Comparison of EPUB Download Sites

Where to Get the Most Readable e-Books

Before I compare websites where you can download e-books in the EPUB format, I should tell you that I just got a Sony Reader Pocket Edition Silver PRS-300SC from my husband on Valentine’s Day. I’ve spent a bit less than a week with my new e-book Reader, but I’ve crammed a lot of reading and researching into the past five days. I’m pretty well versed in typography, and I have been disappointed with the readability of some of the e-books I’ve put on the Reader. Having viewed various books on the Reader, I don’t blame the Reader; I blame the formatting of some e-books. In an effort to find more readable e-book formats, or styles, I went a-searching, and these are the results of my trials.

PDF was not designed for e-books

PDF at default size (S)
PDF at default size (S)

First off, I found that PDFs are difficult to read on the Pocket Edition. I discovered this when I went to my local library’s digital download site and downloaded four books by Nicholas Sparks — all formatted in the same way by Warner Books in PDF. The margins were huge, the font size small, and the font face’s x-heights very small. (To oversimplify, x-height is the difference in size between capital letters and lowercase letters. Fonts with small x-heights look classy, but are not readable at smaller sizes.) These books were impossible to read at the default “small” size on the Pocket Edition. Not only that; the printer’s crop marks were visible, which made the margins even bigger since what I saw on my screen included extra margins that shouldn’t be visible to the consumer.

PDF at medium size (M)
PDF at medium size (M)

I had to set the text on these PDF books to “medium” size to make them readable. That makes the type large enough, but it breaks the formatting. Chapter headings show up two or three pages into the chapter rather than at the beginning of it. Lines occasionally break early or, worse, words break from one line to the next.

No doubt, PDFs like these might be readable on a larger Reader, such as the Daily Edition, but I prefer the compact simplicity of the Pocket Edition, and I think digital libraries should make their digital books look good on smaller devices. Instead of offering PDFs of hard cover books, perhaps they could offer PDFs of paperbacks, because they are formatted to be more readable in small form, where you will find thinner margins and more readable fonts.

EPUB was designed for e-books

Ideally, a text should be readable on any device. I have been a proponent of device independence for years now, and I suppose I knew that PDF was not a device-independent format, but reading PDFs on a small device really made me see it. I suppose that is why the EPUB format was developed with e-book readers in mind. Unlike PDF, EPUB e-books are designed to be readable on screen as opposed to on paper. I notice that, with the EPUB format, I don’t see misplaced chapter headings or lines and words breaking up. I notice the default font faces and sizes tend to be bigger and more readable; for instance, the font sizes are a couple-to-four points larger, and the font faces may have larger x-heights.

I’ve been experimenting with several EPUB download sites this week. I also searched the web to see if there was anything written comparing EPUB download sites, but I couldn’t find anything. So here is my — albeit limited — comparison of the EPUB books I’ve downloaded from (in alphabetical order) epubBooks, Feedbooks, Google Books, the Greater Phoenix Digital Library (powered by OverDrive), The Gutenberg Project, Smashwords, and the Sony Reader Store.

All EPUBs are not created equal

When I download EPUB books from the Greater Phoenix Digital Library, which offers books from OverDrive, I don’t know what I will get from book to book. One is readable at default size while another is more readable at medium size. EPUB books from OverDrive offer the benefits of the EPUB format I listed above, but there is no standardization. Still you can get some good EPUB books. At the time of this writing, though, the selection of EPUBs is limited; there are only 653 EPUB titles while there are 15,831 PDF titles.

EPUB from Google Books
EPUB from Google Books

When I download EPUB books from Google Books, I notice typographical anomalies due to OCR scanning errors. (OCR stands for optical character recognition, a program through which a scanned image of text is run to convert it from a picture of text to actual text.) Due to these uncorrected OCR errors, nonsense characters may appear on the page, lines may be broken in strange places, and letters might be missing here and there. Free, yes, but not very readable. On a positive note, Google offers a way for readers to report scanning errors so they can improve Google Books for the public good.

