Dodging the Ebook Small Cap Bullet

smallcapsSmall caps have been a source of concern for ebook designers for a long time. They are an essential part of the typographical lexicon, but due to system constraints, small caps may fail to display properly—so we have to work a little harder to display the font variation consistently.

Usually when we display small caps in a web browser, we can use a simple declaration in the style sheet: font-variant:small-caps. This will automatically be interpreted by the system to mean “Use the small caps version of the font for this section of text.” This mirrors what is done in print, when the typographer selects a special font variation (rather than just a smaller size of the font) to use for small caps.

Of course, ereaders are built with a limited number of fonts. If you or the reader happen to choose a font that does not have a small caps version, the ereader will display lower case letters. This isn’t too much of a problem if you’re using them for time (am/pm vs. am/pm) but if you’re using them for centuries (bc/ad vs. bc/ad) or acronyms (aids vs. aids) the lack of small caps causes grammar and clarity issues. In ebook production, we have several ways to address this:

Option 1: Embed fonts with small caps

We can embed fonts into the reading system to ensure that there is a small caps variant available. To ensure this works even for systems that may not display the font-variant:small-caps declaration, adding an explicit call to the small caps font (font-family: ‘Small Caps Font’) will indicate the correct version to be used.

This will work well for the majority of newer reading systems, but the minute someone tries to crack open the book on a device that doesn’t support embedded fonts or any system (coughcoughNookcoughcough) or that overrides publisher CSS by default, we start reading about the “global aids epidemic of 1985 ad.” No matter who you are, you have to admit that having an overabundance of helpful assistants (in a commercial?) during the 1980s is far less frightening than the wide spread outbreak of Auto Immune Deficiency Syndrome in 1985 ad and greatly alters the intention of the author.

The next  two solutions will work despite the inability to embed fonts or use the font-variant declaration:

Option 2: Shrink regular caps for smallcaps

This solution may ease the mind of grammarians, but will send typographers to the loony bin: use faux small caps. Set all of the lowercase letters in the small-caps section to a smaller size so that the cap height is roughly equivalent to the x-height of the surrounding font selection. Convert these lowercase letters to uppercase while leaving the normally uppercase letters at the standard height. The result is normal caps for the capital letters and normal capitals shrunk to, for example, 70% of normal size for the lower case letters.


This can be troubling for editors and publishers who are used to seeing small caps in print because proper small caps are not just scaled-down versions of the font in question; they’re specially designed. Depending on the ereader, scaled-down regular capitals can appear too small, strangely kerned, or mismatched with the rest of the font. If a reading system ignores the publisher’s styles, the text will be rendered in all caps, which is (arguably) better than nothing—at least it gets the point across, if not as gracefully as smallcaps.

There’s a better way, though—you can have your cake (proper small caps) and eat it too (provide a fallback that at least gets the point across)!

Option 3: Use proper smallcaps with a fallback to all caps

From the testing that we have done, it appears that devices that ignore the small-caps variant (Adobe Digital Editions, Sony Reader, and Nook to name a few) also ignore the text-transform:lowercase declaration. But those that do display small-caps (Kobo, KF8 devices [Kindle Fire, Paperwhite, etc], iBooks, Sigil, Calibre, Azardi) also display lowercase declarations. You see where I’m going here, don’t you? For instances of small caps where using an all caps version would work (so not as initial paragraph styling), you can make the small caps section all caps, then use CSS to declare both font-variant:small-caps and text-transform:lowercase. Then you have a graceful degradation to uppercase for older or stubborn devices (sorry ADE) and properly created small caps for the standards compliant (did I just accuse Adobe of non-compliance to standards? gasp).

You’re still left with the wonky hack of faux small caps for decorative purposes, and you’ll need to pay attention to small caps sections with uppercase letters in them (put them outside the small caps span), so it may be best to find another way to enhance decorative typographical sections of text, but I have hope that won’t last and that we are heading toward a standards compliant utopia just like we have with web browsers today. Wink.

So Many Quirks, So Little Time

O’Reilly Media’s Tools of Change for Publishing conference is right around the corner (register here if you haven’t yet, and use the code AFFILIATEAG to save $350 on registration), and just like last year Tom and Amanda will be going out to New York to speak about ebooks in general and epub in particular. This year’s talk won’t be the three-and-a-half hour tour though the guts of epub 3.0 that we gave last year; the topic this year is Open Standards in the Walled Garden. We’ll be looking at how epub is faring in the different ebook ecosystems, and particularly at what to do when an ebook that looks great on one reading system looks horrible on another. We’ve got a big list of quirks that we want to talk about, but we’ve only got 45 minutes to do it. If you’re going to be at Tools of Change (and it’s definitely well worth it if you’re even remotely interested in digital publishing), which of these subjects would you be most interested in hearing about? If you can’t make it to New York next month, feel free to let us know what you’ve had the most frustrations with anyway; we’re always happy to share our tips and tricks!

Thoughts on nine months of producing 3pub files

Mock three pub logoWith Hachette’s recent announcement that they’re committed to going all-epub 3.0 by next March and the buzz surrounding iBooks 3.0 (which offers some slightly extended support of epub 3.0), there’s been a lot of interest lately in the production of epub 3.0 files. At Digital Bindery, we’ve been producing epub 3.0 instead of epub 2.0.1 since February, when we gave our “Down and Dirty epub 3.0” talk at O’Reilly’s Tools of Change conference. We thought we’d share some of the insights we’ve gleaned over the past nine months.

