Thoughts on Print Fidelity and Accessibility

September 23rd, 2009 · 14 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

When I was a wee reader, my grandmother assured me that reading in poor light would destroy my eyes. Actually, heredity was the real culprit, and modern science would save me from the tyranny of eyeglasses*. I admit it: I was one of those kids who had to read, and that meant I had to make the best of the situation. Very little light? Just squint and hold the book closer.

I’m going to mess up your book

As I’ve moved through this big, bad world, I have discovered one thing to be true. People go through a lot of machinations to make print text readable. Reading glasses. Holding paper at arms’ length. Squinting. Stretching the corner of one eye. Getting closer to the work. Magnifying glasses. Persuading another person to read the words out loud.

I’ve also noticed that even the most technophobic of people will learn the tricks and tips they need to make the text on their computer monitors readable. I have seen some scary font sizes in my day, both big and small. When it comes to the optimal font and size, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

(This is not really about accessibility, though, ahem, it is.)

With print books, there are definite limitations to what you can do to make the actual reading easier. It is amazing how hard people will work to read, despite the challenges. Ebooks are different. Here is how it works in ebooks. I’m going to mess up your book. After you spend all that time on formatting and typesetting and getting the kerning just right, I’m going to mess with it. Not out of malice, of course, but there you have it.

When I’m at the gym, I’ll make the font a little bigger to accommodate for the weird light. When I’m on the couch, I’ll return to regular size, but I might be in the mood for ragged right instead of full justification (which can be so annoying in some ebooks). Of course, I may go bigger if I’m not sitting near the light source. On my laptop, I’ll do this; on my iPhone, I’ll do that. I might even turn my phone sideways. I am a moody person. You never know what I’m going to do.

Bottom line is this: for the kind of book I read the most, traditional fiction, I am going to make the reading experience as comfortable for me as possible. Better still, I have the power to do so.

I expressed frustration when J.K. Rowling stated that one reason for withholding the Harry Potter series from the ebook market was because she believed her stories should be experienced as she intended. On paper. I thought that then and I think now that sentiment is entirely too selfish. What about the reader who doesn’t have room in her bag to carry a very thick book? What about the reader who is up at three a.m., a baby in one arm? What about the vision impaired? The mobility impaired?

I lied. This is about accessibility. And print fidelity.

Some books are beautiful. The layout and design is an integral part of the experience. Images and elements and fonts and colors all come together to make the book a thing to behold and treasure. We have not yet begun to see all that can be done with beautiful books in the digital realm.

One thing I’d like to posit is that these lovely books shouldn’t be required to look and feel like the print version. Take advantage of the medium — whose ego is being stroked when form takes precedence over function or even innovation?

A frustration I have with books released via the Scrollmotion App is the insistence on maintaining print fidelity. While Scrollmotion has shown what they can do with their technology (comics anyone? there is so much possibility for this company, as noted in this article), most of the books released to date do not benefit from fidelity to the print version. As a consumer, I actually find the insistence on mirroring the print layout, pagination and all, annoying. Especially for a book purchased to read on my iPhone. It’s not, ahem, the largest reading surface on the planet.

I am thinking about this because I am thinking about people who spend far too many hours tweaking the look of an ebook to suit their own aesthetics, never once considering that the reader may have an entirely different set of requirements. I get the commitment to the art, but believe time spent on the basics is time better spent. I am thinking about publishers who increase the costs of ebook production because they think print first, digital after.

I guess what I’m really thinking about is the idea that a digital book is a book transformed. It’s the first time, I believe, the user experience can be shaped by the reader so completely. And in shaping that experience, the reader is able to create an environment where thinking about the logistics of reading take second place to the actual words and ideas on the (paper or virtual or even audio) page.

* – Sad but true: I find myself missing my glasses, but only because of the frames. I feel I didn’t do enough to explore the world of non-boring frames.

File Under: Square Pegs

14 responses so far ↓

  • Carolyn Jewel // Sep 23, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    I was going to blog on this issue, but now I don’t need to!

    You are soooo right. I read on my iPhone and my god, the pain when a book is fully justified or the author’s name and/or book title shows up (apparently) randomly on nearly every page — and squished up against the actual text — because I resized it and the original formatting of the text was messed up anyway.

    I could go on, but basically I’d just repeat what you said so well.

  • nicola griffith // Sep 23, 2009 at 5:39 pm

    This is the old creator-first or consumer-first argument of the early web. Consumers, er, customers will win. The fussy control freaks should just just give up now and save us all some grief.

  • Michael Covington // Sep 24, 2009 at 7:30 am

    Like you, I like to customize my digital reading experience for comfort. Unlike both of us, my wife needs a customized reading experience out of necessity, she’s blind. And more than a million Americans are just like her. Beyond that, an aging Baby Boomer generation is experiencing the need for longer arms. In the emerging digital content industry, advancements have been made to convert print-ready PDF files to accessible formats in both print and digital (DAISY, refreshable braille, and custom font based files for print-on-demand). Read How You Want is a company that ECPA has partnered with to help publishers make their content accessible for the visually impaired and learning disabled. Gone are the days where a publisher needs to cherry pick titles that can be licensed to large print houses (16pt. is not large print by the way). Strides are being made in legislation (similar to ADA) where publishers will be forced to one day make their content accessible for these communities. Wouldn’t they be better served today to be proactive and find a whole new audience for their content?

