As per this article in the Huffington Post, the Kindle discards many kinds of poem formatting.

I use a lot of white space, couplets, triplets, and long lines that cannot break. The Kindle wraps text in a non-negotiable way, even when text is imported in HTML.

Apparently many poets avoid ePublishing for this reason.

Does anyone know if there is an ePublishing format where the author has precise and absolute control over the formatting? I would prefer the reader have to use a horizontal scrollbar, if on a small device. At least then the integrity of my pieces would be preserved.

  • Here's how my poetry book project shook out. After publishing an e-version and paperback version via Kindle and Amazon respectively, I wound up pulling the Kindle version. There was just something lacking about the e-reader experience. All the words were there, but much of the impact had been lost.
    – yetimoner
    Nov 3, 2012 at 22:42

4 Answers 4


ePub (the broad standard used by Google Books, the iBook Store, etc.) and .mobi (used by Kindle and some others) are both HTML and CSS under the hood, with all the strengths and frailties that implies. Worse, the current standards (ePub 2 and the current Kindle) are based on a subset of late-90s HTML and CSS. You can take a look at what's inside an ePub by changing the file extension to .zip and opening it in Finder or Explorer.

HTML is designed to wrap to fit the available viewport, to be resized and reflowed according to user preference settings. These are inherent in the format. Print designers migrating to the web long reconciled themselves to the fact that items on a web page do not necessarily stay where the designer put them. Poets, I guess, are now having the same realization.

There are several conundrums. You can't have a long line of text that runs off the edge of its container, any more than you could run text off the edge of a page. If the container is zoomed out far enough to fit on a mobile device screen, the text may become too small to read. You can't stop the reader (i.e., the user) from changing the text size, and text will inevitably reflow. To complicate things further, different devices have different default and available fonts.

The solution, such as it is, is to create png (not jpeg, which doesn't do well with sharp contrasty edges) images and use those instead of live text, being careful to format to the target resolution as much as possible. Adobe's Digital Publishing Suite does exactly this for digital magazines. All of the "text" you read in "Wired" mag on a tablet is actually part of an image. You gain integrity of layout at the expense of searchability. As a designer, you also have to design every page twice for each target device: a horizontal version and a vertical one, 4:3 for iPad and 16:9 for most Android tablets.

It's worth noting that Steven Drennon's indenting tip is the traditional way of continuing lines that are too wide for a page in print and calligraphy, so this is hardly a new problem. (The traditional ballad stanza was originally a heptameter couplet. The 4+3, four line stanza we use today came much later, for convenience of formatting.)


The problem here is that the current assortment of e-readers do not have the horizontal scrollbar, so the width of your e-book is always going to be fixed. To further complicate things, there are several different sizes of e-readers, especially considering that Kindle and Nook both have software apps that allow people to read e-books on their smart phones. As a result, you can't even define your width in advance to ensure how it will look. You might get it right for one e-reader, but find that it doesn't look right in half a dozen others.

I have tried using html to control the amount of indentation, and that works pretty well. I have even found some code that will indent the portion(s) of any line(s) that get automatically wrapped. That helps to make it a little easier to read, but is still pretty annoying. Unfortunately, I believe that unless and until they come out with e-readers that can scroll from left to right, we are going to be hampered with this problem.

BTW - here is an example of what I mentioned above.

If you have a really long line that wraps,
then it will usually look like this.
Then the second line follows beneath.

Compared to this:

If you have a really long line that wraps,
     then it will usually look like this.
Then the second line follows beneath.

Not ideal, but at least it helps to identify that the wrapped line is mean to be all on one line.


I found one way to do it. Publish via Feedbooks. Their form-based upload tool has a rich text editor with more advanced controls. Here's a screen shot. Unfortunately, you cannot charge via this distributor.

An app for iOS and Android called Bluefire Reader can download Feedbooks. Just open up the Bluefire store, browse to the poetry section, and you'll see some examples of more sophisticated text formatting. It looks quite good on my iPad. On the smaller screen of my Android phone, rather small and blurry. Still, it's hard to complain with dual-dimension scrolling and Android's pinch zoom.

Scrivener can export PDFs via Adobe Digital Editions. But I'm still looking for a publisher that accepts PDFs.

  • The problem is that if you really want your poetry to be available to a larger range of people, which was kind of the point with the article, then you need to be able to format your poerty so that it can be read in an e-reader, such as the Kindle and the Nook. I don't see a lot of people going out of their way to take these extra steps, especially if they already have a Kindle or a Nook. Oct 18, 2011 at 13:21
  • I haven't really looked at this, but it sounds like all they are doing is creating an image of the properly formatted poems. You can do that yourself and then insert the images into a mobi or ePub file, but that really doesn't help much. On smaller screens you just get a smaller image that is even more difficult to read. It doesn't reall accomplish the goal of true text formatting that fits within an actual e-reader. Oct 18, 2011 at 13:23
  • As the article points out, eReaders are incapable of poetry formatting -- this is known. The question is what ePublishing systems are capable. If an iOS or Android app solves the problem, there's a viable solution for poets. At least Feedbooks pushes over 3 million books a month. That's not small usage. Oh, and it turns your text into both ePub and PDF. The mobile app gives you a choice of which format. The PDFs are resizable, and look good when you zoom.
    – yetimoner
    Oct 18, 2011 at 17:18

In epub on ibook font name, font size and page orientation are key factors in layout. There is no reason why the publisher can't suggest to the reader the name size and orientation from the comparatively few options that will produce the layout the author intended.

Try loading into ibook the free epub version of Moore's Twas the Night before Christmas with its numerous illustrations by Jessie Wilcox Smith(originally published in 1912) and play about with the few options available and you will soon find the variables required for optimum viewing even though the publishers neglected to give any clues.

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