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eBooks and the Limits of Technology

24 March 2016

From The Writers’ Block Blog:

I feel indebted to Esther Porter and Kurtis Scaletta at the Loft for editing my story of a bold Chinese heroine fighting the establishment for the greater good into three hundred crisp pages that have formed into my favorite book ever. (Leave it to writers like ourselves to think our own work is the best ever, but that really is how I feel.)

I’m in the heart-wrenching process of converting my beautiful paperback meant for bookstores like Common Good Books to an ebook version for sale online everywhere later in the year. I am finding surprising limits to our current epub technology that I want to share between you and me, writer to writer. As a consumer of ebooks I never realized what I was giving up when buying the electronic version of a book.

. . . .

 My printed book was designed by Alan Pranke to take the shape and 3D form of an old wood jewelry box containing… get ready for this… a severed hand of a baby, which is central to the novel’s plot. In contrast, the ebook cover is disappointingly flat. It is no box. The smell and the weight of a book or box is not there. This is a complaint you usually hear from book loyalists.

. . . .

 More surprising to me though is that all of the tasteful typesetting that MK Ross and I have been laboring over for what feels like a year of final edits were instantly washed away by the ebook. The carefully considered spacing between words, the choice of font size and grouping of words on a line were, well, gone. The text defaults to each user’s own past settings and specs. It pains me to look at my labor of love wrung through the wash like this on my iPad. I understand the benefit of giving each reader the ability to make the text readable—of course older eyes need bigger text—but this way removes the visual poetry of the page layout that we authors struggle over to make just right. I now understand why publishers of experimental novels like mine might not offer an ebook version.

Link to the rest at The Writers’ Block Blog and thanks to Nikki for the tip.

Books in General, Covers

44 Comments to “eBooks and the Limits of Technology”

  1. It’s not a bug: it’s a feature.
    When it comes to reading, the reader’s eyeballs have the final word. Whch is exactly as it should be.

    If “visual poetry” matters, don’t do it as an ebook: do it via digital paper (pdf, dejvu, etc) the way corporate brochures and archival copies are done.

    Ebooks are about content, not appearance.

  2. I format my ebooks in a simple manner that takes account of the fact that it might be read on a hundred or a thousand different devices. I don’t much like Amazon putting an indent on what should have been a block paragraph. Even my PODs are pretty simple, and yet at least you can get it to stick.

    • Whereas I always reformat e-books in Calibre to have indents rather than block paragraphs, because I prefer indented paragraphs. Funny how that works.

      • Yeah, my text has indents but I don’t see why my disclaimer or bio would need them. I have a poetry collection and every line is indented. I should give Caliber a try.

  3. Waaa … I can’t sell my coloring books as ebooks either! Not unless I also give them special colors to use and they clean the screen very carefully after each page …

  4. OK – is this a Poe?
    “My book feels particularly unique because readers open the book on page 333 to begin the story. The pages are labeled in reverse order down to page one. My book is literally titled levon a (a novel backwards). The paperback is a treat to flip through. There is power in flipping pages down to one, and the page numbers provide readers with a visual cue that each page takes a step back in time.”

    And … the author asks the reader to keep the image of a baby’s severed hand as a major plot point, but despairs of losing exquisite typography for this reading experience?

    I call Poe’s Law.

    • I have a friend who spent years reading manga backwards before he figured out they were the other way around from English comics.

    • Doesn’t appear to be. Looks like Radke is utterly sincere in the experience he intends. levon a is on Amazon, and appears to be laid out as described.

      That said, it’s weird to think of ebooks and the “limits” of technology, because an ebook is by its nature limited in terms of what can be created. I mean, I get everything Radke is saying —

      and it sounds like he just wants to make an app. Which, fine.

      I’m reminded specifically of Device 6, which was an app that kind of crossed a game with a book.

      • The fundamental problem is that it’s easier to push the envelope in printed books. You can be precisely as idiosyncratic as you want, and make your book into an objet d’art if that’s the way your fancy takes you.

        But e-books are designed to fit the lowest common denominator of books where all that fancy stuff is immaterial—which is 99.99% of every other book ever published. There’s simply not sufficient demand to engineer a fancier format when books that need it are extremely rare.

  5. Having read her whole article I kind of understand where she’s coming from and am a bit more sympathetic than I was after reading PG’s extracts.