  • Kassia Krozser // Sep 24, 2009 at 9:25 am

    Michael — You make the point far better than I could! I’ve done a lot of work with the accessible web, and learned a lot of valuable lessons in the process. Right now, publishers do have the ability to make a huge difference for readers who have traditionally been limited in their reading choices. The technology exists, no extra investment is required. We have heard stories about the sheer number of baby boomers and their impact on government systems in the next few decades, and these readers will face reading challenges as well. Right now is the perfect time for publishers to consider the best way to serve this reading public.

    For example, the text-to-speech functionality in the Kindle 2. It’s not an optimal experience by any stretch of the imagination, and a blind reader would likely choose one of the technologies you note (I do strongly encourage people to experience how the blind/vision impaired “read” — you will learn something amazing). However, a reader with mobility impairment might choose this as an option. Again, not optimal, but a choice that keeps people reading and engaged. This is an area where publishers can take a leadership position, and I hope they do.

  • Joe Cottonwood // Sep 24, 2009 at 10:11 am

    Writers get so attached to the printed word that they forget history: Storytelling is an oral tradition. It started with the cavemen. The printed book, whether digital or on paper, is a relatively new invention and merely an imitation of the incredible power of the spoken word.

    The same digital advances that allow e-books also allow e-audiobooks, and many writers (and their readers) are taking advantage of it through podcasting or other means.

  • Mike Cane // Sep 24, 2009 at 12:28 pm

    >>>A frustration I have with books released via the Scrollmotion App is the insistence on maintaining print fidelity.

    Yes, when I first saw the way they were doing things, I couldn’t understand why.

    Then I thought about why they would do that.

    It’s obvious: It was built from the start for a larger screen. Just think of how great that’ll be on an iTablet! No more vertical scrolling.

  • Kassia Krozser // Sep 24, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    Talk about limiting the audience! I’m not sure how many years of whining it will take before I’ll obtain one of the (still mythical) Apple tablets!

  • Kimberly Gardner // Sep 25, 2009 at 10:54 am

    Is the Kindle 2 even usable by a blind reader? I am visually impaired and have lusted after the Kindle since its introduction mainly for the vast array of titles I could access with it. But I assumed that the device itself would not be usable because, let’s face it, most nifty techno gadgets aren’t user friendly for a totally blind user. Ipod anyone?

    I have been an ebook consumer since the very early days and a voracious reader since childhood. The idea that, with a kindle or other device, I could have access to the same books as everyone else is simply beyond my wildest reading fantasies.

  • Kassia Krozser // Sep 25, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    Kimberly — The Kindle 2 *is* usable by a blind reader, and of course that statement comes with caveats. The way you would use it would be to utilize the text-to-speech functionality. You get a clunky, robotic voice reading in about real time. The bigger problem is that many publishers and authors, spurred on by what they perceived to be an assault on their audio/performance rights, have disabled the text-to-speech functionality on their books (Random House being one who cites this proudly!). So what might have been a useful, if imperfect, feature has been rendered largely useless by the publishing industry.

    I think it’s too bad because it would have opened the door to more books at more affordable prices, despite the lack of compelling experience (though, if embraced by the vision impaired constituency, Amazon might have been inspired to improve the experience.

  • Stephen Tiano // Sep 26, 2009 at 6:12 am

    See, now, as a boo designer, I’m convinced that my job is to bring the author’s words to the reader. It’s not about me. Consequently, readability is my Job #1, to purloin from Ford Motor Co.

    If we don’t make readable and attractive books, we give readers one less reason to look for physical, printed books and periodicals. I understand some of the attraction of Kindle and like electronic readers, but they don’t give one the pleasure of cracking open a stiff, new book with its nw book smell.

    That said, to remain relevant, I think we book designers do need to learn to design for Kindle. Making e-books attractive will be challenging and that should be worth something, as well as fun to do.

  • kat // Sep 26, 2009 at 7:57 am

    I was that person up at 3AM with a baby in one arm, and I used my internet tablet extensively in the dead of the night. Not only is it one-handed, but illuminated — perfect while bouncing a colicky infant on an exercise ball… for hours.

  • Brian O'Leary // Sep 27, 2009 at 7:32 am

    Earlier this month, I likened the format debate to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: with digital content, you can control format, or you can support multiple uses, but it is hard and pretty expensive to try to do both. It made me wonder out loud if look and feel was something publishers were willing to let go:

  • Brian O'Leary // Sep 27, 2009 at 8:36 am

    Although not directly targeted at the issue of accessibility, a New York Times piece on format proliferation amplifies the challenge, and the opportunity:

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