Finding my favorite EPUBs

EPUB from Feedbooks on Reader
EPUB from Feedbooks on Reader

I actually made my greatest discovery while away from my Sony Reader. I had my Google Nexus One smart phone with me (as always) and I searched the Android Market for a good e-book reader. Being unimpressed with FBReader, I downloaded Aldiko and was blown away. Not only does it have a great user interface and even a way to download free and paid books directly in the app; it has a partnership with the best EPUB library I have found yet— Feedbooks. I downloaded an EPUB book from Feedbooks to read on my Nexus One and I loved the formatting. Very nice and clean. Interested to see how Feedbooks EPUB books would look on my Reader, I downloaded a few and put them on. Gorgeous! Almost every book I’ve downloaded from Feedbooks has the same formatting, or I should really say, style. Seeing the same style across multiple titles might bore some people, but I appreciate the beauty, dependability, and readability of the Feedbooks style. In addition to being an EPUB resource, they are a publishing platform, and they “consider that the structure of a text is very important.” It’s all about structure, baby! Not presentation. Yet, by offering EPUB books with solid structure (XML) and readable style (CSS), they make for a very nice presentation. I might even think of publishing something with them. (P.S. Feedbooks did not pay me to write a glowing review of them.)

I also discovered Smashwords through Aldiko. Like Feedbooks, it’s a place to get both free and paid e-books (in EPUB and other formats) and it’s also a publishing platform. I don’t like their site as much, though, nor do I like the style of their EPUB e-books. It seems fairly similar from book to book, but it’s not as elegant and readable on my Reader as the e-books from Feedbooks.

Classic EPUBs from the source

EPUB from Gutenberg Project
EPUB from Gutenberg Project

When I looked at the first pages of the EPUB books I downloaded from Feedbooks, I saw that most of the texts were actually from The Gutenberg Project. So I went to the source to see how I liked their EPUB downloads. Their downloads page for each title says the EPUB download is, at this point, “experimental,” but I found the e-books I downloaded to be just as readable and error-free as those from Feedbooks. They just didn’t have as pretty a style, in my opinion. Still, it’s not so much about style as it is about readability, for me, so I consider Gutenberg a good place to download EPUB books.

Speaking of EPUB books, there is actually a site called epubBooks, and went there to download a couple of books as well. I was surprised to find that they did not have A Room with a View or even anything by E. M. Forster, but they did have Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as did every other place I went to. I found it to be error-free, at least in the first pages I viewed, and simply styled. I don’t like their site navigation as much as others, but I still consider it a decent place to look for EPUB downloads.

A one-stop shop when you need it

The last place I went to download EPUB books, ironically, was the Sony Reader Store [closed March 2014]. One of the reasons I wanted a Sony Reader is because I am a cheapskate* who would rather borrow books from the library than pay for them. Unfortunately, the Sony Reader Store does not have any free books. They do, however, have two different editions of Frankenstein for 99¢ or less (and, inexplicably, some that cost even more). I don’t see any reason to pay for an electronic book in the public domain that I can download free elsewhere, but the Sony Reader Store does make for a seamless process of browsing, downloading, and installing e-books in my Sony Reader Library. It’s probably ideal for people who are not comfortable with downloading and file management, because the Reader Library application takes care of that for you when you buy books from the Sony Reader Store.

EPUB by MobileReference
EPUB by MobileReference

For the sake of good reporting, I plunked down $1.94 for two editions of the same book— one published by Mobile Reference and the other published by B&R Samizdat Express. The publication by Mobile Reference was formatted just like all the others: flowing text in a font readable in the default “small” size on my Sony Reader Pocket Edition. The publication by B&R Samizdat Express, on the other hand, was styled with a font size that was unreadable in the small size, and it had bigger margins than any of the other editions I had downloaded.

EPUB by B&R Samizdat Express
EPUB by B&R Samizdat Express

*Actually, when I just have to have it the day it comes out, I’ll buy a book and donate it to the library after reading it. I’ve donated a lot of books to the library over the years, but mostly I just borrow nowadays. Speaking of donating, if this article helped you make some money-saving decisions, then please consider donating a dollar or more to my blog. Thanks!

