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Mobile Reading

By Shamus
on Sunday Sep 6, 2009
Filed under:


In the past couple of weeks, I’ve gotten a number of requests from people who would like a version of my book in a mobile-friendly format. One person suggested removing the line breaks.

Really? Is that what you do for mobiles? It seems like mooshing an entire book into an endless run-on paragraph would make it harder to understand. But I don’t know. Buying a mobile device for me would be like buying a Wii Fit for Larry Flynt. I’m a techno-hermit shut-in. Ergo, no need for a device to surf the web in tinyvision.

I did one sort of smart thing when I put the book together. I wrote it in plain text with just a few HTML markups for bold and such, and then made some PHP to turn the thing into HTML. So, it shouldn’t be hard to make a different script that makes the book mobile-friendly, provided I can figure out what that looks like. I don’t even have a way to test it. I assume “mobile” device” means more than “tiny screen”. There are most likely other limitations.

I’ve tried searching, but I keep ending up with pages that provide mobile content instead of guide you in making it, and I haven’t found one solid, comprehensive guide for “here is how things need to be so that it will work gracefully with all mobile devices”. Thankfully, we’re just dealing with text, so this shouldn’t be brain surgery. This is probably just a few simple rules.

Any advice?

Comments (29)

  1. Jos Metadi says:

    The only electronic device I read book-length stuff on is a kindle, so I’m afraid I can’t offer much in the way of advice. Cool book though. I wish I could play games that made me feel that way about the character and plot.

  2. Groboclown says:

    I’m no expert on the matter, but I’d start with the W3C Compact HTML guide, and try out one of the mobile phone emulators, such as this.

  3. LazerFX says:

    For myself, I read mobile content quite a lot. It’s nice to have something on your PDA when you’re in bed, on the bog, the like. There should be no reason why standard HTML cannot be used as a mobile format of its own. That said, the comment about line-breaks is only a valid one for documents that put a line-break at the end of lines; I haven’t looked at the source of your book, so I don’t know how it does it, but I assume it’s the quite-standard ‘normal’ document, where all the paragraphs are on one line, and are split up into paragraphs by line-breaks. Of course, I could be wrong ;)

    If you wanted it to be portable, look at the likes of converting it to the common formats – PDB is probably the most common, and is produced by the likes of MobiPocket (Which has a desktop reader application, so you can re-size the window down to a mobile size, and see how it would look to yourself), or Microsoft Reader LIT format (Again, desktop version is available).

    If you want comments or details on how it works, drop me an e-mail; I’ll be happy to be a guinea-pig. I’ll _try_ and remember to drop back to this page, but I read everything through RSS/Email, so I may not; e-mail’s probably the best way to get in touch again :D

  4. Justin says:

    You could try converting it to the EPUB format – an open specification based on XML that is handled by a lot of eReaders. You’d definitely be covering the iPhone (with Stanza) and Android (with Aldiko), and MobiPocket would probably cover just about everything else.

  5. Adam says:

    The existing HTML page works just fine on the iPhone.

  6. randomscrub says:

    The Mobipocket creator can be downloaded for free (and also a viewer for them).

    But I really don’t see what all these people are whining about. I had only a couple minor annoyances reading it on my Kindle after Amazon’s free convert-via-email service.

  7. Dustin N. says:

    I made an epub version of your book a while back, its pretty close to the original HTML version. Some of the formatting doesn’t display in most e-readers, but the book is quite readable in Stanza on my iPhone. As before, I can share to those who’d like a copy.

  8. Tuck says:

    Opera has a useful View -> Small Screen tool for web developers which displays the page as if viewed on a mobile device.

    EDIT: Apart from the banner ads, this page actually looks very decent.

  9. Gobo says:

    You could/should create a mobile style sheet for the page, which could be tuned for easier reading on a small screen.

    However, I agree with @Tuck above that the book already looks about as good as you can get on a mini screen.

  10. bbot says:

    I wrote it in plain text with just a few HTML markups for bold and such, and then made some PHP to turn the thing into HTML.

    Sounds like you reinvented (a subset of) DocBook.

    (On the topic of unrelated shilling, the second day of my PAX coverage is up. You might think that, today being the third day of PAX, that the post on the second day would be complete. That would be assuming competence on my part, though, always a risky decision.)

  11. gi says:

    Mobile Opera on the blackberry worked well to read your story

  12. Danny says:

    I know Mobi Creator works best with plain HTML such as you described, or an MS Word document. I assume other ebook creators do too.

    If the person making the ebook conversion doesn’t know what they’re doing, you can end up with some truly awfully formatted ebooks. I’d rather get the HTML or Word and convert it myself.

    I assume the person who suggested “removing the line breaks” just mean within a paragraph. Predefined line breaks within paragraphs are a real pain when converting between formats.

  13. Hirvox says:

    Reading it with IPhone’s version of Safari wastes a lot of space on the huge margins, even with the printer-friendly version. Also, setting the font size to small seems to force the user to read it either with the small text (but legible in landscape mode) or by scrolling the screen back-and-forth every line. The HTML itself seems fine, so you could probably improve legibility by specifying a mobile-only, minimal CSS file.

