Books: Bits vs. Atoms

I adore words, but let's face it: books suck.

More specifically, so many beautiful ideas have been helplessly trapped in physical made-of-atoms books for the last few centuries. How do books suck? Let me count the ways:

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at:

One of the arguments I’ve heard for why ebooks are so expensive is to keep the printed version’s perceived value high. If ebooks are 1/3 the price of the printed version, given time no one will put value on the printed version and sales will drop.

Because of the volume, printing books is relatively cheap. It (allegedly) adds little or nothing to the final cost of the book but there are lots of middle-men that get profit from it. None of those people want the printed book industry to go away which is why the prices are such a mess.

“Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution”

In some countries print books are exempt from VAT which somehow explains the price difference.

You seem to imply that the problems you encountered with one ebook are inherent in the format: For books that are entirely text, with very little layout, the various eBook formats do a great job.

Do you have any reason to believe that the ebook version of this title was carefully prepared? There is real time involved in making the “footnotes, layout and typography completely intact” in an ebook (just like there would be doing it for the generic Internet).

If an eBook can’t capture the nuance of the layout at least as well as a hoary old PDF does, again, why bother? Because the layout (and a PDF) are worthless on a phone.

Thanks for this great article, I’ve been having the same thoughts recently. The solution to marking ebook prices up will probably come from an entirely digital publisher (Google?) that isn’t afraid to undercut. What’s even worse is the ‘rent’ options from B&N for example which are extremely overpriced. It’s pretty clear that the price point doesn’t matter because they don’t have losses if they’re wrong, so they may as well make it on the high end of outright purchasing the ebook.

My issue is the hardware isn’t suitable yet, short of iPad 3 (which I haven’t tried). Why buy a reader if I can’t read my technical or school textbooks? They’re great for novels like you said, but just terrible otherwise.

I think we haven’t seen the real power of ebooks. When they become really interactive, with videos, animations, audio, real reference links, they will be more usable than paper books. And a lot of paper books would have to be rewritten, becoming two different books. And prices are going to be established by that effort.

What we have now is just the adaptation of the old paradigma.

Most of ebooks look horrible, but still the idea of ebook looking exactly like a paper one is fundamentally wrong. Strict paging, for example, is absolutely unnecessary and misguiding on the variety of screen resolutions.

Imagine a paper book looking exactly like a handwritten scroll.

a nice rant and i hope you posted this review of the eBook on Amazon/iBook as well, but there is one thing where your vision is too short

eBooks should be a near-perfect replica of the print book

with eBooks the concept of “book” does not need to be repeated in digital form*, i’d rather see new forms, e.g. imagine the head first books with interactive learning

  • at least not for all book types

There is real time involved in making the “footnotes, layout and typography completely intact” in an ebook (just like there would be doing it for the generic Internet).

Would you even try to read a book with a necessarily complex layout on a small display device like a phone, though?

That said, this is an argument in favor of doing layout for the Internet first. There are lots of complex web page layouts that scale down fine to phone size these days. I see nothing on, for example, the page 3 screenshot that couldn’t be done in reasonably modern HTML that would scale down fine to a modern smartphone. The footnotes would have to be hyperlinks, perhaps.

I’d also assume that PDFs can enter some kind of column based reading mode, even on a phone. Though I agree that full-bore PDF can be heavy for phone.

I recently bought a Kindle copy of Code Complete, and it’s terrible. The images have comically low resolution. The code wraps around and is missing the grey backdrop found in the book. The layout is broken, with headers often appearing at the bottom of the page before the content. And the list goes on.

It definitely doesn’t have to be like this. I’ve seen PDF copies of textbooks that are 100% accurate, probably because the final published book used some form of that PDF.

In addition to the remote removal of content, another issue you missed is the loss of historical content. If the author changes the content (or censors the content) in the new edition, how can we see the historical views on the information. Imagine if all books had been digital since the 1930’s and Germany had won. References to the holocaust would be removed. As people who experienced it (Jack Tramiel) die off, that entire history is lost.

Also imagine as formats change, the history lost there. If you find a paper you wrote in the 1980’s on a 5 1/4 floppy on a machine other than DOS, what are your chances of recovering that information? What do we leave behind for the archaeologists?

What I don’t understand is why the eBook screens are so small, I tried to read a PDF on a Kindle Touch, and I couldn’t get it to zoom so I could see the entire page clearly, it was really a hassle since the refresh rate is so slow. I believe that PDFs are the way to go, (most) books were never meant to be read on a page the size of your palm…

I think the belief that books will inevitably be completely replaced by ebooks is a misguided one. I think it’s inevitable that they will become the predominant format, but not the only one. Like MP3s, CDs and Vinyl, the formats will co-exist, meeting different needs for different people. Some people, like myself, will always prefer a physical artifact. No doubt as the years go on, this will become less an issue for future generations, but there will always be a market for older formats.

