Amazon: Typography Rules!

  • Sumo

Amazon has done us all a favor and added hyphenation and a new font (Bookerly), and has refined its support for drop caps. Professional typesetting standards are now supported! We can provide high-quality ebooks to our readers, knowing that a drop cap will align nicely with the baseline we spec and word-spacing will be distributed without making us think we’ve fallen into the Grand Canyon in some lines.

OK, this might be an overstatement. Amazon did announce this week (link below) that for iOS and Fire tablets (only these platforms; more devices and apps coming sometime later this year), a whole suite of reader-facing enhancements is being implemented.

Back in the Fall I heard some talk that Amazon was serious about improving the Kindle’s reading experience.  It would have been hard to make it worse — especially for those using early Kindles — for folks accustomed to well typeset pages. Amazon doesn’t seem to have any plans to go to EPUB3, and will instead stick with KF8/Mobi, so this is an indication that they’re determined to improve their product. If we can’t get one standard for all ebooks, at last let’s push for the different environments to deliver quality books.

Amazon's own screengrab

This screen grab is from Amazon’s announcement.

Some questions:

  • will words hyphenate after the first 2 letters of a word? In my typesetting work, I never hyphenate after 2 letters. Never.
  • Will it allow ladders (2 or more hyphens in a row)?
  • Will it hyphenate compound words (self-destruct-ing)?
  • will it hyphenate capitalized words or names?
  • Will Amazon Guidelines be updated to provide some how-tos in using these features?

People urge me to not apply print standards to ebooks. Drop caps are so old-fashioned, so don’t use them; the power of font and size choice, and the resulting reflow, trumps elegant typography; etc. I don’t buy it. Partly because I’m old; partly because standards evolved for a reason. We don’t have to slavishly adhere to them, but we shouldn’t just toss them because they developed around yesterday’s technology.

No good word comes without caveats in ebook-making, so here’s the big one for this rollout: Amazon is applying these changes to its back catalog itself, without help from the ebook developers who made the files. That means a few things:

  • You’ve got no control over how your books will be ‘adjusted.’  You might want to check in on them occasionally to see what’s happened to them. I suppose if you don’t like what they’ve done you could make adjustments and re-upload your file.
  • We don’t know how long it’ll take to get to every Kindle book.
  • There are no best practices, or recommendations, for preparing new books for these enhancements.

So here’s what I’m asking: keep an eye on your already-uploaded books, and on those you’re sending to Amazon from now on. And keep your copy of the Kindle Publishing Guidelines updated. What do you see? Let us know. I’d love to hear some feedback.

Amazon’s announcement:

This writeup in Fast Company explains the features nicely:

5 Responses to “Amazon: Typography Rules!”

  1. I dropped drop-caps from my books some time ago because I had so many problems making them work properly across the board – Kindle being the main offender. Hopefully this will mean I can restore them.

    And I for one am certainly not one of those people advocating an abandonment of print standards. An ebook is a book. We’ve developed standards and conventions, and kept on using them, for a reason. They work. They look nice. Print books don’t have to follow these conventions, in the same way that ebook creators don’t. But they do, and they do so for good reasons.

  2. Lovely is lovely and ugly is ugly no matter what the display medium. The rules that typographers have been applying to books for centuries still apply to digital. Amazon’s been foolish to ignore that. I’m glad they’re finally coming around.

    Any word on whether Amazon intends to add smart handling of windows and orphan for reflowable text? I saw no mention of that. That’s long been one of my gripes. I saw one case where a mere “ly” wrapped to the last page of a chapter. You don’t need a PhD in typography to know that is tacky. Writing the code to wrap the last two lines of a chapter to a new page can’t be that hard.


    I just opened up a multi-volume Churchill biography I’m reading on my iPad. The Kindle app offered me the opportunity to use the Bookerly font instead. Better, maybe, but it didn’t solve the central problem with a complex, multi-volume book series that might have been marvelous to read but isn’t. In the case that Churchill series, that means distinguishing between commentary, quotes and added notes. Crude, crude, crude mobi (my Kindle 3) can’t do that and KF8 (my iPad) is only modestly better.

    Amazon still doesn’t get that that books other than trendy NYT bestselling novels exist. Many such books require quite a bit of formatting complexity to be enjoyable to read and that complexity needs to be professionally done by people in software designed for that purpose (InDesign and Quark) and display with all the sophistication that print can handle. Little tweaks to ebook reader engines aren’t enough.


    Sorry, but I’m not among the chorus of those who want to gush that Amazon is finally doing what it should have done years ago. If Amazon insists on sticking with its proprietary formatting, then it needs to support powerful export functionality for that from the apps that publishers use to create their print editions. Amazon doesn’t pay me to do special editions for their Kindles. Amazon isn’t going to get special editions.

    I’m not going to experiment, trying this and trying that to work around any deficiencies their proprietary format and lack of support for layout apps creates. Amazon-Kindle will get what it always gets from me, an epub 3 file. If they want it to look good in their system, they can worry and fret with their conversion software. If not, well then perhaps the difference between how books look will offer readers reason to buy from retailers who do support standards such as epub and export from apps such as InDesign.


    History has an important lesson for Amazon. Every heard about EBDIC or the Extended Binary Coded Decimal Interchange Code (EBCDIC). It’s IBM’s poorly designed substitute for the ASCII character set. IBM tried to rule with proprietary and failed. The same will happen to Amazon eventually.

    The Wikipedia description of EBCDIC is hilarious.

    “An alleged character set used on IBM dinosaurs. It exists in at least six mutually incompatible versions, all featuring such delights as non-contiguous letter sequences and the absence of several ASCII punctuation characters fairly important for modern computer languages (exactly which characters are absent varies according to which version of EBCDIC you’re looking at). IBM adapted EBCDIC from punched card code in the early 1960s and promulgated it as a customer-control tactic (see connector conspiracy), spurning the already established ASCII standard. Today, IBM claims to be an open-systems company, but IBM’s own description of the EBCDIC variants and how to convert between them is still internally classified top-secret, burn-before-reading. Hackers blanch at the very name of EBCDIC and consider it a manifestation of purest evil.”

    Not that different from how I feel about hand-coding ebooks for Kindles.

  3. Don’t know if you noticed but the recently updated Kindle Publishing Guidelines (2015.1) has added a bunch of new stuff to the Media Queries section, allowing much greater control over how an ebook appears on a given device. While this is primarily of concern for backwards compatibility, it becomes more necessary as layouts become more complex. These additions imply that Amazon intends to head in that direction.

  4. Kevin Callahan says:

    Scot, I did notice that when looking through the Guidelines for info about the new typography. Both the MQ and new typography features are promising for improving reading quality.

  5. […] Speaking of the Kindle, here’s a new post on epubsecrets about some new typography features for the Amazon Kindle […]