Tables, fonts and maths symbols

Ebook formats do a great job with standard text. But other elements common in non-fiction and textbooks often reproduce poorly even if, like tables or mathematical formulas, they still use text. We’ll cover some techniques to deal with these elements.

Problems with table, font and maths elements

Here are some typical problems you will encounter when you try to add these elements to ebooks:

  • Tables lose columns and render differently in different e-readers
  • Special characters and symbols are often found in ‘extended’ character sets which many e-readers don’t support
  • Special font choices will look great on your own e-reader but may look awful on many readers’ devices because they won’t have your font installed and will substitute a different font with variable results

The new formats, EPUB3 and Kindle Format 8, will eventually improve support for this type of formatting. In the meanwhile, here’s how you can best deal with them in ebooks that reach the widest readership.

Tables and mathematical formulas

The most common way is to deal with these is to convert tables and mathematical formulas to images and insert them into your document.

Here’s an example. The table conforms to the specifications below. It is 530 pixels wide and produced as a GIF image. Click here to see the same table as a JPG image (it will open in a new window). The JPG image is almost four times the file size and is less sharp.

Example of a table produced as a GIF image

Keep in mind the following:

  • Images will have to be relatively small and low in resolution to work on all e-readers so lots of small text will be pretty hard to read.
  • You will get a better result using the GIF image format. Text and lines will be sharper with better contrast than JPG format. The latter is better for photographs.
  • If you use color bands to separate rows for readability, remember that e-readers with E-ink electronic paper screens will only display 8 or 16 shades of grey so test your image in a monochrome version, too. Image editors allow you to produce a mono version of an image.
  • The text won’t be searchable: When tables are converted to images, readers won’t be able to find any of the content using the Find or Search functions in their e-readers.
  • If your ebook relies heavily on tables, formulas or other complex formatting, you might consider offering a PDF version, either as the only ebook edition or as an alternative format. It’s still commonly used and, while not recommended for predominantly narrative works, remains a good option for other works until the newer EPUB3 and Kindle Format 8 formats are widely supported.
  • There is an alternative to tables as images. If you understand how to hack HTML code, you can produce a table in text if it’s not too big and is formatted simply. But e-reading device support will vary from non-existent to poor or average so you’ll really need a very good reason to pursue this route at the moment if your goal is an ebook that can be widely read. You’ll also need some good technical skills.

Here are two examples of a maths equation. The first example is saved as a GIF file and the second as a JPG.
Maths Formula GIF

GIF format (2KB image size)

Maths Formula JPG

JPG format (20KB image size)

Tip: One trick for tables is to change them to (bulleted) lists. This might be fine for simple tables and has the advantage that the text remains searchable.

How to create an image from a table or mathematical symbols on your screen

If the table or mathematical formula has already been created (for example in the Word file or a PDF), an easy way to turn it into an image is with the help of a screen capture program. This will let you take a snapshot of what’s on your screen then save it to a file. You can then use an image editor to crop it, clean it up and resize it for use in your ebook.

Here’s a quick and simple technique that requires no software to install.

Click here to view the technique for a Windows PC
Click here to view the technique for a Macintosh

Fonts in ebooks: handle with care

If you have a favorite font that you want to use for your ebook, forget it – unless it’s Times New Roman, Arial, or Garamond. Those are the only ‘safe’ fonts you can rely on to work across e-readers.

To create a professional presentation, it’s best to keep to a small number of type sizes and type styles.

  • Body type should be about 11pt or 12pt
  • Most headings should be a maximum of 16pt
  • Left-aligned is the most reliable formatting choice

It is possible to embed special fonts in ebooks to make them available to e-readers which might not have them installed. Embedding means that the font is actually distributed with the ebook file. It involves both technical and licensing issues, the latter covered in the section on Rights.

Font embedding is supported in the EPUB standard but many e-readers won’t support it. It’s not available in the earlier Kindle but it is supported by the new Kindle Format 8 specification. And always remember that, whatever font you may use, the reader can (and many will) go to their settings menu and change it to their own preferred font.

This is a technically challenging area and generally not recommended so we won’t cover it here.

Avoiding inadvertent font problems

To avoid introducing unsupported fonts in the ebook conversion process, it’s a good idea to change the default font in your default paragraph style to one of the three ‘safe’ fonts.

Here’s how to set this in Microsoft Word.

  1. Display the Styles (in MS Word 2010, they will be on the Home tab, in Word 2003 you’ll display them from Format > Styles and Formatting menu).
  2. Right click on the style you want to modify (eg Normal or Body Text).
  3. Select Modify. You’ll see a screen similar to the one below. (This screenshot is from the MS Word 2010 paragraph format box).
  4. Check the default font in the settings summary below the sample text. If it’s not one of the three safe fonts (for instance, in MS Word 2010, the default font is Calibri), you should change it to Times New Roman, Garamond or Arial in the Formatting box.

MS Office 2010 - Change Default Font


Find out more about this topic on our Digital Publishing 101 useful resources site.


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