The majority of books make very little money already, sales being counted in hundreds, not millions. Reducing prices at this stage in the game is a very risky strategy for publishers. Reducing prices does not automatically lead to raising sales. A book, no matter the format or the cost, still requires an investment of time on the part of the buyer. If cost led to more people choosing to read a book then a lot more writers would be receiving money from libraries, where the cost to the person choosing the book is zero. Reducing costs of ebooks brings a real risk of cutting the already small amount of money a title generates. Possible consequences are that publishing houses are less likely to take risks, there is less money and opportunities available for new writers and the market becomes even more saturated with celebrity memoirs, Twilight books and whatever you call those things that Dan Brown has thrown words at.

No argument that ebooks have to be at least as well presented as their physical counterparts, but the pricing situation is not a straightforward one.

Whoops, pressed enter before I was ready to post.

And I really hate how we don’t really have a standard open format for ebooks. I really wanted to buy the iBooks copy of Code Complete, but I thought that I might want to read it on my computer at some point, so I settled for Kindle. And since I’ve never bought a Kindle book before, I now have two disparate sources and interfaces for reading books on my iPad.

Not to mention, I don’t feel comfortable using my iPad while taking a bath or on the beach.

I don’t know what the solution is, but I hope that meatspace books don’t go the way of the CD.

“If an eBook can’t outperform the Internet at layout, it loses one of the strongest arguments in its favor.”

That seems a rather nonsensical statement for someone who doesn’t think of computers as metal boxes filled with magic. Everything available on an eBook reader will always be a subset of what is available on a real computer/“the internet”. If the layout ever looked better on my Kindle, one could just copy and paste the code to make it look just as good on my Firefox.

Did I misunderstand what you were trying to say there ?

As for the rest of your article, I must largely disagree based on the reality we live in: your arguments are all based on a perfect, theoretical world. In reality, a single word crushes nearly every single point you made in the article: “piracy”. With piracy, bits can easily be copied, archived, or given to friends. The publisher do not have “near unlimited power”, they have near none. If any book is popular in any way, you’ll be able to put “bookname download” on Google and be able to download it for free within moments. As more draconian copy right enforcement like the silent removals happens, the willingness of customers to even consider paying drops. And as books are essentially simple things (compared to games), any kind of DRM scheme is easily broken. Bonus: the small size makes downloads of a few MBs that are worth thousands of dollars easily possible.

Just go and put “Star Wars novels download” in your Google search bar.

Would you even try to read a book with a necessarily complex layout on a small display device like a phone, though?

Yes, I personally would (and have). In practice there are an alarmingly high number of people who are willing to read complex and/or difficult content on very small screens.

Footnotes are actually very trivial (bi-directional hyperlinks) and work better than print or PDF (IMHO).

For a concrete example of digital titles with some real (print) layout but effective, thoughtful electronic versions, check out (I think you can sample them on the iBookstore.)

You guys are completely over analyzing the pricing aspect. The price is set on the basis of what the market will bear to maximize revenues for the seller (not necessarily maximize the revenue of the eBook itself). It doesn’t matter if bits are cheaper and blah blah blah. If everyone is wiling to pay $5 for an eBook, it doesn’t matter if the physical version is cheaper or not, that is a good indicator of where the price will be set.

I agree with just about everything except this: “Books should be a near-perfect replica of the print book.”

To expand on Yuriy’s comment above, it’s not a goood idea to use designs intended for fixed-size pages on devices with widely divergent screen sizes, especially when they don’t even have the concept of “pages”, per se.

To add even more fun, the reader is typically able to alter the font size, making a fixed layout even more fragile. Perhaps you could somehow prevent that from happening, but that would be a cure worse than the disease, IMO. I like to adjust the font size depending on how tired my eyes are, and to people with visual impairments that capability can be a godsend (no more hunting around for special “large print” books – every ebook is a large print book).

In the bad old days, web designers would create sites with notices similar “Please set your monitor to 800x600, 256 color mode”. The pros mostly know how to avoid that now. There’s no reason an ebook can’t do the same.

Both mobi (Amazon) and epub (essentially everyone else) are basically just HTML, so there shouldn’t be a problem applying web techniques. In practice there are issues – not all readers support the same subset of CSS. However, I think that problem goes away in time; the Kindle Fire and iBooks are much better than the older eInk Kindles.

What's the point of a bookshelf full of books other than as an antiquated trophy case of written ideas trapped in awkward, temporary physical relics?
Identity. Until I've seen someone's bookshelf, I have no idea who I'm dealing with.