Donate thru PayPal

Typography, Typography Everywhere

I noticed an interesting use of underlining at the gas pump today. I learned, when studying typography, that underlining is mostly a relic of the typewriter, which was incapable of emphasizing text with italic or bold typefaces, and that other means of emphasis are more aesthetically pleasing.

One problem with underlining words as a way of underscoring their importance is that the underlines interfere with the descenders– those “tails” of letters that descend below the baseline as in the lowercase letters g, j, p, q, and y. I once read that a proper underline breaks at the descenders to allow them to descend without interference.

I am happy to report that the typesetter of this sign knew well enough to underscore only the “round” of the word “ground” and let the descender of the lowercase g hang down without the interference of the underline.

You just never know where you’ll see an example of proficient typography! Er… typography! Yeah, that’s better.

CSS Font Properties Test

A Demonstration of CSS Font Properties

Property Value Display in Your Browser
Property Value Display in Your Browser
font-family serif The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
sans-serif The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
cursive The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
fantasy The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
monospace The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
font-style normal The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
italic The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
oblique The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
font-variant normal The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
small-caps The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
font-weight normal The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
bold The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
bolder The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
lighter The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
100 The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
200 The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
300 The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
400 The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
500 The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
600 The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
700 The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
800 The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
900 The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
font-size
<absolute-size>
xx-small The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
x-small The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
small The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
medium The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
large The quick brown fox jumps…
x-large The quick brown fox…
xx-large The quick brown…
font-size
<relative-size>
larger The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
smaller The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
font-size
<length>
(arbitrary
examples—
non-scalable
values)
12pt The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
1pc The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
72pt The…
1in The…
10mm The quick…
1cm The quick…
12px The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
font-size
<length>
(arbitrary
examples—
scalable
values)
1em The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
1.2em The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
1ex The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
1.2ex The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
font-size
<percentage>
(arbitrary
examples)
100% The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
120% The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
150% The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
225% The quick brown…
338% The quick…

Using the Shorthand font Property

{ font: 150% serif; }

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.


{ font: italic bold 100%/200% "Lucida Sans", Verdana, sans-serif; }

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. (Lines repeated to demonstrate the extra line-spacing, or “leading.”)


{ font: normal small-caps large Braggadocio, "Broadway BT", fantasy; }

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.


{ font: lighter x-large "Lucida Calligraphy", "Brush Script MT", "English 157 BT", cursive; }

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

Daniel Greene originally published this page on danielgreene.com as fontprop.html in February 1998.
Screenshot of style.html

Style Sheets Demo Page

Style Sheets

The Easy Way To Stylize Your Web Pages

“CSS is an easy way to effect sweeping stylistic changes in your web pages without much effort.”

Finally, style separated from structure!

Have you ever come across a web page that was “stylish” to the point of illegibility? Of course you have. As a web surfer, have you ever wished you could turn off web author’s “style” and view content the way you please? As a web author, have you ever wished there were a way to stylize your web pages without having to resort to using hundreds of extended tags like all over the place? Haven’t we all! Now there is an alternative to all this nonsense: Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). CSS is an easy-to-use document formatting language developed by the The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). CSS uses common terminology known to anyone familiar with typography, and was designed to give web publishers nearly as much creative control in their web pages as in printed material. The beauty of CSS is that it works right along with proper, structural HTML (HyperText Markup Language, used in writing web pages). Web pages written in proper HTML reveal the logical structure and outline of your document, and are guaranteed to display properly in any browser, regardless of platform or system configuration. Documents written in proper HTML enhanced with style sheets give viewers freedom of choice. CSS support can be toggled on and off by the user, so that, if your readers don’t like your style, but still want to read your content, they can turn off your “kewl” blue on black color scheme, and read your offerings in a more palatable palette. 😉 With style sheets, both web developers and web surfers have more control than ever. Developers have even more control with CSS than they had with extended HTML markup, and viewers finally have the freedom to view web content as they please, without having illegible styles forced upon them. This divorcement of style from structure is also a very good thing for the visually disabled, (including the color-blind!) who rely on text-to-speech synthesizers, and/or special color schemes and enlarged text to make Web content accessible. CSS allows for this by keeping out of the way of HTML.

