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iBook Lessons: Style sheets

One of the challenges Steve Sande and I face, when building our ebooks, is to present our manuscripts with reasonable typographic flair. That's harder than you might first think because readers can customize many ebook features, including fonts. In iBooks, they may choose sans-serif Seravek over, say, serif'ed Palatino.

Instead of worrying about particular font mixes, we found we needed to concentrate more on the layout geometry. These issues included relative font sizes (e.g. how the heading font size compared to the text font), indentations for lists and notes, in-paragraph spacing that controlled how dense each paragraph was wrapped together and between-paragraph spacing.

Over time, we've evolved our in-house style sheet to define how each of these elements are laid out in our ebooks. Our latest effort, Pitch Perfect (left) looks a bit different when compared to our first ebook, Talking to Siri (right). We've gone a lot bolder with our font sizes, are using hues for subtitles (the Siri fonts are all solid black), and have tuned a lot of the layout. For example, we increased the paragraph to paragraph spacing for easier reading.

iBook Lessons Style sheets

We have developed these styles in Word and Pages, where you can tweak each of the paragraph characteristics and save them into named styles. In the following screen shot, you can see our basic paragraph characteristics, defining how stretched our characters are (not at all), the spacing between lines, and how much padding to add before and after the paragraph.

iBook Lessons Style sheets

When creating standard ebooks, these characteristics form the basis for ereader layout. It's then up to the reader app, whether iBooks, Kindle, or whatever, to decide how to finalize the presentation. You don't have a lot of say on the ultimate way the page will be seen by the reader but you can express your preferences for relative differences.

Apple's iBooks Author changes that approach around entirely. By extending the EPUB standard to their own proprietary ibooks format (adding XML namespaces and CSS extensions), Apple has allowed authors finer control over ebook layout. When you create a book with Apple's tool, you're ensured that what you create is what the reader experiences.

The following screenshot is from our iBooks-only title Getting Ready for Mountain Lion. Each typographic and visual element was laid out precisely in iBooks Author. From page breaks to figures to text, we could exactly preview each page as the reader would see it.

iBook Lessons Style sheets

What's more, Apple provides six high-quality style sheet templates for you to work with. You do not have to design your own styles to create eye-catching, beautiful manuscripts. Just choose an existing layout, and work from there.

We did extend Apple's "basic" style template for "Getting Ready" because we used layout elements (such as in-text notes) that went beyond Apple's layout vocabulary. We also tweaked some of the styles we were given, including the blockquote element, to better match the way we were using our examples.

iBooks Author allows you to save your customizations for re-use (File > Save as Template). The third party app Book Palette ($9.99, shown below) provides 20 custom templates built in this manner. Book styles range from cookery to business writing, brochures to glossy product overviews.

iBook Lessons Style sheets

The limits with Author, of course, are that you cannot distribute paid content outside of the iBooks store, that you cannot distribute to other platforms like the Nook or Kindle, and that you cannot create versions for iPhones and iPod touches. Author is iPad-only, Apple-only, iBooks only.

For those reasons, when we had to choose which avenue to develop Pitch Perfect with, we decided on a standard EPUB. This allowed the book to be read across the iOS platform line, and on the Kindle and in Kindle apps. After using iBooks Author's beautiful layout tools, it's hard to go back to Word and Pages but it's a place that, for now, better serves our layout needs for a larger potential market.

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