I can’t get my first love out of my head. Poetry, it was everything to me. I have a large bookcase filled with poetry and for years I myself scribbled down nothing but poetry. I still enjoy poetry very much, but now that I’m fully into the ebook business I’ve been plagued by this nagging feeling that poetry and ebooks are off to a bad start. I don’t know actual numbers, but my guess is that poetry ebooks are of marginal importance in the ebook world and when you look at the genre and the technology, that’s not really surprising. Everything that is great about ebooks, like the reflowable format, resizing fonts, being able to read a book on every device, all that is troublesome with poetry, because the rendering of poetry can be a complicated mess when text starts to flow and resize.
Of course there are a lot of different kinds of poetry and some are easier than others, but in general the flexibility of the ebook format EPUB creates problems for poetry. Breaking the poetic line in arbitrary places disturbs the flow of reading. There are a lot of tips and tricks to work around these problems, but they do not make it easier, nor do they totally fix the problem. There is of course the Fixed Format Layout, but this format creates it’s own problems and one of them is cost. The fixed format layout makes it necessary to think of what resolution and device you’re building your ebook for and if you want your book to look nice on every device, that makes for a pretty expensive poetry ebook, because you need to consider how it will show on an iPad, eInk devices and all different types of smartphones. Gone is the simplicity of the reflowable EPUB format.
Last week I came across a German initiative to solve this problem. The German publisher Verlagshaus Berlin announced it will release 4 poetry ebooks in March with what they call Lyric-Code. This is a simple markup language that’s added to the poetry in unobtrusive grey color to mark things like line breaks, empty spaces, indentations, speed and tone of voice. The poem can then be shown as one reflowable block of text and the reader still knows how it was intended. I think this is quite nifty and I’m looking forward to reading those first attempts. But on the other hand I feel this can not be a permanent solution.
In the case of Lyric-Code the reader must make the translation to how the poem was intended. For some forms of poetry that may be fine, poetry that is read out loud for instance in poetry slams, but how about complex hermetic poetry, or visual poetry? In those cases you really want the text to look like it was intended. One solution would be to create an advanced fixed layout in EPUB, but my point in all this is that I feel that it shouldn’t be this complicated. It feels wrong that you need to be an advanced CSS magician to be able to create the intended poem. Is there really no better and simpler solution? The answer to this question is, I’m not sure.
The problem, as I see it, boils down to the reflowable character of ebooks. You want to keep the reflowable character of the ebook, but stop where it is becoming a disadvantage. Flexibility is just fine when the text is small and there is plenty of space on the reading device, but when devices are getting small or fonts are resized to bigger and bigger fonts, there suddenly is this breaking point where the lines are wrapped and mangled up and the poem becomes unreadable. This is the key. Before you reach this breaking point everything is just fine. What would be nice is a way to lock the text when it reaches the breaking point. A way to prevent stepping over the breaking point.
Is it possible to implement a solution to this problem in reading software, combined with something like a special tag in the EPUB file? If the reading device knew that it was a text where accurate representation and line breaks are important and that it should prevent text from disappearing off the screen or being wrapped around, the reading software could simply prevent resizing the font-size to a size that’s too big. Surely that couldn’t be too difficult to implement? It would be like the PRE tag that preserves all formatting, without the ugly monospace font and with reading devices taking care of the wrap-around-protection.
Or is there a simpler solution? I’m not sure. This is not exactly my field of expertise. This is what I could think of. The only alternative is to accept that you shouldn’t read certain poetry on small devices and that you should refrain from resizing to bigger fonts. In any case I do think it’s a topic worth exploring. What do you think? Let me know…