Better Reading on the iPad: iBooks 1.1, VQR, & PDF

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News | Stephen Coles | June 23, 2010

Some good things have happened since my post full of iPad grumbles. Time for an update. On Monday, Apple released iOS 4, and along with it a small but significant update to iBooks, its e-reader app. This revision addresses two of my biggest gripes about reading on the iPad.

iBooks 1.1 Typography

First, ragged right alignment is now an option. As illustrated in our Pooh example, this is a huge improvement, especially when columns are narrow or fonts are large. Unfortunately, full justification is still the default, and the switch to turn it off is not within the iBooks app itself but buried in the iOS Settings app, where casual users rarely venture. Still, it’s a welcome addition and it works well on all the books I’ve tried. Hyphenation is the next step for addressing the more ragged of rags. That’s obviously a more daunting technical feat. There is the soft hyphen workaround , but really it’s a task that should happen at the system level using hyphenation dictionaries. Let’s hope our prayers are answered again in iBooks 1.2.

Second, Apple added Georgia to iBook’s font menu. The difference in the reading experience between Matthew Carter’s screen-optimized masterpiece and the other (print-optimized) fonts is stark, especially at small sizes. I don’t know why you’d want to read on screen with anything else in that list, except perhaps Palatino.

The first sign that these improvements were making their way to iBooks appeared on June 8 when iPhone 4 was announced. Demo phones at WWDC revealed iBooks with ragged right text, set in Georgia. Clearly, the size of the iPhone screen demanded the changes and typographers were hopeful that they might make their way to the iPad. But it was the very next day, long before this week’s iBooks 1.1 release, that I experienced unjustified text on my very own iPad. How? The first digital edition of the Virginia Quarterly Review had just shipped and it featured the best typography I’d seen in iBooks, including wrapped pull quotes, proper image captions, and ragged right text.

VQR Digital Edition on iPad

VQR Digital Edition on iPad

VQR Digital Edition on iPad

VQR Digital Edition on iPad

VQR’s web editor Waldo Jaquith used various HTML techniques, including definition lists, to make an ePub doc that iBooks doesn’t bludgeon. To quote Jaquith:

I don’t think that we could have stomached releasing a fully justified version of the magazine. :) I mean, conceptually, sure, but the typographical rendering is just so terrible on every device out there — not just the iPad — that we couldn’t bear the sight of it. We actually considered releasing a Kindle version of the magazine, earlier this year. But after borrowing a Kindle and studying some publications, we decided that it was just too horrible. We couldn’t inflict it on our readers.

Indeed. But Jaquith is quick to add that their digital magazine is still a far cry from the ink-and-paper version. “Photographs are smaller, there is no hyphenation, we can’t control widows and orphans (and the occasional blank page).” So if the ePub format and its devices are so limited, why not follow the lead of most magazines, including the much-ballyhooed Wired and Popular Science, and produce stand-alone iPad apps? Jaquith thinks that’s a mistake:

Releasing issues of magazines as apps is bad for readers and publishers alike. True, the ePub format is not ideal for magazines, but the ePub Revision Working Group has a new release slated for next spring that will remedy that. VQR has been around for 85 years. We take the long view. The open, simple, accessible, indexable, archivable ePub format is clearly the best option for us and for our readers.

One more thing… the new iBooks can open PDFs. Once you drag them to iTunes and sync your iPad they appear on their own bookshelf in the Library. In many ways they work just like ePub docs in the app — you can search and bookmark pages, and turn them by swiping. Open a PDF again and pick up on the page where you left off. What’s missing is selectable and resizable text. These aren’t unimportant features, but to some a fair tradeoff for maintaining the look and feel of a printed magazine. So if PDFs are working in iBooks right now it does make one wonder: maybe that’s really the most immediate, economical way for print magazines with smaller budgets to enter this space. Will Apple allow PDFs in the iBookstore? Why not?

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20 Comments:

  1. Not sure why people insist on reinventing the wheel. PDF is a perfectly usable and viable form for reading on electronic devices. If that’s the format that’s needed to maintain a magazine’s aesthetics, there SHOULD be no reason to fight it.

    SHOULD be no reason. But Apple has proven many times over that it fights some odd fights in order to maintain its control. If they’re going to keep PDFs out of the store, it will be due to control issues. Hopefully if that DOES happen, they won’t stoop to claiming that PDF is an inefficient packaging system that produces lower quality materials or some equally ridiculous and untrue statement.

    Posted by Greg on Jun. 23, 2010
  2. on my iphone the default is ragged. fyi.

    Posted by Simon Robertson on Jun. 23, 2010
  3. Good news. Those shelves still look horrible though.

    Posted by Daniel on Jun. 23, 2010
  4. This is all still very laughable to me, and slightly pathetic. Why are people instantly clinging to this faux page-turning, bookshelf-organizing text prison?

