AUGUST 2010 IN
RICK ASTER’S WORLD

E-Book Readers Ready for Novels Only

I’ve spent part of this month trying to get my new book on computer programming into e-book form for release as an e-book, but what I’ve found so far isn’t encouraging. Major e-book readers, at this point, can display a novel just fine, but falter when a book contains technical or decorative characters or even the simplest elements of page layout.

It’s impossible to write a computer programming book without tables and computer programs, yet you have to make difficult compromises to make this work on the popular e-book readers. Many e-book readers aren’t capable of displaying multiple spaces, and therefore cannot display a computer program correctly. E-book readers generally can display tables, but they are not capable at this point of horizontal scrolling, so a table of any complexity should generally be limited to just two columns if possible.

None of these technical points present a problem for English-language novels. These books traditionally contain no formatting aside from dividing the text into paragraphs, bold and italic text, and larger type and extra spacing around the chapter numbers (which is still readable if the type size is not rendered correctly). This helps to explain why so many novels, and so few other books, are available for current e-book readers.

Ironically, the introduction of the iPad is likely to change the e-book reader market. Though not particularly marketed as an e-book reader, the iPad is, at this point, one of only about three choices for a competent e-book reader. Thus, the iPad sets a standard of competence that the dozens of other e-book readers will have to live up to in their next revision, or get left behind. It is not that the iPad e-book reader is flawless, but its rendering engine, based on the Safari web browser, is so much more advanced than that of the other e-book readers that it gives people a glimpse of what is possible in e-books.

Anyone else who makes an e-book reader has the option of adopting the Firefox rendering engine, or a subset of it, and this may be the quick way to make it possible to show a wider variety of e-books.

Many of the current generation of e-book readers are essentially the same as they were five years ago, but I have a hunch that the more serious rendering problems, such as the lack of support for European characters, will be rectified in just a year or two, and the current shortcomings of e-book readers will be overcome and forgotten within a few years. For anyone publishing a complex e-book at this point, the only sensible plan is to redo the e-book formatting almost every year to try to keep up with the capabilities of the e-book readers.


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