Margins, line length, and reading ebooks on an iPhone

Yes. Every now and then, I open up the Apple Books app on my iPhone, forgetting why I never use it. I scroll through the library seeing a few books I purchased and a bunch of free content. I choose something interesting, open it, and prepare to read for a bit.
I’m immediately annoyed by how wastefully narrow the readable text is. The side margins are ridiculous. I’m on a small device - why is apple wasting so much space?
Then, I look at the customization options to see how to change the margins. Don’t see anything. I search online and find the answer - there’s no way to change those margins.
I abandon Apple Books again.
Either someone at Apple has a really bad take on the experience of reading on a small screen, or no one at Apple cares about their Books app.
So, I guess I shouldn’t care, either.


People have been complaining about the margins since at least 2010.

Apple must just like them that way for some reason…

I remember reading back in the day how Donald Knuth (TeX) pointed out how there was a certain limit to the number of characters we can follow per line without losing track of that line (<80?). And hence large margins are sometimes the result of making large bodies of text more legible. I’m far from experienced when it comes to typography or publishing. I’m sure there are much more knowledgable professionals on this board who can explain the underlying details.

Yes, which is one of the reasons newspapers and magazines use columns instead of text that spans the width of the page. I’ve read 8-10 words is about the limit for readability (both not hopping up or down a line when reading and being able to easily find the next line when done with a line and moving to the next one).

On iPhones, the bigger phones may come close to that, but the smaller ones, like my SE, certainly don’t. With my font size, I get 4-6 words. I have to shrink the font to illegible to get 8-10 words per lines. If there were small margins, I could probably get 5-7 words per line at my font size, or 8-10 at an actually readable font size, either of which would probably increase my reading speed a bit, while the massive margins really do nothing for me.

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Have you tried rotating your phone sideways? In landscape orientation, I get about 8 words per line and I have my text fairly large and legible. One key is increasing the leading (the space between the lines) as with longer widths you need more room between lines so your eye doesn’t drop to the wrong line on the return.

While I generally prefer reading on a Kindle or iPad, I have read books on iPhone and it’s doable if you set up the settings right. I don’t find Apple’s margins too large. You need some air around the text or it feels cramped and/or your fingers at the edge of the phone block the text.

Years ago I read quite a few books on a Palm Pilot (technically a Handspring) in down times at work and at first I found that only having a paragraph per screen was annoying, but soon came to prefer it. I was reading between computer tasks (this was back when things like printing or rotating a photo in Photoshop took minutes) and with a normal book I’d waste 10-15 seconds just trying to find where I’d left off. With the tiny Palm screen I just started at the top and if I reread a little bit, it was just one sentence and didn’t waste much time. I could read a screen or two every time I had a few spare seconds, which was surprisingly effective. (Today I’d probably just listen to an audiobook.)

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I’ve read a large number of books in the Kindle app on my iPhone. If you use a larger font for easier reading, the Apple Books margins give you very few words per line. It’s bad. I’m comparing to a different app in which reading is much more comfortable.
Apple does a lot of things well, and I usually prefer their opinionated take on design, but sometimes they make a bad call and don’t revisit it for a long time. I suspect there isn’t anyone currently at Apple who has a strong preference for those unchangeably wide margins. I suspect there isn’t anyone even considering whether they should change that or make it an option. There’s a lot of good accessibility work in iOS, but even Apple makes apps that behave very poorly with large fonts, truncating necessary text without any way to read the whole thing. This feels like it is slightly related to that lack of attention.

That’s a good comparison, but I don’t see that much of a difference. Here’s Books and Kindle on my phone configured the way I like and while Books does have bigger side margins, the text and words per line isn’t that different:

Granted, these aren’t the same book (I don’t have the same book in both apps, unfortunately) so it’s not an exact comparison, but I find both pretty readable. It would be nice if Apple made it more configurable, but after they lost that ridiculous anti-trust lawsuit I don’t think Apple cares about the ebook market any more and aren’t going to invest anything into it.

That said, I don’t really use Books, but it’s not due to the app’s formatting: 99% of my books are on the Kindle platform, which I find much more flexible for reading option (different devices, etc.).

I read almost everything on my iPhone in Libby in part because the line length is near ideal for optimal reading.

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I chose a Suze Orman book in Libby but I don’t see a way to read it in Libby — the only option to read it is Kindle.

