Monday, January 19, 2009

Smart quotations marks, em dashes, and e-books

Over at the fascinating blog, David Rothman asks:
Many and perhaps most e-books use straight, typewriter-style quotes rather than smart quotes—the directional kind. At least one major e-book company wants publishers to avoid smart quotes, at least when offering certain formats, to reduce the technical challenges.

But would you be more likely to recommend a book to a friend if it came with smart quotes, real dashes and other trimmings?
My reply:

They're important -- and publishers are being short-sighted in ignoring them. When I try to get people to share my enthusiasm for ebook reading, many reject the experience at a glance. They can't articulate WHY they like printed books better; they just know that they DO. But surely one of the reasons they DO is the care with which material is presented on the printed page.

The irony is that small-screen ebook readers often default to (or indeed have no choice but) full justification, which looks awful on narrow line lengths, as if THAT was the heart and soul of good typography, and then give us typewriter quotes and hyphens for em dashes -- two if we're lucky, one if we're not.

The utter sloppiness with which most books are converted to ebooks is shameful. Yes, yes, yes, stuff like making each footnote into a hyperlink might be labor intensive, but getting the quotation marks right shouldn't be; they were presumably right in the original typesetting files. The slapdash efforts put forth by even some of the biggest commercial publishers in producing ebooks are shameful.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site



At January 20, 2009 12:32 AM , Blogger Rick said...

Maybe I'm pessimistic, but it's hard to expect better when some major publishers put out hardcover novels without ligatures...and choose a typeface where character pairs that should be ligatures collide when they're not.

For goodness sakes, many layout applications make this substitution automatically, requiring no additional effort. Failing to do so looks absolutely bush league.

At January 20, 2009 8:32 AM , Blogger wynken said...

Hi Rob!

Just wanted to point out a typo in the post. On the last line, the word producing is written as proudcing.

This just occured to me that this could be intentional. ;-) Anyways, just wanted to point it out.

;-) Louis.

At January 20, 2009 9:55 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Rick, I totally agree. The sloppiness in printed book typography these days is often appalling, too.

Wynken, thanks! I hate Blogger's blog-posting composition window. It doesn't highlight HTML tags, and it uses a wan typeface; I have a hard time seeing the squiggles for misspelled words there.

At January 20, 2009 11:45 AM , Blogger David B. Ellis said...

I don't read ebooks. I listen to them using text to speech software so its not an issue.

Yeah, I know a lot of people think it would sound too mechanical to be a good listening experience but some of the software available do a fairly good job of making that electronic voice sound natural enough not to be intrusive or distracting.

Its actually preferable to some of the less well executed audiobook readings I've heard. At least to me.


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