eBooks rant • 27 September 2011 • The SnowBlog
Commercially speaking, ebooks are huge, but I'm continually struck by how unready they are for the spotlight. There's a long list of things that need to happen before ebooks are ready for widespread popularity - despite the fact that moment has already passed. Bear in mind I've been saying 'the ebooks are coming' for years - and I've been fairly happy about that prospect. But currently we're in an awkward transition phase full of problems which I think should have been ironed out five years ago.
I've blogged before about how some high-profile e-titles are sold in their hundreds of thousands full of formatting and text problems which would be considered a scandal in a print edition. For instance, Kindle editions of Stieg Larsson books contained characters which wouldn't display properly on iPads and iPhones. Can you imagine a situation where a paper edition of a global bestseller had an ellipsis replaced by a row of square boxes? Reviewers would be disgusted and proofreaders would be fired - and possibly sued. The situation is of course far worse in lots of lower profile ebooks.
Ebook pricing is still pretty questionable too - giving rise to situations where a canny shopper can sometimes order a paper book for less than the equivalent download. We're still trying to decide what rights are granted to an ebook owner (and whether we even consider it 'ownership' from a legal standpoint or merely rental) but one thing is for sure: ebook terms will be more restrictive than the paper equivalents, so the current price parity seems counterintuitive. In the UK we also have the nonsense of VAT applying to ebooks but not to paper books. This is apparently because an 'ebook' is not considered to be a type of book. That's an assertion which clearly needs challenging in court (and I know just the barrister to do it, if anyone wants to put up the cash.)
Moreover, our ebook standards are riddled with holes: epub 2.0.1 is full of inconsistencies and failings, some of which threaten to make successful titles unusable and the Kindle format has similar problems too. For instance, some of the earliest adopters of technology such as ebook readers are programmers, and these people will naturally want to buy programming manuals in electronic form. Unfortunately I've owned several tech books where snippets of example code make no sense because part of the comment from the previous line wraps around and appears on its own line, making you think it's a separate command. This only goes away when the text size is set to its tiniest size which is much smaller than the default most people will see. When you're learning a new language you absolutely need to know what's a command and what's a comment. This is never a problem with paper editions (people would demand a refund) but it's cropped up several times in just my tiny technical library. We're talking about full-price books by reputable publishers which risk not being fit for purpose.
And our DTP software - InDesign being a prime example - handles the creation of ebooks as though it's some obscure feature that the programmers don't really expect anyone to use - and consequently it doesn't matter if it fails often and requires ingenuity and doggedness to use. Ebook creation is non-existent or broken in earlier versions of InDesign and barely usable in the latest CS 5.5 version. And when you preview your ebooks in the software Adobe provides you get minimal feedback about potential problems and can easily sign off on a file which will fail to display perfectly in other e-reader software.
And finally, electronic e-readers still aren't as good as they could be. The super-popular current generation Kindle has a horrible experimental browser built into it which you sometimes need to use to connect to public wifi. I've failed to make a connection on many occasions. And no backlight? I regularly end up using my iPad to read ebooks rather than turn on a light so I can use my Kindle. And of course it needs a way for you to actually buy ebooks that doesn't seem like an afterthought - or doesn't assume you have a laptop handy, thus undermining part of the point of a Kindle. But maybe that will change soon, because...
The new Kindle reader is due out any minute and if it's any good Amazon will presumably sell millions over the Christmas period. I do hope when the lucky recipients of a Christmas Kindle download their first ebook the title they want has actually been made available and they don't discover a weirdly priced, weirdly formatted disappointment. We set our standards so high when it comes to printing on paper; I do hope we'll get our act together on the digital side of the industry before we sell too many more millions of ebooks and take much more of our customers' money.