats, but this technology is limited.

More often than not, the finished product is faulty: it’s not designed the exact way the author intended, and it won’t display properly across multiple platforms. If the e-book isn’t properly designed and formatted this will lead to frustrated authors, and more importantly – annoyed readers.  If someone buys an e-book, that someone expects not only to get a good read, but also that the e-book is glitch-free. If the e-book doesn’t display properly, or has poor design, the reader will feel cheated and most likely think twice about buying future titles from that author.

Some people see the need for e-book design as a drawback. We see it as opportunity: an opportunity for authors not only to write the best possible material, but also to present it in the best possible way.

If your manuscript was accepted for publication through traditional publishing route, how much influence would you have on the design process? Almost none. Any extra design you may have had in mind (chapter headings, illustrations, etc.) would have a good chance of not being realized.

That’s why e-book design exists, and the first rule of the craft is…

Simplicity over fanciness.

Keep in mind that simplicity does not equal ugliness. It simply means that you should leave the visual shenanigans out of an e-book as much as possible. After all, the content is king. And above all, readers want their e-books to be easily readable. (us included!)

In short, e-book design consists of several factors:

  • conversion into foundational code for content, designed specifically for the chosen e-book formats,
  • creation of a custom style sheet for presentation,
  • creation and linking of an active Table of Contents (TOC) in the text of the e-book,
  • creation of a structural table of contents (NCX) used in many reading systems for navigation,
  • formatting the text (paragraphs, headings, chapter titles, etc.),
  • properly formatted footnotes / endnotes linked in both directions,

… and so on.

The e-book market has grown exponentially over the years, and will continue to grow. Indie and self-publishing is more important than ever, and the percentage of self-published authors is increasing constantly. With the development of new technologies and the continued reduction in e-reader prices, e-books are a major part of the publishing industry. And e-books can’t function without good design.

E-books need the expert attention of a good designer, and can’t be properly crafted with the automatic mass conversion tools. E-books need professional design that grabs the attention of buyers. A properly designed e-book will enhance your reputation as an author and allow your readers to take your work seriously.

When you’re ready to get started, you can contact us to see how we can help you.