Penguin Random House's Experimenting with the ebook

Penguin Random House's Experimenting with the ebook

I read ebooks all the time, usually on my phone on the way to or from work. I mostly use the iBooks and Kindle reading apps, although I've tried a host of others too (Readmill was my favourite before it was bought by Dropbox and shuttered). I've even read manuscripts on my phone using the Notes app or in PDF format. These last two can be particularly tedious.

Reading on a screen has become a lot more comfortable in recent years thanks to the introduction of specialist e-ink displays, and more recently, the prevalence of high-resolution (or 'retina' in Apple parlance) displays. I have no problem reading entire books on a small screen – it can't rival the tactility and intimacy of printed pages, but the crispness and clarity of the display has finally caught up.

As a perfectionist designer type I obsess over the details – the layout, the typography, the way the books are actually presented to the reader – and personally I think there’s still a long way to go. I know our in-house ebook teams do a great job in ensuring our ebooks are the highest quality they can possibly be despite the current technical limitations – and the experience of reading a book on a screen is usually pretty good – but I think it has the potential to be so much better.

Most ebooks are still bound by a lot of print conventions. When the printing press was invented, the first printers tried to imitate the look of hand-written manuscripts, and over time the design of the book evolved and adapted and books started looking less like hand-written manuscripts and more like the books we recognise today. With the introduction of ebooks a similar thing is happening – at the moment ebooks still tend to imitate the appearance and behaviour of their printed counterparts. But reading on a screen is not the same as reading in print – this new way of reading comes with a completely different set of constraints.

For starters, the text does not have a fixed layout. As a print designer I am used to having complete control over where everything is positioned. The book comes in a standard size, and you know that every reader is going to get the same experience. This is not the case when reading on a screen. Instead of being carefully positioned on the page, the text flows in and out of different sized containers – it has to work across all sorts of different devices and all sorts of different screen sizes and resolutions, plus you're at the mercy of the reader who can choose different fonts and can bump the text size up or down at their will. The fine-grained control a designer has when setting a printed book completely vanishes in the context of an ebook.

If you open up an ebook and unpack its contents what you'll find is a collection of HTML files – basic, semantic HTML which can be displayed in any web browser. In theory ebooks have the potential to be as rich and beautiful and interactive as any website, but this potential is restricted by the limitations of the epub specification and the limitations of ereader apps and devices. If ebooks could break free of these limitations, then there's an opportunity to create a great reading experience rather than a good one, and the potential to blur the boundaries between ebooks and online reading.

These ideas had been rattling around in my mind, taking on different shapes for some time when I heard that the Pelican imprint was coming back.

I'd been influenced by Craig Mod's excellent essay Hack the Cover, and by Frank Chimero's The Shape of Design, and I felt there was potential to put some of these ideas into practice. The brief for Pelican was to make these books accessible and distinctive, and I suggested that to make the books even more accessible we should make them available to read online.

One week later I'd built a prototype – a simple one-page responsive website – and was pitching it to my colleagues in the Penguin Press Art Department. The emphasis was all on the typography – and crucially the spacing and the margins around the typography – to ensure a clean, legible, comfortable reading experience regardless of what size (or resolution) your screen is, from the smallest smartphone to the largest desktop monitor. Later that afternoon I was pitching the idea again, to our Managing Director at Penguin Press. The concept is simple: you go to and the books are available to read right there in your browser. You can read the first chapter for free, and if you like it, you can buy the full book and continue reading.

The great thing about having support for this idea from the very start of the design process was that we could design the print and online editions in tandem. The design of the online books was influencing the design of the print books and vice versa. First and foremost I started with the text design – the fundamental experience of actually reading the text on the page or the screen. We chose typefaces that render well both in print and online, and the layout, size and spacing are consistent where possible (and appropriate) across both formats.

A big limitation of ebooks is how they handle non-text information – diagrams, maps, charts, tables and the like. If you've ever come across a detailed table or a map whilst reading an ebook, chances are you know what I mean – at best you have to click / pinch / zoom / pan your way around, and at worst they're completely illegible. And ebooks are typically created directly from the print files – so even if you're reading on a tablet with a high-definition screen capable of accurately rendering millions of colours, you still get the same black and white map that was optimised for print and used in the paperback edition.

In contrast, if you read a book online at, the reading experience is bespoke – designed specifically for Pelican and tailored to make the most of each individual book. Maps and diagrams are re-drawn for the screen and optimised to be readable and easily understood at any size.

And you can do so much more online than you can in print – if an author references a video we can actually embed the video right there in the text, rather than just showing a screenshot or a film still.

If a diagram communicates more effectively with the aid of movement or animation, we can do that too through video or animated gifs. (This should be used sparingly of course – don't add extras just because you can, only use them where they actually add value to the author's message).

One feature that I think works particularly well is the footnotes in these new online books. In regular ebooks, footnotes are usually housed in a separate chapter at the end of the book instead of being positioned at the foot of the page. When you want to read an author's note you have to click on the tiny asterisk or number in the main text, which jumps you to a new chapter where you can read the note before clicking a little link to take you back to where you were in the text. It's disruptive to the reading experience and can interrupt the flow of the book.

For Pelican’s online books, we ignored this odd convention, and tried to re-invent footnotes for the screen. Our solution was for footnotes to be positioned – as you might expect – at the foot of the page. When you tap the asterisk or number in the text (it has a wide target area, so is easy to hit even with clumsy fingers on small screens) the author's footnote slides in seamlessly from the bottom of the page – you can still read and refer back to the main text, and when you're done you can dismiss the note with a simple swipe or click.

I am a cover designer by profession, and ebooks present a particularly interesting challenge for cover designers. Most of the time we still approach the ebook and printed book covers the same way – they both feature the same image and share the same proportions.

But I think we should dig a little deeper – we should stop and ask, what role does the cover actually play in an ebook? What's the purpose of the cover in this new context? The cover is no longer needed to hold the book together and protect the pages inside, so instead it just becomes an icon for the book – a thumbnail that acts as a useful sales tool, and then potentially is never seen again, or it gets displayed on your virtual bookshelf alongside all your other thumbnails.

With a paperback you interact with the cover every time you open and close the book, you see it all the time, you're constantly being reminded of the book's image. With Pelican I wanted the cover to be more than just 'that thing you click on to open the book'. Instead, the cover is found throughout the whole book – each chapter opens with a full-page / full-screen chapter divider, designed to be a clear echo of the front cover.

These chapter dividers are useful – they act as a very clear visual sign-post marking the start of each new chapter (especially useful if you're skimming / flicking through a paperback), and they echo the cover image and reinforce the brand – there's no mistaking these books for anything other than Pelicans. Just like the main text, these covers are responsive – the text re-flows and adapts to work at any screen size, any device, any orientation.

Essentially what I'm trying to achieve with all this is simply to provide the best possible reading experience for these books. We’re starting small – just the five Pelican titles – but I want them to be easy, enjoyable and comfortable to read, however you're reading them – in print or on a screen. Each format makes the most of its inherent qualities – the paperbacks get lovely paper, Pantone inks and debossed covers – all things you can't do online – and the online books offer full-colour images / maps, animation, dynamic footnotes, etc. – all things you can't do in print. Fundamentally they both speak the same visual language, offering a consistent but tailored reading experience, and making the books very distinctively, recognisably 'Pelican' inside and out.

I think it's a great way to read, and I'm hoping other people will too.

Matthew Young is in book cover design with Penguin Random House.