  14. Korivak says:

    I used the Stanza desktop client to convert your original file for my iPod touch. Then I washed my jacket with the iPod in the pocket, and never actually got to read it.

  15. Nick says:

    I would suggest you follow Project Gutenberg’s lead, they seem to know what they are doing when it comes to formats, an example: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/345

    I am a proofreader on the project and the standard format for text is: no paragraph indents, single blank line between paragraphs, line breaks at 72 characters.

    I personally dislike the line breaks, but they are easily removed with any decent text editor.

  16. Dev Null says:

    Speaking purely as an OCD standards-nazi whos had a beer or two too many tonight, line breaks have no place in source. Line breaks are something the display medium should provide, as appropriate, using the knowledge of how wide the display itself is. So you’re right in that source with no line breaks would be hard to read… but only if the viewer was deficient.

  17. Miral says:

    @Dev Null:

    You are correct — but only when “line break” does not include “paragraph break”. Depending on the context, some people think it does, others think it doesn’t.

    From Shamus’ comments in the post, evidently he was thinking that it did include paragraph breaks.

  18. Your one-stop shop for e-book advice of all kinds is the MobileRead forums. There you will find many experts skilled in the creation of all different formats of e-book.

    Seriously, as plain-HTML-like as your book is now, the conversion really should not be all that hard.

  19. TehShrike says:

    For the love of all that is readable, don’t ever get rid of paragraph breaks!

    The only thing that I see that would make that page perfectly readable on my Palm Pre is cutting down on the width.

    Take the Printer-Friendly version, make it so it wraps at around the word “novel” on the first line, and boom. I could read that on the airplane on my teeny display.

  20. TehShrike says:

    Oh, also: I don’t know the “best” way to develop for handheld devices, but some of my coworkers just shrink FireFox to a few hundred pixels and do the first round of development in that.

  21. Stringycustard says:

    I think the big problem mobile users have would be frames. Make it into multiple basic html pages (one per chapter or something), with a separate one for the contents page. Keep it very simple: text content more content. Most mobile browsers shouldn’t have a problem with that, even WAP-only phones (which are really really old now, and mostly unused). Also, as mentioned above, remove forced line breaks (so text can flow per screen size) – only the ones within paragraphs though.

  22. Gavin says:

    I read on my Nokia E51 with QReader. My recommendation is PDB format. But if you want to go plain text then no line breaks but keep paragraph breaks please. The readers I’ve used have some formatting options and can slurp line breaks and/or paragraph breaks if I so choose.

    A side note: The “Author’s Homepage” link in the contents of your book is broken.

  23. Kdansky says:

    If you have an iPhone, use Stanza. It’s free and does exactly what is required. It might even be possible to export the reworked PDF again for other clients, I’m not sure. One could also write a simple script that removes anything in html tags and all linebreaks.

  24. Heh, this is a tricky topic. There are many mobile readers and they all use different formats.

    That said, I would imagine that publishing your book in one of those formats would allow most readers to import it without any problems:

    1. Plain ASCII text without any formatting
    2. A single HTML page with just basic formatting

    In the plain text file it’s probably best not to try break lines down to specific width. Mobile readers will re flow the page to fit on the screen and you will end up with a mess of lines broken in the middle of a sentence.

    Back when I used my Dell Axim Pocket PC I preferred the Microsoft Reader for my ebooks. Thankfully converting books into that format was easy – you would paste them into word, and then run them through this plugin. Here is actual tutorial on how to do it.

    That said, I think that publishing the book in Microsoft Reader .lit format would be of limited use considering how easy it is for individual users to do it and the size of the user base for that tool.

    I think the Printer Friendly version should be fairly easy to convert and/or import for most readers.

    If you would publish a plain text version as well, I think everyone would be all set.

    Also – here is an idea: ask your users to submit mobile versions and then link to them from the main page. I saw Cory Doctorow do it for his books all the time.

  25. Just remove the margins from the sides of the page and make the book downloadable with inter-connected HTML files (instead of having one single insanely long page). Any respectful device/browser should allow for zoom/font-size adjusting and I think those are the main mobile points.

  26. I’ve read Free Radical on my iRiver Clix 2. I converted the book to plain text first (with w3m -dump), as it’s the only format this particular device recognizes. Turned out pretty well, actually.

  27. Shunal says:

    I just converted the printer-friendly version into a .txt and ran it on MobiPocket reader on my N79. It’s working great.

  28. Scott says:

    Your site shows up well on my Blackberry 8330! I’ve made comments with it too…

    Any half decent phone will display the book fine as text. You don’t need to leave the spaces out.

  29. Worthstream says:

    Your book is almost as good as it can get for a mobile screen.
    Just move the menu on top instead of on the left side.

    I do know this by direct experience… i’ve read it ALL on a Nokia n95! :)

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