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A Plea to Book Designers: InDesign Is Not a Linotype Machine

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Lead Type by Andre Chinn (andrechinn) @flickr.com. Used through a Creative Commons license.This is a plea from the heart to all of the page-layout/book-design folks out there on behalf of us lowly ebook designers, but it’s also, I’m afraid, a bit of a rant. Bear with me.

Here’s the gist: PLEASE DON’T USE THE SPACE BAR OR THE RETURN KEY TO MAKE YOUR LINES LOOK PRETTY!

I’ve worked on two ebook conversions recently where the designers had used spaces (or possibly hairspaces) and line feeds to make the pages flow cleanly and attractively on the printed page. They would use the hairspace/space between letters in a word and resize it to make the letters space out attractively -- this was usually in the chapter heads or subheads, since spacing in display type can sometimes be tricky. And they’d use the return key (or possibly the shift-return combination) to force a line break in the middle of the paragraph -- to avoid hyphenation, for example.

The problem is that when an ebook designer takes your book and converts it into HTML (since ebooks are just self-contained web pages), those little adjustments lose their meaning and are treated for what they are: spaces in the middle of words or paragraph breaks in the middle of sentences.

So, for example:

CHAPTER HEADER

becomes

C H A P T E R H E A D E R

-- and --

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

becomes

I t is a truth universa lly ackno wle dged, that a sin gle

man in pos sessio n of a good fort une, must be in want

of a wi fe.

It’s annoying in one sentence. Now imagine an entire book like that. Imagine, if you will, having to pick through sixty thousand words line by line to remove those. Search-and-replace will only help so much.*

For the love of Garamond, please: use the letter-spacing/kerning function in InDesign or Quark to give your words the proper room to breathe. Do not add superfluous spaces and line breaks.

Why would master book designers who have been doing their jobs for years do something so mind-bogglingly stupid? Because they’ve been doing their job for years. The practice goes back to lead type and the early days of desktop publishing.

Back when printing was done with movable type, when you wanted to play with the spacing between two letters or words, you could add thin little brass shims to adjust the distance. Well-designed typefaces -- a font, by the way, is a variation on a typeface (i.e., italic, bold, etc.), not the typeface itself -- would have versions of some of the letters that allowed for them to overlap or kern with the letters that came before them if you wanted to decrease the space. If you wanted more space, you added more shims (or, as my print shop teacher occasionally did in a pinch, a penny). Some letter combinations that could be connected would have a single two-letter slug created called a ligature.

As for line breaks… Well, in lead type, all line breaks were manual; when poured type became the medium, it worked like a typewriter: hit return at the end of a line, hit return-tab at the end of a paragraph.

Those methods were adopted as metaphors by early page-layout software -- and still survives in a way to this day in the dominant applications, InDesign and Quark.

But the HTML-based ePub and mobi/Kindle standards don’t know anything about that.

When you export from the programs, the resultant HTML will at least show those line breaks as <br/> tags. The hairspaces (or sixth-spaces or en-spaces or em-spaces or whatever) are simply… spaces. This means having to hunt for all of those lit tle sp aces i n t h e mi d dle o f w or ds.

When an ebook designer has to work from the print PDF (since designers aren’t always willing provide a copy of the design file), the line breaks translate as full paragraph breaks that have to found and removed manually -- a head-bangingly frustrating task, since it’s absolutely unnecessary.

So please, beloved print designers: don’t treat your twenty-first century page-layout application like a 1948 Lino machine. Save the desk of the poor ebook designer.

Thank you.


* Okay. So if you’re willing to use regular expression (regex/GREP) searches, you can do a bit. After some head-banging, I came up with an expression that allowed me to look for paragraph breaks that appeared to be mid-sentence by looking for places where a paragraph ended on a lowercase letter, comma or semicolon:

([a-z]|,|;)</p>\s+<p>

The problem with this was that there places where the books had legitimate breaks in such places -- Dear John, for example.

Still, better than nothing, right?

The same problem holds true for using spellcheck to find errant spaces in the middle of words. Some words wouldn’t trip the spellcheck: because becoming be cause won’t show up, for instance.

Photo: Lead Type by Andre Chinn (andrechinn) @flickr.com. Used through a Creative Commons license.

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