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A page from an e-book, Northern Renaissance Art (2008)

A new post by Todd Carpenter on Scholarly Kitchen pays tribute to the e-book, on its 50th anniversary. It is of course a tale of success – but also a tale of failure. According to Todd, the first e-book ever posted was the US Declaration of Independence (hardly a book, but never mind); and this e-book was the foundation of Project Gutenberg, which now comprises over 60,000 works.

Now, if I had to draw up a list of the triumphs and failures of the e-book, I wouldn’t include Project Gutenberg; but that is for another post. Nor would I consider the duration of copyright, which is a worthwhile topic, but not germane to the history of the e-book. Much more relevant is that for users, e-books are far too frustrating to use.

  1. There is a proliferation of e-book formats, most of them incompatible. Amazon’s Kindle and Adobe Digital Editions both (I am told) use a variety of the epub format, but with their own encryption (known as DRM, or digital rights management). Moreover, they store their e-books in different locations, often hidden.  The result is chaos. I think of myself as an enthusiastic user of e-books, but I have several folders containing e-books on each of my devices, each from a different vendor. Which e-book did I save where? With a bit of ingenuity, it is possible (I am told) to get all these formats united and in a single location for all e-books – but why should this be necessary? Do I have seven different libraries for my print books? I recently bought an e-book from Kobo, but it was only later, when I looked up formats (a helpful Wikipedia article that shows the many formats and the many variations in their capabilities) that I learned that this e-book will be held in epub format, and hence viewable on other e-book readers – if I succeed in locating it, then copying it. This is a bit like the early railway system in Britain, with a proliferation of gauges and incompatibilities. Can I even find the books I own? Can I search for keywords across my PC or smartphone to see all the e-books I own? Almost certainly not! For example, I bought an e-book edition of the Oxford History of Art on Northern Renaissance Art. Who knows where on my system it might be? After trying each of four different e-book repositories, I found it as a Kindle book – but only after going to the Web to see in what formats this e-book is available.
  2. Then there is the mess of e-book conversion. Many academic e-books were created (I imagine) by conversion from PDF, and the limitations of the PDF format have persisted into the e-book, without, it seems, any further attempt by the publisher to tidy up the text. Publishers who would not dream of allowing even one or two errors in proofing for a print title seem remarkably relaxed about poor-quality e-book standards. It can be compared to the worst aspects of software startups, who aim to release the first version of a product for public consumption, warts and all, expecting to fix the problems in a later release. Except that major publishers do not, or should not, behave like casual software startups. In the extract below, notice the loss of spaces between sentences, and the breaking up of the name “Nuremberg”:
Sample page from an e-book, Northern Renaissance Art

Finally, there is the poor quality of e-book formats. On the few occasions when I have tried buying an e-book with illustrations, I have been dismayed by the poor quality of the image and the cumbersome way it appears on the device on which I am reading it. For example, (another example from Northern Renaissance Art, I’m afraid) the picture captions are all in a tiny-sized typeface that is all but illegible compared to the typeface of the running text – see the photo at the top of this post.

When will we see e-books genuinely usable, and findable, and of a publishable quality? When will publishers finally care about the quality of the e-books they are providing?