Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

More thoughts about ebooks and real books

My recent posts, Why ebooks aren’t real books and How ebooks could become real books, have misled some people into assuming that I think it’s usually or always preferable to read from the printed page rather than from a screen. It’s easy to see how those posts, read in isolation, could have conveyed that message, but the impression they give is quite wrong. I read off a screen all the time and I fully intend to keep doing so. Having bought a daily newspaper every day from January 1988 (at the very earliest) until the middle of 1997, I then turned my attention to the newspapers’ websites and now I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve bought a printed newspaper in the past 22 years. I continue to read The Guardian and The Irish Times every day, but with the difference that these days I’m more likely to visit Slate and Vox first. My argument isn’t with electronic publication or with LCD or eInk screens, it’s specifically with ebooks as a form.

The standard format for publication of ebooks — among other forms of digital publication — is EPUB, the current version of which is EPUB 3. EPUB 3 is based on XHTML and is, I’m told, as flexible and versatile as HTML 5. However, although the current specification has been publicly available since 2011, as of two years ago the majority of ebooks were still published in EPUB 2 or an equivalent Kindle format, and I suspect that that the situation hasn’t changed much in the meantime. Broadly speaking, while the two formats are similar, HTML 5 has the advantage over PUB3 that it can be read in any browser, while EPUB 3 has the advantage that a large bundle of resources (e.g. a “book”) can be published as a single file.

For one reason or another, actually existing ebooks tend not to take full advantage of the range of possibilities that EPUB 3 offers. My complaint is that electronic publication offers the opportunity to break free of the constraints of traditional publishing, but that publishers (traditional and indie alike) are sadly failing to take that opportunity.

Have you written a number of short stories but not enough for a collection? Great, the book-length collection is probably not the optimal delivery mechanism for short stories in any case. Does the story you want to write work better as a short novella or even a novelette? If so, it might not be an economic proposition as a printed work but that’s no longer a reason to leave gathering virtual dust on your hard disk. But whatever form you decide to publish it in, it’s probably helpful to stop thinking of it as a “book”. Think about the possibility that the web, rather than the Kindle store or Apple Books, may be the natural place to publish your work.

I’ve previously suggested that we need an ereading subscription service that isn’t (as the offerings from Kindle Unlimited, Kobo and Scribd are) based on ebooks. The foundations of such a service may already be present in Medium.

I’ve experimented with posting fiction of differing lengths on Medium (including a novel, a novella and a novelette (long short story) and I’m happy with the result. I’ll probably post any fiction I may write in future on my own website, as I did with this very short story. If you want to publish even fairly lengthy works in a widely accessible format, there’s no need to limit yourself to “books”, whether printed or digital.

Posted by Art, 17-Aug-2019