ebook typography – a lament

I have been building websites since Geocities was cool. I started out tinkering around with various free site builders, but quickly progressed to learning HTML so I could have more control. I remember the day I discovered CSS (cascading style sheets) and the feeling of heady power when I changed the font of my entire page from Times New Roman to Arial.

This moment of triumph was soon followed by a lot of frustration. Back in the day, there were about five web-safe font families to choose from. For a while I got a kick out of being a deviant and using Georgia, but soon even that wasn’t original.

During this time I was working on my BFA in traditional printmaking, learning a bit about letterpress and typography. I have always loved words. And not just words in the abstract. I love words as design: the shape of text on the page. I was always trying to incorporate language in my art (not always to great effect, but I tried, anyway.) It bothered me that formatting of text on websites was so limited.

It wasn’t until years later that typography on the web opened up. When @font-face support came to most major browsers, I was all over it. Adding real typography to my websites made me happier than I should probably admit.

Now we take beautiful typography on the web for granted. I have all but forgotten the labor-intensive process that used to go along with getting typefaces online in those early days: the cross-browser nightmares, the licensing issues. Now it’s entirely different. Safe in the bosom of Google Web Fonts, Fonts.com and other such sites, it’s easy for me to embed any style of Helvetica anywhere on the web.

This spring, I sat down to format my first ebook. Ebooks are written in HTML, which is one of my native tongues at this point. I was thrilled when I figured this out, and concluded it would be no problem for me to make my ebook typography look great.

Then I learned Kindle doesn’t support any typefaces but the handful they’ve installed on their system.

It was a flashback to the early days of web design: a blow to say the least. I had spent hours tweaking the interior of Another Year or Two, trying to get it to look and feel like the blog posts the text was meant to represent while not robbing the physical book of its beauty. I am  proud of the way it all came together.

But when I put my book on Kindle, I had to say goodbye to all of that. Goodbye to the genuine bold fonts (instead of faux bold applied after the fact) to separate headings from body text. Goodbye to my beautiful, spare, condensed san-serif for the post titles. Goodbye to  any styling more sophisticated than the most basic of the basics. Now it gives me this little spasm of regret every time I look at my book on a Kindle.

I know ereaders are a new technology, and there are many questions along the lines of function that need to be addressed and refined before we can be focus on form. I hope this changes soon though. If we can have nice typography on our mobile phones, I don’t see why we can’t have the same on our Kindles.

I embedded my typefaces in the code of my ebook anyway of course, knowing most ereaders will strip my formatting out. Maybe someday things will change, and people will be able to see my words as I wanted them to be seen.

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