    The free app, Stanza, has had every layout adjustment setting a user could want since the beginning—well before iBooks came out with its almost offensive justified-only crap—and yet STILL people are going to give Apple’s locked down piece of garbage a chance? If this app didn’t have an “i” pasted on it, no one would give a damn.

    Furthermore, if you’re going to use HTML, just put it on the web. Do all of us with limited space for data on our diminutive machines a favor.

    Posted by David Boni on Jun. 23, 2010
  5. Also, why does this blog’s comment sections have no margin/padding-bottom for our paragraphs? ):

    Posted by David Boni on Jun. 23, 2010
  6. “Will Apple allow PDFs in the iBookstore? Why not?”

    My guess is PDFs are easy to redistribute. Apps are a lot harder. Therefore PDFs may be a threat to the economic aspect of e-mags.

    Posted by Thijs on Jun. 23, 2010
  7. Well, I just hate that the PDF icons previewing a PDF document use the visual of ugly GBC binding. That is a print metaphor they could have done without.

    Posted by Anne on Jun. 23, 2010
  8. David — No excuse for the lack of space between ’graphs. It’s on our bug list. In the meantime, I’ve added some manual inline styling.

    Thijs — But ePubs are as easy to distribute as PDFs.

    Anne — Yeah, it’s even sillier than the page imagery in iBooks. Hopefully these unnecessary metaphors will get stripped away over time.

    Posted by Stephen Coles on Jun. 23, 2010
  9. Unfortunately, not only does iBooks have default justification turned on in those out-of-the-way settings, it now won’t let ebook designers override that setting. If you look at VQR now, that lovely ragged right is gone.

    Is it a default or is it a commandment?

    Posted by Liz Castro on Jun. 23, 2010
  10. Looking good, Stephen. Thanks for fixing that up! Now, I must apologize for the following essay’s length…

    I realize now that I come off sounding extremely pissed off by iBooks whenever I talk/write about it. The real issue is how publishers, art directors, and magazine designers are going to make the jump from printed to digital still and how none of the digital mediums satisfy everyone.

    What annoys me is the fact that, as an Apple application, iBooks gets instant credibility in the eyes of countless designers who love designing on a Mac, but these shortcomings and restrictions are seen more like hurdles to and temporary obstacles to trudge through for awhile until Apple gets it right. If the owner was anyone else, this application would be lambasted to the 9th circle of Hell and forgotten.

    We can argue about these glorified PDF/ePub readers all day long. The biggest problem here is that none of these methods or readers/digital bookshelves are ideal; they’re dinosaurs and no amount of rounded edges, 1 pixel strokes, or subtle dropshadows can cover up that fact to me. I believe that the Web is the perfect place to distribute new, digital magazine-esque content.

    Designers need to put down InDesign for a couple of hours and start learning how to use TextMate (or whatever code editor you prefer), or they need to buddy up with a younger designer who knows code. The real issue here is fear of code and it is making everyone with a copy of Quark/InDesign cling to these inadequate reading “apps.”

    Posted by David Boni on Jun. 23, 2010
  11. I agree that flipping pages and in fact the concept of pages altogether will disappear from screen reading. Page numbers are only useful in physical books.

    My idea of reading on an iPad-like device is threefold; 1.Scrolling vertically and endlessly, 2.Tap for PgUp or PgDown, 3.Browse the Table Of Content.

    Also page numbers have been inappropriately used for referencing and they are completely absurd in a digital book (because of reflow). Great examples of referencing are the “Holy Books”, it would be silly to say “this passage can be found on page 89 of the Holy Quran”. It is easier than ever to produce comprehensive and properly marked up publications, that in turn will produce an easier experience in both continuous reading and research.

    Agreed with David Boni on many things including “designers and InDesign” but I must say InDesign’s support for XML is getting better all the time.

    Watch this only if you have time to kill:
    http://river-valley.tv/tex-as-an-ebook-reader

    Posted by Johnny Dib on Jun. 23, 2010
  12. I agree with David Boni, content should be delivered in more accessible forms, but I don’t think that a designer needs to learn code. On the other hand, the designer should focus on the design. What seams to be the main issue is that we never really have someone in charge to make sure that when the content is coded, it is accessible and correctly displayed.

    When printing a magazine or newspaper, the journalist writes the content, but there is someone else with typographic knowledge who makes sure that the content respect the standards. But strangely, there is still not a broad category of people doing the same job in the new medias like the web, or mobile devices.

    I see this as being a new type of job, soon to come, more and more needed, but not yet requested.

    Posted by CouzinHub on Jun. 23, 2010
  13. Interesting and useful and informative and all of that – as usual, Stephen. Thanks for this.

    I will no doubt be dismissed as antiquated and out-of-touch for saying this (not that I mind), but, um, I still don’t actually see a need for any of these devices. Books, magazines, newspapers – as methods of delivering text, these aged technologies work fine, thank you very much. I mean, I’d rather gouge my eyes out than read Anna Karenina on an iPhone.

