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Kindle Typography

08 Oct 2014

474 words

For years customers have been asking, practically begging, for hyphenation and an option for left-aligned text. Now (a few weeks ago), Amazon has announced the new generation of their ereader, the Kindle Voyage. And apparently it still lacks both features. Wohoo.

Let’s talk about hyphenation first. I feel like this is the more important of the two, because you’d really want hyphenation no matter how the text is aligned. I do think that Amazon should implement auto-hyphenation, but on the other hand, I am kind of puzzled why publishers don’t provide hyphenation themselves, especially for books with lots of uncommon words, where auto-hyphenation would fail anyway. I run every book not bought through Amazon (because I’m too lazy to figure out how to break the DRM) through the hyphenation plugin in Calibre, which takes like five seconds and produces really good results that don’t interfere with search or dictionary lookups or annotations. As hard as it is to believe, it actually works — I’ve been reading hyphenated stuff every day for weeks now, and it’s amazing. The obvious trade-off is that you have to store about 500kb extra in a 5mb book, but the Kindle file format is so size-inefficient compared to epub that that shouldn’t matter anyway.

This is at font size 4, so if you're not nearly blind, you should be able to get even better results by turning the size down a step or two.
This is at font size 4, so if you're not nearly blind, you should be able to get even better results by turning the size down a step or two.

Now, about the left-alignment problem. I have to admit, I actually like justified text. I’m fine with left-aligned text on the web and on home-printed documents, but I think (for the most part) books should be justified. Especially on the Kindle — I’m not sure why — left-aligned text looks kind of weird. I’ve tried it with and without hyphenation, and I’ve always felt like I’m looking at a cheap homemade document instead of an actual book. So even now, with all the terrible, awful, hideous gaps in the text, I still kind of prefer the status quo to the “fully-justified text needs to die”-mentality you see on the web these days. Also, in my experience, with hyphenation, justified text looks perfectly adequate.

That said, it’s completely baffling to me why they don’t give users the option to choose whichever alignment they prefer. The only reason I can think of is that non-tech-savvy authors upload their impossible-to-parse Word files to KDP and Amazon isn’t confident they can detect which parts of the text should be affected by the setting and which shouldn’t. But even that doesn’t seem overly plausible.

Humanity has figured out how to make printed books look awesome. It can’t be that hard to make ebooks look okay.