eHouston, We’ve Got A Problem

ETA: This has been sitting in my drafts folder for almost a week, and I had every intention of letting it languish there indefinitely because it read too much like a rant, and I’ve been doing too much ranting lately.

But then I saw this DA post and changed my mind, because the crux of it has suddenly become all too relevant.


Think the golden age of digital publishing is finally upon us? Well…someone grab that eagle, because it’s nowhere near ready to land.

Digital publishing has problems. SERIOUS problems, and if the problems aren’t solved, we could be doing irreperable harm to the very industry we’re trying to promote.

I’m talking today about print convention —  the many spatial and symbolic building blocks that relay an incredible amount of information to readers, without words. Things like indents, font type, white space, dashes (Kindle’s still Latin1? Really? Hell-ooo), double quotation marks, font sizing, pagebreaks, and etc.

I’ve recently taken part in a grueling production system overhaul. My goal was to ensure Lyrical’s ebooks would be xml compliant in order to keep them viable for some time to come. I learned very early on that html/xhtml and print convention do not work and play well together. It is extremely hard to mimic crucial print convention in a digital medium.

If you’ve ever tried to post an excerpt on your blog or website, you no doubt know exactly what I’m talking about: the excerpt ends up laborious reading because the spatial requirements of print convention are dang near impossible to reproduce without a whole heck of a lot of CSS.  

If you were working with a web designer to perfect this, and ultimately gave up, consider yourself forgiven — the coders think you’re being ridiculously picky when you’re only trying to please your readers.

Add to this another problem: the device developers want toys, options, bells and whistles to make their devices appealing to consumers. So what do they think is appealing?

San-serif font, apparently. Yet there’s a very good reason why traditional print books use serif fonts. If you don’t know what it is, you probably shouldn’t be developing reading technologies.

And then we arrive at my own personal nemesis: indent depth. This has been turned  into a “user setting” so readers can “personalize their reading experience”, which has caused many devices to completely ignore any CSS controlling that vital print convention, and often results in no, or too shallow, an indent to clearly define the start of a new paragraph.

For anyone who just thought “big deal,” let me explain why my knickers are braided about this frontlines battle in the xml vs. print convention wars. As a parent volunteer, I spent a lot of hours being read to by kids at a local elementary school. Everyone ought to be just as concerned by the following as I was:

A boy was reading to me, tracing his finger along a line of narrative. He kept getting hung up from one line to the next because the indents in the book were so shallow, he didn’t understand that one paragraph had ended and another had started, and thought he’d missed something.

This boy was 7 years old. He already knew the print convention. The convention wasn’t followed, and he got frustrated to the point he very nearly gave up. Had it been anyone else but me sitting there, able to explain that he was 100% right that the print didn’t make things clear enough, and that the book was at fault, not him, our industry might have lost him forever.

Yes, I did just use a poorly printed traditional book as an example. Read on.

Now hand that same kid an ereader and let him go nuts with the settings. Will he understand why the book is so dang hard to read? No. Chances are, some crazy old editor won’t be sitting next to him explaining print convention.

Yeah, user preference settings are great, when you know what you’re doing. Most readers won’t understand the consequences of print convention’s absence, and they shouldn’t have to. Publishing isn’t merely the act of distribution. Publishing is, in large part, quality assurance, and coders, designers and manufacturers are now just as much a part of publishing as authors and editors.

In all the haste to add user features (and God forbid value) to ereaders, the device  manufacturers don’t seem to understand the mantle of responsibility they’re so eager to wiggle into. People won’t buy devices just to set them on a shelf. They’ll want to actually use them. But what happens to reading enjoyment in stock projections, market share and patents? Do the corporate and tech sides forget what makes reading enjoyable in the first place?

Given everything I’ve learned in the last two years, I’m forced to conclude they do, so here I am with a reminder. The desire of any reader is to FORGET THEY’RE READING and become completely caught up in the story. Bells, whistles, toys…they’re distractions rather than desirable features.

Which brings me to display errors: As an editor, I am all over anything that breaks immersion. Any distraction or disruption in the reading experience can cause a reader to put a book down and never pick it up again.

Explain to me, coders, why it is in any way acceptable to have illegal character boxes or big huge blank spaces in ebooks. Yes, there’s a coding error in the ebook file itself. But you know what? eBook publishers wouldn’t have to produce 90 different file types in 90 different character sets if the manufacturers weren’t quite so eager to hogtie their consumers with proprietary file types.

That’s how mistakes happen. That’s how immersion gets broken, and that’s how our industry is losing the fight we ourselves started.

We’re already bucking a few hundred years of print tradition by taking books digital. If we ignore the importance of print convention — and the neurological processes going on behind the scenes — with our shiny new medium, we are damaging, maybe irreparably, the experience of reading for many generations to come.

It’s imperative that device developers, xml coders and traditional print publishers have a meeting of the minds now, before the state of print convention is devalued even farther in favor of shiny things.

We will never coax print-readers over to the digital side until we can expertly mimic the print experience. The way things seem to be headed right now, with all camps divided and serving themselves instead of readers, digital publishing will never, ever be able to deliver the experience — or reap the rewards — we all desire.

And no DRM. Paying customers aren’t thieves. DRM is a hold-over from the traditional publishing model, and even a majority of “new” digital publishing models are profoundly defective. 

If we want this industry to survive the digital age, all camps have to get on the same page (if you’ll forgive the pun) and borrow Bezos’s talent for revision.

Meanwhile, while I’m keeping myself awake nights trying to figure out how to save print convention and defend a reader’s right to actually enjoy a book on their 9-gabillion dollar chunk of e-ink and plastic, I’m hearing a lot of celebrating on some big blogs about how our day has finally come.

Maybe it has, but we are not ready for our close-up, Mr. DeMille.

First, we have to go back to the very fundamentals of reading to make sure we’re reinventing only those parts of the wheel that need re-inventing.

Print convention isn’t broken. The technology we’re pursuing is. We need smart innovation, and we need it now.


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