Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

How ebooks could become real books

At the beginning of June, I made an attempt to explain “Why ebooks aren’t real books”. Ebooks have limitations that printed books don’t, some of them (as I said in that post) arbitrarily imposed, but others dictated by the nature of the format. I devoted a lot of that post to questions of typography and layout. Ebooks, for example, can’t display footnotes properly at the bottom of the page, because the “page” in a reflowable text is not a fixed unit, just a half-hearted gesture at emulatimg the printed page, intended to make the ebook more closely resemble its traditional counterpart. It’s this “worst of both worlds” approach that tends to put me off ebooks.

You may have noticed that I added “at the bottom of the page” to my assertion that ebooks can’t display footnotes properly. That’s because the epub 3 format is fully capable of displaying a “footnote”, not at the foot of the page, but as a popup. For most purposes (though not Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship), this will actually be a preferable alternative to print-style footnotes.

Another cavil I had was that ebooks tend not to use different font faces to represent handwriting, typewriting and various embedded documents (such as photocopies, faxes or forms), as the print versions often do. Again, this is something that publishers could do. So why don’t they? One has the impression that, for many traditional publishers, ebooks are (still) an afterthought. The editing/typesetting process finally produces a text file which is automatically processed to make an epub version with minimal further editorial attention. To put it another way, the traditional publishing houses don’t really seem to care about ebooks. They’re just a by-product of the real thing.

Strangely enough, given that they tend to be much more dependent on electronic publication than their traditional counterparts, the same seems to be true of many self-publishers. Often, they will simply upload an inadequately or inconsistently formatted Word file to KDP, Draft2Digital and/or Smashwords and hope for the best. If publishers, indie and traditional alike, were prepared to pay more attention to the details of presentation, look and feel of their ebooks, they could easily produce something that, though different from a printed book, was not inferior to it.

It’s not that my experience reading ebooks has been uniformly (or even mainly) bad. It’s rather that I’m never sure whether I can trust the publisher to have made a reasonable effort to replicate (more or less) the sense of reading the printed book. (The case of Sophie Hannah’s A Game for All the Family, mentioned in my previous post, is a good example.) Publishers can and should nurture that trust by reading through their ebooks before sending them out into the world, thinking about the ways that the electronic format differs from the printed one, and looking for ways to make the two experiences, if not identical, at least of equal value.

Since writing the previous post, I’ve read three printed novels and four ebooks. The printed books were all by Alan Glynn: Winterland, Bloodland and Graveland. Two of the ebooks were by another Irish writer, Dervla McTiernan. They are The Ruin and The Scholar. The other two, which I bought as ebooks primarily because they were on special offer, were Karin Slaughter’s The Good Daughter and My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing.

Reading Glynn’s books in paperback and McTiernan’s on an iPad were really quite comparable experiences. I saw copies of McTiernan’s books in a bookshop shortly after I’d finished The Scholar and I did feel a twinge of regret that I didn’t have the physical object sitting on a shelf somewhere. But in some ways, I actually preferred the iPad. My copy of the middle book in Glynn’s series, Bloodland, is a trade paperback that I bought secondhand and not in very good condition. I try to avoid trade paperbacks as another “worst of both worlds” format: almost as bulky and unwieldy as a hardback but without the high quality paper and sewn binding. At least a book on the iPad always has pleasing dimensions and a manageable weight.

But there’s one problem with ebooks that will in practice be nearly impossible to overcome. In my earlier post, I complained that Apple Books and other ebook suppliers won’t let you delete a book from your library permanently. You can hide it or remove it from the device but it’s always there in the background, ready to resurface and remind you that you once read, or started to read, or thought you might read … well, I’m not going to mention any names, but I’m sure that there are books like that in your reading history. I got rid of some of them when I deleted my Amazon account but, short of doing the same thing with Apple, I’m going to have some of these books with me for the rest of my days.

I’m not holding my breath waiting for Apple to change their policy on ebook deletion. It’s a developer mindset: you never get rid of anything, just in case. Storage is cheap and plentiful and ebook files tend to be quite small; if you don’t want to be reminded of that particular book, just ignore it and try to forget it was ever there. Better still, buy more and crowd out the undesirable ones. Just remember to try to make better choices next time.

This leads to a paradox: because of the mistrust I talked about above, I tend to buy the books that really matter to me in print, and only those that I consider more or less disposable as ebooks. But the books I think of as “disposable” turn out to be the ones that are impossible to get rid of. In the end, it’s that one factor more than anything else that keeps me from embracing ebooks wholeheartedly. Apple could fix it. But I don’t expect them to.

Posted by Art, 3-Aug-2019