So, Manchester Public Libraries now offer ebooks and audiobooks for download. How excited am I? Well, I read two in the first 48 hours, and have been on the site pretty much every night since, so yeah, I’m pretty gosh-durn happy 🙂

The problem? (you know there has to be a problem, or this would be a short & pointless blog post.) The problem is that the books are in Adobe EPUB format and, as I’ve said before, they will give you a headache. More than a headache: I read a lot of ebooks, and am used to reading on screen for 4-5 hours at a time; with EPUB it’s more like an hour before my eyes feel like they’re bleeding.

So why are EPUB so bad? Well, it’s not just EPUB. Basically, not all ebook readers are created equal. (I should point out here that I’m talking about ebook readers for the PC – not standalone devices.) Some will allow you to do much more with the appearance and format of your document that others, and in this case, the more flexibility the better. EPUB happens to be one of the ones that allows you to do, well, little.

I have 6 ebook readers installed on my PC: Mobipocket reader and Mobipocket reader pc; Microsoft Reader; Adobe digital editions; Amazon Kindle for pc; and Sony reader. Which do I prefer? Frankly, none of them.

Wherever I can, I read ebooks in microsoft word, which is – obviously – brilliantly customisable. You can change everything about the text, get the size and the colours just right for your eyes. Full-screen reading mode with the black/silver office theme is very easy on the eye. I have my background black, my text sans-serif, at least 20 point, and very light gray. When I can’t use word? Mobipocket reader is the next best, as you can easily change background and text colours and text size.

Unfortunately, with most DRMd ebooks, you won’t have that choice – you have to read in whatever format the book has been published. So what can you do to make your reading experience as easy on your eyes as possible?

  1. Download different readers, and try them out. All of the readers I have are free to download, and they usually come with at least one free classic text, so you can try out a few pages and see how the reader works for you.
  2. Try different setting within the reader – what you’re aiming for is as little light/glare coming off the screen as possible. If you can’t adjust the colour or brightness within the reader, alter your computer/monitor settings
  3. Have big text. When you open most ebooks, the text will be set at ‘medium’. Turn it up – you need much bigger text on screen that in a book (partly because you’re further away). This will mean less text on each page and more page turning, so…
  4. Figure out the various ways you can turn pages within the program. Does it have to be mouse wheel down? A click? A click in a specific part of the screen? Arrow keys? Most programs will have at least a couple of options. I use arrow keys if I’m leaning forward, mouse wheel if I’m sitting back. General rule: the less movement you have to make, the better, as you’ll be doing it a lot!
  5. Don’t be tempted into full-screen mode, either. Yes, it looks very impressive, and no, you won’t have to turn the page as often, but it’s very hard on the eye. What works best – unsurprisingly! – is a line length approximately the same to that in a printed book. It’s a length your eyes are used to, and they won’t get lost part-way along. Again, try out slightly different window sizes/shapes until you find a good fit for you.
  6. Take breaks! Yes, I know we’re all fully aware that we should take screen breaks, but somehow it is that much harder when you’re trying to find out whodunnit than when you’re collating stats or writing a report. Even looking to the other end of the room for 30 seconds at the end of each chapter will really help to rest your eyes.

This is fairly basic advice, and probably just seems like common sense if you’re used to reading ebooks. But what if you’re not? Many of your users may never have read an ebook before they borrow one from the library – why not give them some advice about getting the best reading experience from their ebook? Tailor it to the formats you have available, and show your users that you don’t have to squint at a bright screen filled with tiny black writing. As well as saving some eye strain, it might even increase takeup of ebooks. While much of this information will be available on the software websites, we should be delivering it to them, rather than making them go out and find it for themselves.

I’ve seen library sites that explain that you *can* change font size etc, but not saying *why* you should. Is anyone doing this? I’d love to know!