“CSS takes style specification much further than extended HTML, kludges, and hacks ever could.”

Much more powerful than extended markup!

CSS takes style specification much further than extended HTML, kludges, and hacks ever could. With CSS, you can control not only the font face, size, and color, but also the line height, line spacing, and even letter and word spacing! You can create fancy effects like overlapping text. You can specify text color, background color (or image), border style, border thickness, border color, margins, padding, etc. for every single element of the document, not just for the body! CSS is an easy way to effect sweeping stylistic control in your web pages without much effort. Rather than inserting extended markup tags everywhere you want to change font face, color, size, etc., you make one declaration that applies to every instance of an element. For example, to achieve the level-three header effect on this page, I simply made a single CSS declaration for the H3 element in my style sheet, and every level-three header is affected the same throughout the document! Any time I change my mind, and want to change the style of my document, all I have to change is a line or two in my style sheet; I don’t have to touch the actual page at all! In fact, you can even create one style sheet to use for all the pages in your web site, which saves a lot of formatting time, reduces document size and download time, and brings design unity to your pages.

Some peeks at CSS…

You may look at the style sheet that’s stylizing this page. You will see how relatively simple it is to create a style sheet that determines the style of a plain HTML document.

Screenshot of an early version of this page as rendered in Microsoft Internet Explorer 3
Screenshot of an early version of this page as rendered in Microsoft Internet Explorer 3
Screenshot of how this page looked in my "Pretty" stylesheet in Opera 3.6
Screenshot of how this page looked in my “Pretty” stylesheet in Opera 3.6

Want to view this page in different “themes”?

If your browser supports user selection of style sheets, you can select from a number of CSS style sheets I’ve written. See the magic of CSS as the page transforms before your very eyes! (In Mozilla browsers, for example, you go to the menu bar and select View, Page Style…) [I actually wrote five different style sheets for this so that people could view the page and see the changes, but now I’m taking it easy and letting the nice people at WordPress.com do the CSS for me.]

What they say about this page…

  • “‘There are some really great improvements in CSS2,’ said Web developer Daniel Greene, who has been working with the style sheets since they were introduced.” —Chris Oaks, Wired News
  • “Besides Microsoft’s dubious CSS Gallery, Daniel’s pages were one of the first places to see Style Sheets in action, back in the early days. : )” —Sue Simms, CSS Pointers
  • “Esta es una de las primeras páginas que hizo uso real de CSS1, realizada por Daniel Greene.” —Juan R. Pozo, HTML con Clase [Translation: This is one of the first pages that made actual use of real CSS1, brought to you by Daniel Greene.]
  • “Daniel Greene’s Style Sheets demo page has a column of ivy down the left hand side of every page. He’s used this gif to create the effect.” —WestCiv, learn web standards :: side panels
  • “Naked Sites: Shedding tables and running free” —Donimo Shriver of Web Nouveau and meryl.net present…, css collection web sites without tables

They’re also talking about…

Bibliography

These are the resources I used to learn CSS and HTML, and to validate my documents:

Browser support

When I first wrote this page in 1996, only one browser (Microsoft Internet Explorer) supported CSS. As more browsers supported CSS, I maintained an updated list. Now, I don’t know of any browser that doesn’t support CSS! Browsers don’t all render CSS in the same way, however, and they never have. It’s no wonder I was one of the first people on the Web to publish in CSS; I was an amateur and I wasn’t going to lose any money or business if certain people couldn’t read some of my pages. It was all experimental! You can see how dangerous it was to publish with CSS by looking at the following:

The sad shape of this page in IE Mac
The sad shape of this page in IE Mac
Screenshot of how Netscape slaughtered this page in the early days
Screenshot of how Netscape wrecked my Font Properties Demo Page in the early days

A description of a Bug in Backgrounds for DIV Elements from the early days

Daniel Greene originally published this document on danielgreene.com as style.html in August 1996, making it one of the first few documents on the Web to use CSS.