    However, I doubt that many readers will care about the hard work she’s put into the typesetting and the reverse page numbering and don’t understand why she didn’t publish a PDF if the exact appearance matters so much.

    • Exactly.
      All the major bookstores have their own fixed format solution so it’s not as if reflowable/reformatable ebooks are the only option.

      It’s like trying to cut wood with a hammer instead of picking up the saw.

    • FYI, it’s a “he.” 🙂

      • Me bad!

        I should have noticed the “Jeff” at the top of the page, though I did once know a girl called Jeff so …

        It’s a bit weird, but at some time my default assumption seems to have changed to be that authors I know nothing about are female. I’m not sure when this happened or why.

    • I put a LOT of work into the typesetting/format part – and it looks just the way I want it to – and you are welcome to purchase it in the PAPER version.

      Otherwise, just do the Look Inside thing on the paper version, and, once you start reading the ebook, your brain will supply the same image to the book.

      Brains are amazing things, and readers are amazingly smart. They can handle it.

    • Most readers are reading James Patterson. So what does that tell you?

  6. I totally get the idea of book as art, but .mp3 files aren’t LP’s, or 8 tracks, either.

    As Felix above mentions there are other options than epub. There’s also apps which can display it exactly the way you want it.

    I don’t think it’s an issue of ‘experimental’ authors versus others. I think it’s an issue of the creator wanting their content consumed in a very, very specific way. Like a movie director not wanting their movie watched anywhere but on a movie screen because that shows it off best.

    • Once something is made and released to the world, it belongs to consumers, not the creator.

      Great masterpieces were not meant by their creators to end up in museums – they were sold to the highest bidder by the painter so he could eat and send his kids to school. Sometimes a private collector will buy and keep one for the privilege of viewing it exclusively – or just knowing she has something no one else can see.

      But creator-control – beyond some forms of theater (the author’s words are not meddled with nearly as much as for film) – is an illusion. The director and actors will have their say, and will do Romeo and Juliet on Mars.

      If you don’t want anyone doing anything to your creation, you’re going to have to keep it private and destroy it before you die.

      • Not entirely, especially in this one instance, since he has the option of never putting out an eBook. But overall I was pointing out that it’s a desire to control at the root.

        In the past control was much easier. Then control slipped away from producers. Now the fact that most content is ‘leased’ not owned opens up new avenues for control, or at least a control of legal sale and transmission.

        In a weird way the push of U2’s album on iTunes demonstrates how little control consumers can have if the producers are willing to push it and ignore backlash.

        • And I think there’s a balance in ways, too. Like, just in the past few months I’ve eaten at two separate places, one an airport bar and the other an upscale restaurant, and both were places where the chefs just decided to control the experience. Which I think is kind of awesome, and somewhat like the Japanese practice of omakase, in which the chef designs the entire meal and experience and the consumer does nothing but eat it.

          Sometimes, when I go out and order a steak and am asked how I want it cooked, or this or that option, I’m often like, “Hey, you didn’t hire me for the kitchen. Tell the chef to make this dish as best as can possibly be, like the Platonic ideal of that dish, and I’ll happily eat it.”

          Tables of contents for ebooks has been a frequent topic of conversation lately, and I’ve mentioned I go back and forth. I know some readers like them to revisit favorite scenes, but I think that’s what the bookmark function is for. For some longform digital fiction, I simply don’t make a TOC. People can protest, but you know, for a while I had a bit of an issue that Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels never had chapter breaks, because it made it hard to put them down and keep a sense of my place. But eventually I got used to it, and I’ve read and enjoyed pretty much everything Sir Terry ever wrote.

          In other words, I appreciate when a master craftsman aims to create a perfect experience, and I’m happy when they do. And honestly, Alicia, I know some people who collect art, and they often work with the artists from whom they buy pieces. I’ve known people who have consulted with the artists and hired contractors and built specialized ways to display the art. I’ve also known people who’ve hired artists to make pieces designed, from the ground up, for where they intend to display them.

          I’m also reminded that, when it comes to digital music, albums are often an afterthought because digital downloads were all. But I know of some artists who wanted their work experienced in a particular way, and so, rather than release ten three minute songs individually, they simply released one half-hour long mp3 that included all the songs.