One of the biggest questions we’re asked when people hear about our going with 3pub as our in-house standard is “What systems support epub 3.0?” The answer to that, happily, is “All the ones we’ve tested.” We have a fair collection of readers here, and everything, going back to the 1st generation nook and an ancient PRS-600 Sony Reader, will display an epub 3.0 just as well as an epub 2.0.1. The only thing that you have to do to make sure that the older systems can use the newer format is to include a toc.xhtml file in addition to the toc.ncx file. These are navigational files that supply the built-in table of contents. Old systems look for the toc.ncx, and new systems will ignore the toc.ncx if they see a toc.xhtml, so if you’ve got both, you’re set.

Now, just because the older devices can open the newer file format doesn’t mean that your old nook will suddenly be able to play video, or that your bookeen will grow speakers and play audio for you—there are still hardware requirements. It does mean, though, that the reading system won’t just throw a fit and break down when you try to open the file. Instead, you’ll just get an error message where the video or audio should be, just as intended. This holds true for all of the other optional parts of the epub 3.0 spec, like scripting, triggers, and media overlays. Content in elements like aside or other HTML 5 elements will still show up and be stylable on older epub reading systems too, so no worries there.

The semantic advancements in epub 3 also cause no problems, even if there’s no functionality associated with them in earlier reading systems (and even most current ones, though that’s a matter for another post). You can still pepper your document with epub:type, even going so far as to mark up the topic sentences of every paragraph if you like. That markup will be ignored by older reading systems that don’t support it, and will be used by newer ones that do. When they come out.

Long story short, there’s no reason not to have your books in epub 3.0 instead of epub 2.0.1. The only downside to going with epub 3.0 is that you have to have a certain amount of duplication in your file—both a toc.ncx and a toc.xhtml, both a guide and a landmark nav list, and that sort of thing. This sort of duplication is pretty easy to do programmatically, so it isn’t a big deal. The big benefit of getting files into epub 3.0 is getting used to working with the format and getting your workflow in place so that when you have content that does require some of the new bells and whistles, you can be ready to produce it.

Digital Context: Finding your book’s community

An ebook between paper books on a shelf

One of the greatest advantages of digital publishing is the ability to reach out beyond the boundaries of the book—to expand readers’s experience by providing opportunities for them to learn more about any of the words, characters, ideas, or facts within your pages.

So how does a publisher take advantage of this new reality? There are many examples of people trying to find a way to make this connection with the community. Most publishers seem to be in the awkward first date stage, adding soundtracks like unsolicited romantic mix-tapes hoping to connect with music fans or including book trailers and author videos to woo readers with their erudite appreciation of film.

But dating works sometimes. Once in a while we connect with someone and develop a relationship. Publishers need to be smarter about these moves though; they don’t have the luxury of spending their 20s dating the wrong people.

Below are three ideas to help you sift through the awkward pickup lines and furtive glances to find the tools that will strengthen and grow readership.

One: Identify your community.

Every book–be it a novel or a technical manual–has a community of readers looking for just this content. To carry our dating metaphor a little too far, there’s a somebody for everybody. To find Mr. Right, however, you first have to know what he looks like and where to find him. The same is true of our book’s community. Who are the readers as eager to read what you have to offer as you are to provide it? What do they look like? Where are they?

There are a couple of things we can do here short of starting a massive marketing survey. First, we can brainstorm who we think will most appreciate this content. Think about demographics like age, gender, and income, but also about psychographics like values, lifestyles, and common interests. Once we have a basic idea of who we think our audience is, we can test the theory and adjust as necessary. Second, we can find similar books and find out who gravitates toward them. In this area social media hubs like GoodReadsShelfari, or Kobo Reading Life can be incredibly helpful to help you hone your comparable title list and find out who your potential audience is.

Two: Understand the content and how it relates to the community.

In the digital world of memes and viral media, it is difficult to know how readers will interact with your content or what will spark an interest. Separating your fully conceived notion of what you think your content is from the audience’s perception of your content can be very difficult to do, and nearly impossible if you are the author of the content. Asking a third party to read the book, summarize it, and identify the strong themes they picked up on is a good exercise to illuminate and eliminate your own biases. It is critical that you accept their feedback as another valid opinion and not try to change the mind of the reader. By listening to these beta readers and the audience the book gathers, you’ll be able to find what truly resonates, what readers are taking away, and what they want more of.

Three: Use the appropriate tools in the correct ways to provide opportunities to connect instead of forcing content.

Once you know who your readers are and how they connect with you as an author or publisher, it’s time to implement the enhancements that will give them more of what they are looking for in an accessible way. Do readers have questions about a technical term or historical figure? It may be appropriate to add a pop-up definition, an external link, or a brief video tutorial. Does a character sing a song that enchants her love interest? Adding a link to the mp3 or embedding the audio into the ebook itself may give readers the opportunity to hear the song as it played in the author’s mind. Does the book cover material that is changing frequently? Adding external links to find out the most recent developments or to download an updated version of the text could provide the readers with new and critical information. Knowing the reader and where and when they want to know more will allow you to provide appropriate opportunities without adding bells and whistles for no reason.

Digital publishing has amazing opportunities to enhance learning, deepen the reading experience, and enliven content. It has equally amazing opportunities to turn off readers, confuse learners, and waste resources. Knowing who your audience is, how they use your content, and what tools are available to enhance the experience will allow you to make great choices that will take full advantage of digital publishing’s strengths.

What’s the difference between Ebook Conversion and Ebook Design?

Ebook conversion is the process of converting your designed and print-ready manuscript into an ebook. Good ebook conversion focuses on creating a consistent reading experience across all reading platforms and attempts to mimic the print brand.

Ebook design starts with an undesigned manuscript. Instead of trying to emulate its print brother, a digitally designed ebook emphasizes styles and fonts intended for use on screen. Problems that often come up during an ebook conversion can be avoided and the entire ebook can be designed with accessibility, readability, and a beautiful digital aesthetic in mind.