Page, fetch me my... page?

"Page!" King Reedur bellowed. "I can't sleep! Fetch me my scroll with my favorite bedtime story, The Slaughter of Framsingtonne!" The young man leapt up from the shadowy corner of the room and sprinted out the door, returning quickly with a heavy bundle. "What is this?" the king demanded. "I asked for a scroll!"

The young man grinned faintly. "Your Majesty, this is a new invention. It is a book, with pages. Instead of one long scroll, your favorite bedtime story is divided into pages. To continue reading, one simply turns the page."

"Fine, fine," King Reedur grumbled, "get on with reading to me how my valiant knights slaughtered the scum rabble of Framsingtonne."

Many generations later, Pat Reedur, a distant descendant of the king, peered at the Kindle display and muttered angrily. "What is wrong with this book?" Pat asked the inanimate device. "The letters look funny, and I can't make the text bigger to make it easier for my old eyes to read. And the story doesn't flow right, it has all these weird page breaks. It's like a PDF or something."

* * * * *

Well, that's the end of the fiction part of this blog post, but despite not sticking strictly to the history of books, that fiction about scrolls, pages, and the Kindle is relevant to a basic truth about eBooks: An eBook is a lot more like a Web page or Web site than a printed book.

As you know, a long Web article or blog post just scrolls on and on, unless the author/publisher – or site software – intentionally breaks it into smaller pieces. On a small display such as a smart phone, you may have to scroll even the "smaller" pieces because the content is not broken up into screen-sized pieces (because this can't be reliably done on the server side). You may also know that your browser can adjust the size of the text on a Web page to optimize your reading experience. These things are not true about printed books, but they are true about eBooks.

Unfortunately, one of the easy mistakes to make when you start authoring eBooks is to think in terms of creating printed pages instead of Web pages. This is especially true with children's books, because often there is a very specific association between page order and content. When you're reading a novel, you normally don't think about the turn of each page, you just move through the story and it all flows along. When you read, or a child reads, a children's book, the turn of the page can be meaningful to the story itself. (For example, in The Monster at the End of this Book the act of turning pages is part of the story itself.)

One way this manifests is with eBooks that are created as a collection of images with text in them. Despite looking like text, an image with text is actually a "picture of text" and it will act like an illustration, not like text. The difference may not be immediately obvious when looking at it, but as soon as you try to interact with it, you'll immediately see that they behave differently.

Here's an example:

This is some text. Try selecting
just the word "selecting" near
the beginning of this sentence.
  [sample text as image]

Go ahead and follow the instructions above if you have any question about how real text behaves compared to a picture of text.

There are some children's books that really do need specific positioning of text on top of an image, and there is now some limited support for that in the overall ereading environment. The key word there is "limited." For quite some time, it will be easy to find devices and apps that do not support that type of positioning. For books that require it, those devices and apps are just not going to be part of the target market. It is possible to create the book with just images (with text in them) to try to serve those devices and apps, but the end result will not be as usable as the author would like.

However, many children's books (including my own, Two Boys, Two Planets) have a page layout that can generally be described as text under or over an image. In other words, if you look through the "hole" in the middle of a letter like 'O' you see blank page, not the image. For books like that, there is no reason to use pictures of text instead of real text. By using real text, the range of devices and apps in the target market is vastly bigger, and the reading audience will not struggle, as Pat Reedur did in my micro-story above, with text that does not change size or flow properly to fit the display screen.

I have said before that "with current technology, you will not be “filling the screen” on every device readers could use to view your book." While that was originally said about images and aspect ratios, it also holds true with text when you enforce page breaks in (real) text. Across the broad range of apps and devices that someone could use to read your book, there will be those annoying times when the content of a page (using real text, not pictures of text) flows over to a new page with just one or two words on it. Using pictures of text avoids that, but with a heavy price to pay in drastically-reduced usability for the reader. That approach replaces one annoyance with a host of annoyances.

The right thing to do depends on the content of the book. In many cases with a children's book, you will want specific content to be associated together into one "page" (which may be more than one display screen of content on certain devices), and you can therefore enforce page breaks and accept that it will be annoying to readers in certain circumstances. However, it may be more useful to view your book as one long scroll, and not enforce page breaks at all (or only between, say, the dedication page and the start of the story, and between the end of the story and an "about the author" page). With a chapter book, you might want to force a page break at the end of each chapter, although this is definitely not required. With an earlier-reader book that is not page specific, where the story is just as easily read with or without page breaks, you can avoid the troubles mentioned above by leaving page breaks out entirely.

If you have questions or comments on this, please feel free to leave a comment below.


About the Author
Stuart J. Whitmore is an author of fiction and nonfiction, as well as a photographer, technology developer, and more. If you enjoy reading his blog posts, you might also enjoy reading his books. Take a look at the books by Stuart J. Whitmore today, and download your copy of one that looks interesting to you!