Sunday, July 8, 2012

Formatting Poetry for eBooks

You may have read that poetry is one of the "hardest" things to format properly for eReaders. The reasoning behind this is simple enough. When longer lines run out of screen space they break onto a new line. This is especially problematic when people make the text bigger on their reading devices. For instance, the following looks fine: (Click to enlarge)

But now look what happens when someone enlarges the text:

I've seen some eBook formatters who say that the solution is to use hanging indents. The problem with that is, hanging indents are among the most difficult things to do with any kind of consistency across a broad spectrum of eReaders. That is, they tend to look different on nearly every reading device whether it's the latest Kindle Touch, a first generation Nook, or a four year old Sony etc. Their answer for this is to use different CSS sheets and media queries targeted specifically at four or five of the major eReaders. This however is time consuming and therefore costly for their clients. (Maybe that's why they suggest doing it?) Also, many eReaders more than three years old have no CSS support at all, so it will be useless for them. When it works, it can look reasonably nice though like this:

I think a better solution is to simply place a bullet or number at the beginning of each line. This way it's perfectly clear to the reader where a new line begins or a previous line has continued to the next. Here is how bullets look with the text enlarged:

And here it is with numbered lines:

If you'll look in old books of poetry, it used to be quite fashionable to number the lines in bygone years. They did this for a number of reasons, but I always thought it was the best way to do things anyway because it makes referring to passages so much easier. For instance if I wanted to refer to a line of poetry in a footnote I could simply give the name of the book, the name of the poem, and the line number.

Numbering or bulleting lines is something the author can do themselves. This will make the cost of formatting the eBook much cheaper.

Happy writing!


  1. Interesting idea. I will include a link to this post in my tutorial.