Your library may not have licensed the book in EPUB format.

  • You can set a preference for Kindle or EPUB in the Libby app.

  • When you check out a book, if your library has it in both formats, and you have not set a Preference, you will be asked which format you wish to download.


Thanks. Changing settings did the trick — my library book is now open in Libby. The Kindle preference sent me to for some reason. Thank you Adam for reminding me about Libby. A friend had mentioned that he uses it to get free library books and I had it on my iPhone but hadn’t used it.

Kindle will no longer accept Mobi very soon. They are recommending ePub and a few other formats

If I’d never used another reader, especially MapleRead, I’d probably like Libby well enough. But I was forced to use it recently† and wasn’t whelmed. It did have a good set of font sizes, but no margin control, too little space between lines, no way no turn off justification, bookmarks are clumsy, image enlarging is clumsy and buggy, and possibly worst of all, it doesn’t use the ios dictionary. If you aren’t connected to the net, no definitions are available. For fiction, it’s just about tolerable, but I’d never use it for non-fiction.

There’s one alternative I know of for reading Adobe DRM books, Bluefire Reader. You can share a protected epub to it via the Files App or whatever, and there used to be a way to directly connect to libraries and some online bookstores, but I never used that and don’t know if they can still do it. It’s somewhat more configurable than libby though I just took a quick look, and wasn’t able to turn off justification. But it does use the ios dictionary.

Neither of them is likely to have very good privacy. Overdrive/libby is known as a data vacuum (their license agreement with libraries explicitly forbids the library from telling users what and how much data they collect), and the bluefire website is now clearly aimed at commerce instead of readers which isn’t a good sign. Though possibly neither is as bad as amazon.

† I download library books from overdrive with the adobe app. I have a slow net connection. I clicked on the download epub button, but the site managed to expand a ‘you should use libby’ banner as my finger came down, causing the click to hit the download kindle button. once that’s selected you can’t change to epub on the web site. Since the book was Martha Wells’ Witch King and I’d already been waiting for many weeks, in desperation I tried libby to see if I could still read it on that, and fortunately, after a lot of fuss finding the right settings, it let me. Though not fond of libby, it was better than waiting months longer…


Fortunately, Mobil books are easily convertible to ePub. Here’s an article that reviews a few different apps/web sites:


Which ones do you use?

It’s been a long time since I read books in either format, so I really don’t have a recommendation for a converter available for use today.

I’d do some web searching, read reviews, and pick one. If it doesn’t work well, try another.

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I have used Calibre for a long time. You need to add the book to their database and then convert it. If there is DRM involved you may have to add some plugins to handle that but I won’t go into that here.

For those of us in the vintage generation, the experience of reading a book on an iPhone can be rather exasperating. Whether it’s a magazine or a book, the digital format often poses challenges that make us feel like we may not be the primary audience for such technology.

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I am a big fan of calibre (for some reason the app’s official name is not capitalized). It is useful for building an ebook library, converting formats, and provides an excellent and supremely customizable reading experience on the Mac (or PC).

But do you read on your phone too? How? I have tried calibre’s web interface and it is passable but not ideal. Last I tried, it also did not sync highlights consistently.

There used to be an excellent ebook reader for iOS called Marvin. But it was not updated for years, and seems no longer to be on the App Store.

These days I use Apple Books on my phone. I do not like the big margins either, but I guess I just deal with that … and have gotten used to it, to an extent. For some reason, turning on “scroll mode” (rather than “paged mode”) mitigates my annoyance.

“But do you read on your phone too? How? I have tried calibre’s web interface and it is passable but not ideal.”

Try MapleRead. It’s not only very configurable, but has a built in OPDS library server, which is the same that calibre uses.

There are three flavors. CX is the free trial version; you can remove the 5? book limit with an in app purchase. CE is the standard epub version, SE also handles PDFs (not as well as goodreader) and has easier server config. I have all three because it’s faster to switch between apps than between books within the same app (any app I’ve tried).

All versions have a built in OPDS library server, which is the same that calibre uses.

I don’t know if it will sync annotations with calibre. It can sync between devices via mapleread servers but I don’t do that so I don’t know how well it works.

KyBook (several versions in the app store) also has OPDS, and can handle many more file formats. I have version 2 but I found MapleRead more to my taste, I no longer remember why. You might prefer an older version–the current one (3) requires a subscription at least for sync.

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