It is a little strange that sitting here today in 2016, the age of emojis, memes, and youtube videos, that I have to write an article on creating bulleted lists in an eBook, but here we are.
Bullets, or more accurately, bulleted lists, are vital to most technical writers. Here is a bulleted list that explains why you want bulleted lists:
- They break up your content into digestible parts.
- They make it easy to summarize relevant information.
Obviously, eBooks support bullets, right? Well…
If you go online and reader in various publishing groups, you will see misinformed comments like this:
- “You cannot use Microsoft Word or Apple Pages to create an eBook because they don’t support bullets.”.
- “Sigil is the only product that ‘truly’ supports bulleted lists.”.
- “eBook readers do not support bulleted lists, so do not use them.”.
Do not believe any of that nonsense, because:
All of today’s eBook readers can display bulleted lists and all word processors can output proper bulleted lists.
Of course, there is more to it than that, so in this post, I will drill deep into the weird world of bulleted lists.
What the heck is a bullet?
Here is an interesting way of looking at things. As you read these words, you are not reading letters and punctuation. Well, you are but in fact, you are looking at images that someone drew to look like letters and punctuation.
A typographer/artist can make spooky Halloween fonts, or create old school typewriter style fonts. When you send a smiley face emoji, that is a character in a font set. Your standard bullet is just a circle someone drew and added to a font set.
Just like a period, dash, or asterisk, a bullet is just a font character that someone drew on a computer.
The Mac and the PC ship with fonts that are not necessarily available on each operating system. For example, Helvetica can be found on my Mac, but Windows 10 does not install that font.
Since an operating system can have different fonts, there are standards bodies define particular types of symbols and codes all computers should have.
The standards I am referring to in this article called Unicode. You can see some examples here.
Using bullets in your word processor
You may recall from my Inside the ePub Format: The Basics post that an eBook (ePub or Kindle) is just one or more web pages that display your content. If you are using a word processor, you will either have an option to save the file to ePub or to html (or in Microsoft Word’s case, filtered html).
- When you create a bulleted list in Apple Pages, it uses the html ordered list. Since an ordered list usually displays numbers, Apple Pages uses a css style to make it show bullets instead. Some older eBook readers do not support ordered lists (or do not display them well).
- With Google Docs, it uses the html unordered list. An unordered list is a proper way to create a list with a bullet, but just like ordered lists, they may not display (or display well) in older eBook readers.
- Microsoft Word treats bulleted lists just like another line of text. It creates a css style for the first bullet, another for the last bullet, and yet another for the bullets that appear in-between. Microsoft Word explicitly calls for the Symbol font.
Apple and Google use what I would refer to as a modern approach to creating lists. All the latest browsers support these list types to some varying degree, and you have a guarantee the list will display a certain way. If you output an Apple Pages file to ePub, there should be no problem. If you convert that same file to Amazon Kindle format, some of the older versions may not support these standards.
For printing a physical book, I like the approach Microsoft Word takes a little more because you get granular control over the entire list. For example, you can tell Microsoft Word “add 6pts of space above the first bullet, do nothing to the middle bullets, and then add 12pts of space after the last bullet”. In Apple Pages and Google Docs, there is no straightforward approach to doing this.
There are some downsides to Microsoft Word’s approach. For example, it calls out the use of the symbol font within the html it outputs. While all eBooks readers (as far as I know) have the symbol font built-in, this should not be a requirement. Also, the physical placement of the bullet in the document may not work with all eBook readers, so you might have to search-and-replace the physical bullet with the html Unicode equivalent.
Microsoft Word offers various ways to space a bullet. For example, the most popular method to create a bulleted list in Microsoft Word is to click the little bullet icon and start typing. That icon puts a tab character between the bullet and the text (again, great for print).
The tab Microsoft Word uses is not something you should use in html, so you have two options:
- Keep the tab as-is and just search and replace with a space (or your favorite thing to replace a tab with) after the file is output to filtered html.
- Modify the style for your bullets to use a space or some other method. You can do this directly within the Microsoft Word user interface.
Bullet point limitations
The term word processor usually means one thing to everyone. It is an application you run that lets you create documents. However, these word processors are not created equal.
If you look at Apple Pages and Google Docs, they have some real limitations to the amount of exact formatting, spacing, and placement of items in your document. Many of these restrictions are in place because Apple and Google want to make it easy to output your document to html, ePub, and print, with a focus on html standards.
Microsoft Word, on the other hand, was born as a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) word processor with a focus on printing the document. The ability to output documents to the web was a secondary design that came later in the product’s life cycle.
Take a look at the following image and you can see the tradeoffs each word processor makes.
As you can see, there are lots of options, but take a cue from Apple Pages and Google Docs and do not get fancy with your bullets. Some of the bullets Microsoft Word uses are just plain not supported on an eBook. If you want to use certain bullets, you may have to embed a font into your eBook which can be costly.
In most word processors, you can create multiple levels of indents, like this:
- Top bullet
- Indented bullet
- Another indented bullet
- Yet another indented bullet
- Another indented bullet
- Indented bullet
The fact is, this format does not look good in print, web, or eBook format. As a best practice, I recommend you focus on using only one top-level bullet whenever you can and only use a second level indent if necessary.
If you need more than one sub-bullet, you might want to re-think that strategy because the more you indent, the more likely the eBook reader will not display the bullets the way you want.
At the end of the day, dealing with this minutia is not something an independent technical writer wants to deal with. That is why I created the eBook Toolkit for Microsoft Word. I created this for Microsoft Word because it is the most popular word processor on the market.
Among many other things, the eBook Toolkit will output your bulleted lists to look as close as possible to your original print version of the Microsoft Word document. The eBook Toolkit makes sure the bulleted lists look great in ePub and Kindle formats. Click the shop link at the top of the page for more detail.
When you use bulleted lists in your eBook, follow these basic rules:
- Do not get fancy: The more your bullet strays from the standard filled circle or outlined circle, the better the chance it will not display on an eBook reader.
- Tabs are bad: Do not use tab spacing to separate a bullet from the text because the eBook reader may not support tabs.
- Remember older devices: If you output the ePub from Apple Pages or Google Docs and then convert that to Amazon Kindle, keep in mind, those bulleted lists may not work on older Kindle models.
- Use Unicode: If you output from Microsoft Word, you should replace the physical bullet in the file to the Unicode equivalent.
Using bullets in Apple Pages, Google Docs, and most word processors are pretty easy. Using bullets in Microsoft Word can be quite complicated because that product still has deep roots in print typesetting. If you would like to see a post or a video on how to do this, please add your comments to this post.