    As far as designers coding – fine, if you want to do that. But it strikes me that the closest parallel is the printing press. In the old analog days, designers designed and printers printed. I wonder if we don’t need a a similar division of labour now. If I wanted to program – rather than design – I would have become a programmer.

    Posted by Peter Cocking on Jun. 24, 2010
  14. @Peter Cocking

    It’s perfectly fine to want to read a magazine as a magazine, or anything else printed in its tried-and-true state. I love opening a spread and seeing a gorgeous typographic illustration spanning across, full page photos, and nicely set columns and all of that.

    I’m a younger fellow and from my experience, and from watching my generation grow, information and “stuff” moves so damn quickly. It is frustrating to have a device that can display text beautifully and photos vividly while the interface was crucified to hard-world metaphors (turning pages, columns, etc)—it makes the stories, makes the information, harder to get to and get into in my opinion.

    And it’s not so much the designer and printer like you say when it comes to designing and coding—basic HTML and CSS is dead-easy, you already type all those pt and pixel values and possibly hex codes for colors, what is so hard about typing font-size:16px; line-height:21px; color:#222;? To me, it’s like saying some magic words and boom… instant legibility across any device with a screen.

    Posted by David Boni on Jun. 24, 2010
  15. I am really aghast that you say that there is now “Better Reading on the iPad” now that full justification is forced on readers who don’t know to go digging in the General Settings.

    The major change (apart from the Font fiasco, which I have detailed in my posts Apple damaging epub standard with pseudo-support and Apple kills fonts in iBooks, strikes blow to standards) is that iBooks no longer lets designers override the full justification default, which means that MORE people will have to see those ugly rivers of white space, not less.

    We need your voice making these problems known.

    Also see: http://infogridpacific.typepad.com/using_epub/2010/06/simple-epub-ops-rules-for-apple.html

    Posted by Liz Castro on Jun. 25, 2010
  16. @David Boni

    I’m not sure that I care so much about making information and ‘stuff,’ fast-moving or not, easier to get, or to get into. We’re awash with information, and it ain’t helping. If you look at most of the really big problems facing the planet these days, by and large they aren’t the result of a lack of information.

    When it comes to typographic design, I’m mostly concerned with pleasure – with the sense of aesthetic enjoyment one gets from reading a beautifully-written, well-designed text.

    Basic HTML and CSS may be ‘dead easy’ – but they’re dead boring, too. (Okay, that was an exaggeration for effect – but still . . . ) Me, I’d rather pick up a pencil. Show me something – anything – coded that stands up to, say, the posters of Ben Shahn,

    and then maybe you’ll start to swing me over to your ‘side,’ as it were.

    Posted by Peter Cocking on Jun. 25, 2010
  17. Hi Liz. I agree that that’s bad news. We’ll point folks to your comment from the FontShop Twitter account and I’ll keep an eye on that in future iBooks releases.

    Posted by Stephen Coles on Jun. 25, 2010
  18. @Peter Cocking

    I’m a bit confused by what propaganda posters have to do with using standards or making beautiful layouts on the web. But it is totally possible and you may have just given me an idea for a project or two.

    Essentially, you can make stuff like that, and you can make it infinitely scalable too since more browsers are getting support for SVGs—so I could make an illustration in Adobe Illustrator—I could even design the layout all with pencil first, scan that, set it as a background in-browser (might have to resize it, no biggie), then tweak my design to match. And your design can be flexible, too, so it’ll look fine at different screen resolutions or on different devices.

    Otherwise, you could always just paint something like Ben Shahn, save it as a big JPEG, set up your web fonts, and put the text right over the embedded image while setting the angle it goes with CSS3.

    Anyways, if you want an example of some beautiful layouts and content, there’s a lot to show off, including this very wonderful blog. Otherwise, take a look at some of these:

    Information Architects
    Dustin Curtis
    Space Collective Gallery

    And many, many more.

    Posted by David Boni on Jun. 25, 2010
  19. As a graphic/magazine designer I’m quite against most page turning faux magazines, seriously, what is wrong with normal websites or a paper and ink version?

    But, can anyone out there with an iPad clear up for me, how easy is it to start at the back and flick through the wrong way?

    I don’t know about everyone else but it seems to me no matter what your persuasion, a lot of people like to start at the end and break the rules before committing to reading in the intended order. Just the thought of the pages automatically rotating and not being able to look at it the wrong way if I want to is enough to put me off.

    I suppose I’ll have to stick to squinting and moving my head around for a design approval.

    Posted by Adam Wilson on Jul. 1, 2010
  20. I’m writing an e-book on energy that I plan to publish as a pdf file. I wish it to be readily readible on the iPad without zooming. I’m using Word 2007 so the e-book will be in a page format rather than a scrolling format. The e-book has a lot of figures and footnotes. Do you have a set of formating guides – page size, font, font sizing, margins, image caption formating, footnote formating, etc. that can serve as a guide for effort? IS there such a standard yet?

    Posted by James Snead on Jul. 6, 2010

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