If you write a technical eBook, you probably use callouts. Getting these callouts to look great in an eBook and your print version is not as easy as you might think.
I did a lot of research with Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, and Google Docs to come up with two approaches that work consistently across all popular eBook readers. I tested everything here using various versions of Amazon Kindle, Apple iBooks, and Barnes & Noble Nook.
Before you begin reading, I do want to point out that there are many other tools and techniques you can use. My purpose for writing this post is to share an easy option that lets you focus on writing without using specialty techniques or learning advanced software applications. All these options assume you are writing a reflowable eBook.
What is a callout?
I went online to find the definition of a callout, and they were all over the place, so let me explain what I mean for purposes of this article:
Callout: A small portion of text that draws the readers attention so you can articulate a point. What you are reading right now is a callout.
Most technical eBooks need callouts for various reasons. Here are some examples:
- To warn the reader. For example, if an experiment requires goggles, you probably want a callout to address that safety concern.
- To quote something. For example, you might want to place a relevant quote from your book or someone else’s work to highlight a point you are making.
- To remind the reader. For example, if you are teaching someone to use a computer for the very first time, you might include a callout with the reminder Don’t forget to plug it in first!.
Sitting around my house are loads of technical books that use callouts. They range from software development books to cookbooks and everything in between. All these books use callouts regularly. Here are some examples I just mocked up to give you a sense of what some of them look like.
As you can see, there are no standards for how callouts appear, but they all have some uniqueness that plays well with the overall design of the book.
eBook callout challenges
As you may recall from one of my very first post on the ePub and Kindle format, you are not creating an eBook so much as you are creating web pages. These web pages offer a lot of flexibility, but not as much as a word processor.
Wrapping text callouts
As you can see in the following image, I add a textbox that wraps with some text. On the left-side, you see how the word processor nicely wraps text around the box. When I display this in an eBook reader, the text may or may not wrap based on screen resolution, font size, and other criteria.
Note: The following example uses Apple Pages and iBooks but I encounter the same issues with Kindle Format and Microsoft Word.
A very popular callout format is to use tables. I have been doing this in previous eBooks but have received some complaints. With the newer ePub 3 and Kindle Format 8, it seems tables have taken a step back. The image below shows some problems that occur on popular eBook readers. Note how the font background changes and the images resize.
Note: I do have options to fix these problems but as I state up-front in this post, I want an easy approach that requires the least amount of programming or specialized applications to create my eBook.
Boxed border and background callouts
Simple ‘boxed’ callouts that simply appear as their own paragraph(s) work great. That does not mean you are without challenges here either.
In the following example, I use Apple Pages to create a simple border above and below the text. This was not as easy as it sounds because if you place a top border over some text and then press the enter key, you end up with another border on the next paragraph. Adding borders was painful in Pages. Sadly, after getting the borders right, I learned those borders do not output to ePub format (converting to Kindle gives the same result).
Note: It would appear Google Docs does not allow you to create borders, so I can just add a background color to the font and get a similar result as the iBooks output you see on the right-side of the following image.
Microsoft Word’s built-in Intense Quote style allows you to create a multi-line callout without any hassles. As you can see in the following image, I modify the style with a unique background color and play around with the borders. This example works great in ePub and Kindle.
Note: I know this example takes up a lot of space. Future tests found that if I modify the before and after text, there are no problems and I can remove a lot of the unused space.
What about image callouts that contain text?
I do not recommend you use this approach. Here are just a few reasons:
- The image will resize to whatever the eBook decides is the right size. The eBook reader may shrink the image, so it is hard to read the text. Conversely, the eBook reader may enlarge the image, and the text looks fuzzy and unprofessional.
- If you plan on converting your book to another language, you will have to modify the callout text in separate files, making sure to keep the originals for editing.
- Most graphical editing tools like Photoshop have limited spelling and grammar checking so you might find out too late that your callouts do not match your style guide or have spelling mistakes.
- You cannot search text in images.
Keep with next?
Most eBooks are reflowable, meaning you can never really guarantee how much text displays on one page. The eBook reader’s size, the font your reader chooses, and various other criteria drive what content gets real estate on the screen.
Ideally, when you create a callout, the entire callout displays on one page. If the callout is going to be cut off at the bottom of the page, it should just move all the text to the top of the next page, right? Not really. After extensive testing, I have yet to come up with an option to keep callout text together in every circumstance.
It is because of these uncertainties in how your eBook will display that you (and your reader) will have to put up with situations like the image below:
I tried using settings like keep with next and lines stay together and all the typical settings that work in a word processor, but was not able to get the eBook reader to accept these. I read there are css options, but again, I want a solution that works out-of-the-box from my word processor. If you happen to know a way to address this situation, please drop a line in the comments section.
To create a callout, follow these basic guidelines:
- Create a new paragraph (or paragraphs) and type your text. I recommend you type some text that describes the callout, like Warning, or Tip, or Note, and then type the callout text.
- To make your callouts pop, use a slightly different background (highlight) color and modify the font color if necessary. Remember some people still use grayscale eBook readers, so do not go crazy.
- Do not use tables because you never know how they will display in an eBook reader.
- Do not draw text boxes for text to wrap around as they will not always format the same as in your word processor.
- Do not use images that contain callout text because they are not searchable, may not display well, and you may not catch spelling and grammar issues.
Recommendations for Apple Pages and Google Docs
As of this writing, neither Apple Pages nor Google Docs will output borders around text. Here are the options I recommend you try:
- Type the text.
- Format the foreground and background color.
Recommendations for Microsoft Word
Microsoft Word has more options for you to play with, so here are the options I recommend you try:
- Use the intense quote style.
- If you like, you can modify the intense quote style. In my example earlier in this post, I change options like the width of the top border, the color of the top and bottom border, the font color, and the border shading color. You will probably want to change the before and after spacing as well.
- If you just want to use standard text with a foreground and background color as in the Apple Pages and Google Docs approach, go ahead and do so. In Microsoft Word, you can select that text and create a new style, so you do not have to do all that manual work every time.