The Design and Construction of eBooks, by Steve Thomas

A Brief History Lesson

I started making ebooks in 1998. I was aware of other e-text projects and had compiled a web page directory of these sites, but I was dissatisfied with their presentation. Most of them used plain text for the books, which is utilitarian but not very inviting from a reader’s viewpoint.

Here’s the venerable Project Gutenberg, plain text version of David Copperfield, chapter 1:
Screen shot from, taken 2011-12-30.

It’s not awful. Just . . . dull.

Some sites (actually, most) presented their works in ways which I, personally, found annoying -- and they still do: they use coloured backgrounds, the pages are festooned with advertisements, sidebars and other extraneous material, they use ugly fonts, too small fonts, etc. While the plain text sites made no attempt at readability, these sites seemed to actively attack it!

Here’s David again, from another site:
Screen shot from, taken 2011-12-30.

This was taken recently, but has been unchanged since 1998. It replaces “dull” with “hideous”. And whereas the Project Gutenberg text gave us the entire book in one single file, this goes to the other extreme and breaks the book into many small segments.

And here’s a screen shot from one of the “better” sites,
Screen shot from, taken 2011-12-30.

You have to go to the site to get the full horror of this, because that advertisement at the top of the screen is actually animated. So while you are reading, this thing is flashing and wobbling in your face.

Some sites don’t use HTML at all, and expect you to read PDF. That’s OK for printing, but I find PDF too inflexible. PDF is designed for printing, so the text is formatted as it will appear when printed, usually on A4 paper. Unless you have an A4 sized screen, this will not be helpful. And as with the printed page, PDF does not allow you to increase or decrease font size, or any other aspect of presentation. What you see is all there is.

At the same time, the first ebook readers, notably the Rocket eBook, had appeared. While interesting, it occurred to me that we all had perfectly good screens on our desks which could be used for reading, if only the work was better formatted.*

* Most of the world seemed to disagree with me at the time, and to this day there is great resistance to the idea of reading a book on your computer, even though many of us do most of our work with such screens. Admittedly, screen quality has improved dramatically over the past decade, and today’s LCD screens are much sharper and clearer than the CRT screens of 1998.

With these things in mind, I set out to explore how one might present a book using HTML in such a way that it was as readable and enjoyable as a printed book. Having proved the concept, I then began adding titles and refining the format, and refinement continues to this day.

The first title publicly promoted was Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, done in order to tie in with an ABC TV adaptation which was showing at the time.

Last updated Tuesday, January 26, 2016 at 23:27