One of the selling points of eReaders is the ability of the (human) reader to choose fonts, text size, and in the case of tablets, vertical or horizontal orientation. Of course, this creates many challenges to the eBook designer as their design has to be flexible enough to allow the content to be altered visually in so many ways. Web designers have been used to this since the dawn of the browser wars, but to a print designer this requires a shift in the approach to design: focusing more on content and the container, less on fixed opinions of how something should look.

An eBook I’m currently working on highlights this issue. In particular, I’m focusing on the orientation of the pages on a tablet (in this case the iPad). Now, a text with a linear design is very flexible. As we see here in the ubiquitous Pooh book that is packaged with every iBooks app, the vertical nature of the design (text – art – text – art – text) is comfortable to read in both vertical and horizontal modes:

Pooh on the iPad

Now let’s look at the book I’m working on. For the most part, the design is also linear (text – sidebar – text – table – text – example – text) but there is an appendix with wide tables. Dividing the table into multiple tables with less columns is not an option. In vertical mode, the tables look fine. However, in horizontal mode, it breaks, blurgh! (click on the picture to see it larger):

Tables on the iPad shown at vertical and horizontal orientations

This sparked a friendly in-house debate: Can we just let this go and assume that a (human) reader who prefers reading in landscape will go ahead and change to vertical in this appendix so that the tables read correctly? (Even if it made sense editorially to split the tables, we probably not do that for this series as it would be time consuming and we have a deadline fast approaching).

I wondered: Is it possible that (human) readers even have an orientation preference? Wait, of course they have a preference. That’s what makes us human! …So I did what I do whenever I have an eBook production question: I posted it to the #ePrdctn group on Twitter:

As usual, the friendly and helpful folks on Twitter helped me out, and here are the results of this very casual, un-scientific poll with respondent’s comments included. Out of 28 respondents (myself included):

19 prefer portrait mode:

  • “I’m using reader apps on the iPad: GoodReader, Kindle, and Nook.”
  • “Way more natural.”
  • “Portrait in dual display mode… kinda like this. (my response – hahaha!)”
  • 6 prefer landscape mode:

  • “I prefer landscape in iBooks (but I also prefer the Kindle device for reading).”
  • “In portrait I want to scroll down, like a website, and get frustrated. Go figure.”
  • 3 had something else to say:

  • “Depends on the book.”
  • “If I read in iBooks, which is rare, it’s on my iPhone, but I actually prefer horizontal, ergonomic-ish reasons.”
  • “When I read in iBooks, rarely, it’s on an iPod Touch, usually vertical. All that chrome eats too much space in horizontal. Running heads and feet should be optional in iPhone version.”
  • Now the question remains:

    If you prefer one mode, are you willing to turn the tablet in order to read text that is jumbled in iBooks the other way? Are you ok with this, or do you do it begrudgingly because you think that eBook designers and editors should do all they can to keep the content flexible for reader preference? Please leave a comment. I’d know more about user experience on tablets.

    As well, the last bullet point above got me wondering about chrome. As in, what is chrome? And what do you know, I’m listening to eBook Ninja podcast episode 29 a few days later and they have a whole discussion on it. I’ve been so focused on learning code that I didn’t stop and consider being able to change anything about the eReader.

    And the serendipity didn’t stop there. I then came across Gabriel Powell’s amazing video tutorial about exporting InDesign tables to ePub and how to manipulate the ePub CSS/HTML to make them look fantastic. And check out the 13:20 point. His solution for cramped tables is to make them art, but then they are not searchable. Another solution is to provide a hyperlink to a website that displays the table, but you want to create a self-contained book this might not work. In our case, this language book might be carried to foreign countries in which the reader might not have internet access. (By the way, don’t you love Gabriel’s calm voice? He could be telling me how to dismantle a bomb and I wouldn’t be freaking out.)

    In conclusion … Isn’t this what happens to all of us in the world of eProduction these days? You wonder how to fix something and ask one question, which leads to another, which leads to another… If learning does keep the brain young, then us #ePrdctn people should live forever.

    Don’t forget to let me know how you stand on this issue of turning your page orientation on tablets. In a future post, I’ll discuss my recent adventures in specifying fonts for the iPad, why I gave up on it, and why I’m at peace with it. (Really!)