Books and eBooks Are Not The Same

Aegir Hallmundur writes over at The Ministry of Type,

The whole idea of pages bound like that is an artifact of a particular printing technology — it’s the nature of the delivery medium, not the message. So when we have a digital book, we’re using technology that has its own set of conventions, its own restrictions and its own freedoms, and every bit of digital technology has some means of moving through any arbitrary content: a keyboard has cursor keys, page up and page down keys, a mouse has a scroll wheel, laptops have trackpads with scroll areas, and smartphones have touchscreens, joysticks or D-pads.

My concern with pageless eBooks has been that they eliminate two of the most important elements of design: the top and bottom of the rectangle that describes the page. All graphics, pull-quotes, and everything must be both inline and may only address the right and left margins.

But now I’m rethinking it. Pages are arbitrary breaks, dictated by the size of paper that’s convenient to print on. Without them, we have:

  • Right margin
  • Left margin
  • Right third
  • Left third
  • Paragraph top
  • Paragraph bottom

The big difference here is that the left and right margins are dictated by the medium, but the top and bottom are dictated by the context. That is very, very interesting to me. We’re also missing the top and bottom third now, unless paragraphs are meant to fit onscreen by themselves. This might be a problem, since we don’t know font size.

I also have some concerns that, with font size a variable, the column width is liable to get too great or small for easy legibility. Even newspapers and mass market paperbacks usually manage to keep it between 7 and 12 words (about 65 words per line, give or take a dozen or so), but the eBook readers I’ve looked at don’t care about that at all, which is a problem.

(Thanks to the glueyest of monotremes!)

0 thoughts on “Books and eBooks Are Not The Same”

  1. Back in the day, publishers figured out the “right” size for hardcovers versus paperbacks; the “right” color of paper and the “right” darkness of ink for highest visibility and contrast, and lowest eye strain; and the “right” font and size for best readability.

    Funny how we’re now faced with a new set of concerns with digital publications. To a degree, medium *is* the message, so we have to (re)address these concerns in order to move forward again.

    We’re not reinventing the wheel in toto, but it does feel like we’re constantly tinkering with part of it.

  2. Apropos: I suffered my first significant failure from a book a few days ago. Playing Final Fantasy XII with a Brady Games guide, I found it maddening trying to reference certain things I know I’d read before in it, or find certain entries, due to their bizarre arrangement. If I’d only had a PDF of the book instead, it wouldn’t have been flopping around my couch with its massive size and weight, and I could have searched for the keywords I needed on my iPad.

  3. Funny how we’re now faced with a new set of concerns with digital publications. To a degree, medium *is* the message, so we have to (re)address these concerns in order to move forward again.

    Of course we do. That’s what happens when you change media. The concern is that, by adhering to standards that come from a different medium, we’re making this current one *worse*.

    We’re not reinventing the wheel in toto, but it does feel like we’re constantly tinkering with part of it.

    But that’s like saying that the pneumatic tire is reinventing the wheel. This is a real change of medium, and pulp-colored pages are training wheels.

  4. We’re not changing the content, which is the purpose of the wheel. To mix metaphors, perhaps we’re changing the car into the hovercar?

    I am reminded of the line from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. When Ford Prefect asks why the Golgafrinchans are arguing over economic policy rather than doing something practical like inventing the wheel, the marketing girl’s retort is, “Well, if you’re so smart, you tell me what *color* it should be!”

    I think a lot of this early epub stuff is worrying about what color our new wheel should be, rather than realizing rolling along’s not good enough any more…

  5. This metaphor has become strained.

    Figuring out how to provide rich content while doing what text does best — provide (surprisingly) nonlinear data — is the challenge here, right?

    Text works best, in my opinion, when something requires thought while interacting with it. When watching a video, you have to absorb, rather than consider, unless the director has specifically given you space to do so. When reading, you stop for a moment, consider, go back a paragraph, even jump ahead, all the time.

    Illustrations can play a part in that to any degree, but inserting any but the shortest videos suddenly requires you to do a different thing, where looking at an illustration, or even manipulating a 3d model, doesn’t. You can do those things now with PDF, though I don’t think there’s a way to depaginate* PDFs.

    Let’s find out!

    So, until I read that, I’m going to propose this:

    Digital Texts should have inline images and graphics (including manipulable 3d and 2d objects, like 3d illustrations or manipulable graphs), but use of video should be discouraged in favor of nonlinear, explorable information.

    Because text legibility relies on column width, the default format should be vertical, but non-vertical texts should absolutely be possible — comics, for instance, or large visualizations. Scott McCloud has gone into this quite a bit.

    So, when we start like this, what does the format look like?

    Or is this not where it should be going? Let us discuss!

    * Heh. I just had to teach spellcheck “depaginate”. I suspect I’m going to be using it much more in the future.

  6. I think I’ll experiment with this with a game design – probably something free I can just put up on the web – but basic hypertext always struck me as fitting a lot of this bill. As long as keywords were linked to either sections or a glossary entry (ideally, a glossary entry combined with a index referencing all appearances in the text), it would solve a lot of problems regarding game *reference*. Linear readability, or at least the expectation of consuming the *entire* text prior to first play, would be a little bit trickier.

  7. I’ve always thought that was something we had to live with. I love jumping around in Wikipedia, for instance, but I acknowledge the fact I might totally forget where I started (Back button notwithstanding).

    Conceptualize less disruptive cross-referencing, and let’s talk, because that’s where I’m stuck.

  8. Hmm. I may have solved my own problem: tabs or columnation. I started by thinking of pop-up sidebars, but then thought about clicking on another link inside a sidebar. We get into space constraints pretty quickly, but I think it might work.

    Certainly, I wish blogs could do this. I really tire of Rob’s footnotes and want either pop-ups/mouseovers or sidebars lined up with the note.

  9. I’d like to take it further: a Talmud-like dataspace, like so:

    Pop open a div, see the hypertext. Maybe even make main text flow around the new div (the converse of the Talmud method) so you can read both. Scroll within the small new div to read more, and have an embiggen button for when you really want to wander off to read the whole doc, using the back button to return.

    Oh, you could have scrolling pull-text! Sidebars only go the length of the screen and scroll separately from the main text. You can pop it open and closed, from a single sentence (designated by style) to minimize screen distraction.

    And speaking of distraction, I gotta go work on Human Contact.

  10. Hey joshua! Any chance that Shock is going to be published on the Kindle or iPad?

    I hope so!

    I know you are out of print right now. But I don’t really use paper books anymore anyway.

    I’m glad you offer the rules on PDF, but could you also distribute them in e-book format?

    PDF’s are a pain in the butt to read on a Kindle. You need a magnifying glass.

    Check out this article to see how you can publish on the iPad for almost no cost:

    http://media.venturebeat.com/2010/03/28/self-published-electronic-books-to-make-it-to-apples-ipad/

    I’d rather you published with Kindle (as that’s what I have right now), but I’m sure a lot of other people would be interested in getting the rules in different formats as well…

  11. It’s worth investigating, to be sure. It will take an entirely new design, though, so I’m surely not doing it anytime soon.

    I’m actually not out of print any more. I just didn’t get around to updating the Un-Store page today! I’ll do it tomorrow. Man. Crazy days for me.

    It’s really a new design medium. I need to learn how to work with it before I publish with it.

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