Ebooks have no style

I’m finally beginning to understand so many literary publisher’s resistance to ebooks: There is no room for real literature in these formats. Using the top two current digital book formats, ePub and Mobi, it’s difficult to present the content as more than a string of words. And literature is more than a string of words. The experience of reading the book matters, the presentation matters. If you had to read Shakespeare without any line breaks, or proper pagination, it would ruin the experience. These things matter. And the reductionist nature of ebooks is really only meant for books in which presentation, pacing and pagination don’t matter. Danielle Steele. Stephanie Meyer.

I think what it comes down to: ebooks have no style. As I was learning to format for ePub and Mobi the first issue of Anomalous, everything I read about formatting potentially interesting or beautifully designed books for a digital format had to do with “normalizing” “standardizing” and “stripping” the text. The imposed conformity of the digital format seems to be antithetical to the ethos of a digital revolution in publishing. How can authors and publishers experiment with form and not just with the container when they are being forced to conform to the lowest-common-denominator? Forbidden to have style? When complexity, the essence of great artistic works, is prohibited.

Debra DeBlasi, the brilliant founder of Jaded Ibis Press, says in an interview with Forbes that she believes publishing can be art. Not just making art available, but the actual publishing is an artform. And I agree. I love letterpress printing for this reason – the production of a work of art as a work of art. The container and the content working together to create a new experience of the artwork.

But what does it mean that the great digital revolution of 21st century publishing is, at least for the moment, heavily unartistic?

Well, for one, it means that exciting innovations are still to be made, especially when it comes to the specific formatting concerns of poetry. For example, this Ampersand application by BookMobile (though that’s still using PDFs, and DRM infested at that), or whatever Copper Canyon produces with their grant.

But for now? We’re confined to conformity, stripped down to the bare minimum.



  1. Rachel

    An open letter.

    Dear publishers formatting for eBooks: I just finished reading an eBook where every chapter started with a drop cap in 20% tint. You know what doesn’t show up on an eReader screen? Anything in 20% tint. Consequently, the first letter of every chapter was ‘missing.’ If I squinted I could make it out. But you know what? I shouldn’t have to squint. I know this would look really nice on white paper in a traditional book, but I went and bought the eBook. If you’re going to offer it, please think about the end users and their experiences. Please think about your platforms.

    • Yes, I think this is my point. Though you’re referring to somewhat superficial formatting, I think we should have the option to use drop-caps. Experimental poetry that messes around with typography, for example, gets totally mangled if you try to convert it for ebooks. How can literature experiment with new technology when the technology itself is about restriction rather than innovation?

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