The craft of book designing or typesetting has been honed over centuries. Details like the font-face, font-size, line-spacing, page margins, paragraph indents affect the look and readability of the text on a printed page. There are also things like Drop Caps, specially formatted first lines, and chapter opening designs that add an artistic touch to the book. A professionally created book is a treat to watch and a pleasure to read.
So when we move from paper books to e-books, it is natural to want to employ all the above devices to create beautiful looking e-books for our readers. However, a simpler design often works better with e-books.
The e-book readers of today lack support for some of the basic features used in book design. Drop Caps is one example. Hyphenation is another. While it is possible to mimic true Drop Caps with some code wrangling, the real stuff needs support in reader software. E-reading software is evolving but when a particular feature will be available for use can only be speculated upon. The situation is further complicated by the presence of multiple reading platforms, all of which evolve at their own pace and in their own direction.
Beyond reader support, there are things that do not make sense in the digital medium.
Choosing an appropriate font-face and font-size is a major decision when designing a print book. Different font-faces suit different genres. Different font-sizes and line-spacings combine with the selected font-face to make the text readable. With a printed book, it is one size fits all. Every reader has to live with the decisions that the designer makes.
While a well designed book will work nicely for an average reader, consider a reader with poor eye sight. Or one with dyslexia. With e-books, they can choose the most comfortable settings for reading. They can read black on white or white on black. They can read in a font that a designer will never consider using. War and Peace in Comic Sans? Go for it!
There is a fundamental shift when we move from paper books to e-books. In a sense, e-books strip down the embellishments and reduces the publishing process to its bare essentials. There is a storyteller and there is a reader. Paper books are an artefact of the process of telling the story, not central to it. As a storyteller, our focus needs to be on making the communication of our story easy and enjoyable.
By no means am I sounding a death knell for the craft of book designing. It will continue to have its place. On one hand it will evolve to explore the new capabilities offered by the digital medium. On the other, beautifully designed and produced paper books will continue to be cherished.