What’s Wrong With E-books

E-books have become quite popular in recent years, largely thanks to Amazon’s Kindle promotion. I own two devices suitable for e-book reading – an iPad 3 and a Sony e-ink reader, comparable to the Kindle Touch – and tried a variety of content over the months. Sadly, the results were rarely satisfactory, and some recent articles explain why.

Let’s tackle the uncontroversial issues first. Michael Clarke’s Why E-book Distribution Is Completely and Utterly Broken (and How to Fix It) lists the various ways in which the short-sighted greed of publishers and retailers diminishes the readers’ experience: proprietary formats, annoying copy protection, purchases treated as rentals, and nonsensical territorial restrictions. Obviously, print books have none of these drawbacks. Amazon will close your account for daring to import e-books, but they will happily import print books for you.

Many e-books also feature surprisingly poor editing. In October 2011, Karen Dionne discovered that “E” Stands for “Errors”; one year later, Laura June still asks Why is an ebook ever riddled with typos? Errors proliferate in e-books, and only there – including expensive editions of new books. Apparently, many e-books are either lazily scanned from print editions, without anyone proof-reading the OCR results; or else they are directly published from the author’s electronic draft, again without the print edition’s careful proof-reading. Theoretically, publishers might at least use the e-book’s digital nature to send out corrected versions; in practice, Amazon does not even allow such updates.

Commercial misbehavior aside, our e-readers are fundamentally flawed in several ways. Lev Grossman’s From Scroll to Screen compares three ways of delivering long texts: ancient scrolls, traditional “codex” books, and e-books. Codices were clearly superior to scrolls, and one might think e-books represent another clear-cut advance. But except for their lack of weight, e-books regress towards scrolls in terms of practical usability. The codex format physically divides information into tangible page units, perfectly adapted for human hands and eyes. This facilitates a kind of non-linear reading and “focused browsing” which is quite cumbersome on any current e-reader. Working around this issue might require some form of touch feedback system combined with instantaneous screen updates.

There is another reason why the e-book’s attempt to ditch traditional codex pagination is misguided. Lukas Mathis points out that every display surface constitutes a “page,” i.e. a unit of spatial organization; and exploiting this fact allows better content presentation. But this clashes with the e-book’s need to work across many different form factors. Arbitrary HTML-style reflowing prevents thoughtful content placement, whereas fixed PDF-style layout imposes certain minimal and optimal sizes on the reader device. Print books don’t have this problem: each book comes with its own perfect form factor. E-readers would need a dynamically resizable screen to match that.

On top of all that, there’s the well-known dilemma of electronic displays: you get either e-ink that’s easy to read but monochrome and impossibly slow, or fast & colorful LCD that glares in the dark and vanishes in sunlight. Neither can compete with the high-contrast clarity of a printed page, which has a far higher resolution to boot. At least reflective display technology is slowly making some progress.

Certainly, e-books are good enough for pulp fiction that accommodates (half-asleep) linear reading. But I found them quite hopeless for complex technical documents that benefit from precise page layouts, and that require frequent paging back and forth as I form a mental image of the subject matter. Only a double-page PDF viewer on my big desktop monitor is borderline acceptable for such texts. Hand-held e-readers have a long way to go.

2013-04-21: Ferris Jabr’s The Reading Brain in the Digital Age cites a wealth of studies which appear to show that printed paper allows for faster reading and better comprehension than electronic displays. Unfortunately, most of his sources are paywalled so you’ll have to trust his brief summaries.

5 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With E-books”

  1. You make good points throughout. E-books are typically of “lower quality” all around than paper books (DRM, graphics, so on). I would never use e-books for “technical documents”: I read those on my laptop (though I have high hopes that they may become readable on future tablets).

    But here are some counterpoints:

    1. Paper books take up a lot of space. I read a lot. I buy and read many books. Most times, I never read a book twice. So I like electronic books because they don’t clutter my living space. I don’t have to think about a book after I have read it.

    A couple of years ago, I got rid of 80% of all my paper books. It was a relief and I am not going back to the busy shelves. (I still own some paper books and I still buy them on occasion. This is not a religious matter.)

    2. I can carry my whole collection of books with me everywhere. I typically read, at any given time, 4 or 5 books. With electronic books, managing this is trivial.

    E-books are multi-device. I am a geek so I own many electronic toys and most of them can be used to read my books. Oh! And I get page synchronization across all devices. So it is better than having several copies of the same book.

    3. The Amazon e-book market has spurred a lot of competition and countless new writers have entered the market with very attractive prices and the ability to peek at their work before buying. Most books I buy are less than $5 and the most expensive I typically need to go to is $10. So for the same book budget, I get many more books. I have also been exploiting the “long tail” a lot more because I can peek at a much wider variety of authors. I am enjoying the ride. I get a more personalized experience.

    If you are sticking with big publishing houses, you are probably not getting the full e-book experience.

    4. As a Canadian, it can be surprisingly difficult to find some books for sale that are widely available in the USA or in Canada. And yes, I mean *paper book* and *e-book* alike. The workaround here is called “piratebay”. I pirate books that people don’t want to market in Canada.

    1. I certainly agree that e-books have many desirable traits, and I’d rather want them to fix their existing problems than go away entirely. Indeed they are already a great format for books you read once and don’t want to take up space, just in case you might want to read them again. That’s generally what I’m using my e-ink reader for.

      Cheaper prices and wider availability are good points where they exist, but I must say I’m not seeing that as often as I’d like. Publishers still tend to cling to their ability to keep prices high and supply limited, even when they are just damaging themselves. But e-books also allow authors to circumvent such publishers altogether, so things can only get better.

  2. Necro! I am an unabashed ebook fan. I don’t read technical documents but I can see your issue with those. It’s no surprise that non-fiction lags behind fiction in ebook sales.

    I find that I love holding an e-reader as opposed to a paper book. I have a Kobo Mini as an extremely portable, light e-ink device and an iPad Air as my normal e-reader. Both are light and easy to hold.

    One reason I prefer ebooks now with my iPad is suspect is quite idiosyncratic — I prefer to read white text on a black background. It’s easier on my eyes and I find I am less distracted while reading. I’ve gotten used to it and I have trouble going back now.

    1. White text on black background is seriously retro. Many programmers use that scheme in their text editors but it’s rare for reading. Are you perhaps still using a monochrome CRT with your computer? Green or amber? :p

      At any rate, ebooks seems to have stabilized at 10-20% of book sales, not surprisingly mostly taking over mass market fiction paperbacks. So it seems that both formats will remain with us for a long time, and I’ll probably keep buying paper books.

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