          It’s a brave, cool new world for artistry. And so darned much fun.

  7. I now understand why publishers of experimental novels like mine might not offer an ebook version.

    That sounds like a good idea for this book.

  8. “The carefully considered spacing between words, the choice of font size and grouping of words on a line were, well, gone.”

    She is an author, and her role is to be writing, not typesetting.

    • I think the quote implies he isn’t an author, but an artist.

      While it’s something I’m totally uninterested in reading, or viewing, I think they are going for a visual experience along with the reading.

      • If you want a visual experience while reading then what you want is not a book but something else.

        • I remember the original version of A Neverending Story. It was beautifully visual. If I recall, the first half of the book was in red, then halfway through, you had to flip the book upside down to keep reading, and the print was green, and then some of it was green and red words all mixed together. It was a book, it was art, it was a lovely story, it was beautiful. And sadly, I no longer have that book. Now I need to go find another one.

        • Like I said above it’s not my cup of tea. But, books as art appeals to some, like those interested in reading the old hand drawn and illustrated books.

  9. …to take the shape and 3D form of an old wood jewelry box containing… get ready for this… a severed hand of a baby…

    Gotta say it: ewwwwwww!

  10. OK: I have just noticed that if you take the French words for “a novel” (un roman) and write them in reverse order just like this author did, you get : “Namor nu”, which could be translated as “Namor naked”. Much more interesting than “Levon a”. But maybe a bit confusing, since the story doesn’t seem to revolve around paranormal human-siren erotica.

    Sorry for this.

  11. I see no reason for eBooks to reproduce the aesthetics of paper books. EBooks are meant to be read. They are containers for words to be read.

    When I see an elaborately formatted book that is meant to be seen and handled as much as or more than it is meant to be read, I might look at it for a minute, but I would never buy it because that kind of object is not to my taste. I wish the author well, and I hope he has an audience, but I am not part of it.

    eBooks and paper books intersect in that most paper books are primarily intended to be read like eBooks. However, the aesthetics of the eBook and paper book experiences, other than reading itself, are much different.

    eBook aesthetics favor a book design that scales smoothly from large type to minuscule; type that is easily readable on a Kindle, Windows, Android, and i.*; a table of contents and cross references that take me where I want to go. These are features that improve the reading experience.

    Paper books have tactile, olfactory, and visual characteristics that eBooks don’t have. If someone wants to exercise art on these, fine. But it doesn’t interest me because I am a reader, not a toucher, smeller, or visual connoisseur.

    Phillistine that I am, I don’t take well to the implication that one set of aesthetics is better than another.

    As for descending page numbers, how sputnik…

  12. I used to acquire some books purely for their beauty. But these days, if it’s not in ebook format, I tend to skip it and browse some more.

    Poetry and art books are the only ones that I would love to have in objets d’art form. Just my preference.

  13. This is not about the limits of technology at all. EBooks are all about the content. They are wonderful for those who want to read the story. I read what this author tried to do with this book and think “gimmick”. It makes me wonder how good the story itself is if these gimmicks are required. I have not read the book, so this could be totally unfair. But I won’t read it, because I am in the market for stories, and the only works of art I am interested in are stories which are themselves works of art. I acknowledge that the author must have put in a lot of hard work and has produced what to them is a work of art. And like all works of art, some will love and appreciate it. Amongst ebook readers, most will not. It’s like a sculptor wanting to produce a version of their statue in a painting complaining that the painting has only two dimensions.

  14. Dear author,

    It’s the words that count, not the ‘pretties’. …But, if you know what you’re doing or hire someone who does, your eBook can still ‘wow’. You just have to be willing to spend the time and money.

  15. If he is unhappy with the compromises required to release his artwork as an ebook, just wait until they start working on the audio book! (“The book opens with a hardwood cover suggestive of a small wooden box. The faint smell of Cedar and fresh ink rises to your nostrils as you contemplate the dropped-capital ‘A’… “)

    Seriously, anyone who adapts a work of art from one medium to another has to realize that significant additional creative effort will be required. Think of adapting a book to a movie, or a drama to a musical or opera. The author started out wanting a distinctive work of visual art, then decided to change media to ordinary book form in order to cash in on a mass publication format. It turned out to need effort and artistic compromise. No surprise to me. No sympathy from me.

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