Why there’s no e-book or PDF

Since I launched this web-based book, the top ques­tion I’ve got­ten from read­ers isHow can I get an e-book or PDF ver­sion?” Fre­quently this is at­tached to a com­ment likeNow that’s some­thing I would pay for.”

As an au­thor, of course I’m happy that read­ers want to pay for books at all. Speak­ing of which—this is an apt mo­ment to thank the read­ers who have taken the ad­vice in How to pay for this book se­ri­ously, and who have sup­ported this work with pay­ments and pur­chases. You are suc­cess­fully sus­tain­ing this project.

As for the rest of you: I do un­der­stand why you’d want an of­fline ver­sion of a web book. Be­cause you don’t al­ways have a net­work con­nec­tion. Be­cause it’s con­ve­nient. Be­cause it works bet­ter with your Kin­dle. Re­ally, I get it.

But I’m not go­ing to do it. And here’s why.

I was won­der­ing whether I should spell the word ebook or e-book. I set­tled on the lat­ter—un­like email, com­mon us­age sug­gests that e-book is not quite ready to lose its hy­phen. Be­yond hy­phen­ation, it’s in­ter­est­ing to no­tice an­other key dif­fer­ence be­tween e-books and email.

To­day’s email is based on an open stan­dard that dates back over 30 years (namely RFC 822). Like any net­work, it was ap­par­ent back then that the value of an In­ter­net-based email net­work would de­pend on the num­ber of peo­ple con­nected to it (a propo­si­tion known as Met­calfe’s Law). Con­versely, if In­ter­net users ended up with thou­sands of smaller, in­com­pat­i­ble email sys­tems, email would be less valu­able to all. So an open stan­dard made it pos­si­ble for all these sys­tems to ex­change messages.

To­day, we take it for granted that we should be able to send & re­ceive email us­ing what­ever hard­ware & soft­ware com­bi­na­tion we like. For in­stance, if I told you I’d in­vented a new email sys­tem that re­quired you to buy a cer­tain hard­ware de­vice to ac­cess your in­box, you’d prob­a­bly say that’s a ter­ri­ble idea.

Yet that’s ex­actly the sit­u­a­tion we have with e-books. Though open stan­dards for e-books ex­ist, those for­mats aren’t the ba­sis of our e-book econ­omy. To­day’s read­ing de­vices—like the Kin­dle, Nook, and iPad—os­ten­si­bly let you use e-books from any source. But in prac­tice you’re strongly en­cour­aged to have a monog­a­mous book-buy­ing re­la­tion­ship with the com­pany be­hind the device.

You could imag­ine a world of e-books more like that of email—or, for that mat­ter, dig­i­tal mu­sic—where you can get your con­tent from any ven­dor, in an open for­mat, and then load it onto any de­vice. But that’s not how it works. These com­pa­nies tout con­ve­nience as a big ben­e­fit, but it’s been de­fined nar­rowly: you can read with any de­vice you want, as long as it’s ours.

Fur­ther­more, if you still think that com­pa­nies like Ama­zon and Ap­ple have be­nign mo­tives, it’s time to wake up. For in­stance, Ap­ple vi­o­lated fed­eral an­titrust law by im­prop­erly in­flu­enc­ing the price of e-books. Ama­zon is cur­rently ap­ply­ing co­er­cive pres­sure to Ha­chette, a ma­jor pub­lisher, for re­fus­ing to ca­pit­u­late to Ama­zon’s pric­ing demands.

It’s im­por­tant for us to crit­i­cize tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies. And it’s not hard, be­cause they’re full of shit. Pri­mar­ily in the way they drape them­selves in lofty prin­ci­ples that are reg­u­larly con­tra­dicted by their ac­tions. Still, this be­hav­ior isn’t sur­pris­ing, be­cause they’re eco­nomic en­ti­ties. They’ll al­ways do what’s in their eco­nomic in­ter­est. They do not have moral agency.

But as read­ers and writ­ers—as hu­man be­ings—we do. Thus, we have to con­sider our own role in these trans­ac­tions. As a writer, can I par­tic­i­pate in these mar­ket­places while over­look­ing the bad be­hav­ior? I don’t think so. What­ever ben­e­fit I’d be get­ting is based in part on their mar­ket ma­nip­u­la­tion. More­over, if I ac­cept the ben­e­fits of these mar­ket­places now, I’m not go­ing to have any ba­sis to com­plain later. If Ama­zon or Ap­ple turns out to be a mon­ster, I will have helped build that monster.

But wait—you could still re­lease your book in EPUB [or some other open e-book for­mat].” If you can show me an e-book for­mat that gives me the same con­trol over ty­pog­ra­phy and lay­out that I can get in a web browser, I’ll con­sider it. As far as I know, it doesn’t ex­ist. (If I’m wrong, please con­tact me.)

Thus my op­tion here is to use EPUB to make a ty­po­graph­i­cally ugly book about ty­pog­ra­phy. Do I want to make that? No. Do you really want to read it? I doubt it. A key point in why does ty­pog­ra­phy mat­ter is that ty­pog­ra­phy in­flu­ences reader at­ten­tion. If you like this book, in part it’s be­cause the ty­pog­ra­phy is help­ing you en­joy it. If I re­move the ty­pog­ra­phy, I can al­ready fore­see the results.

The PDF mar­ket doesn’t suf­fer from the same an­ti­com­pet­i­tive prob­lems as the e-book mar­ket. PDF started as a pro­pri­etary Adobe file for­mat, but it even­tu­ally be­came an open stan­dard. To­day, writ­ers can make PDFs with many tools; read­ers can view PDFs in many ways. That’s all good.

What’s bad are the lim­i­ta­tions of the for­mat it­self. PDF is fun­da­men­tally a dig­i­tal sim­u­la­tion of pa­per. So it’s great for mak­ing pa­per doc­u­ments avail­able in the dig­i­tal realm. But for na­tively dig­i­tal doc­u­ments—like this one—it re­moves func­tion­al­ity and im­poses de­sign constraints.

Thus, as a for­mat for dig­i­tal books, I have to vote against PDF. As a ty­pog­ra­pher, that’s painful, be­cause PDF pre­serves lay­out and ty­pog­ra­phy bet­ter than the typ­i­cal e-book for­mats. In all other re­spects, how­ever, it’s an ex­am­ple of the Shirky Prin­ci­ple—a back­ward-look­ing for­mat that wants to im­pose yes­ter­day’s con­straints on to­day’s projects. As a reader and writer, that’s not good enough.

I can imag­ine a par­al­lel uni­verse where we have an open e-book for­mat that’s widely sup­ported, that has all the ty­po­graphic and lay­out pre­ci­sion of PDF, and that’s easy to charge money for.

In this uni­verse, how­ever, it doesn’t ex­ist. So we must com­pro­mise. Though the web has a num­ber of prob­lems—lack of a pay­ment model for con­tent is at the top of the list—I con­sider it our best op­por­tu­nity for dig­i­tal books. It’s based on open stan­dards, with no ven­dor lock-ins. It has fi­nally—es­pe­cially be­cause of the ar­rival of web­fonts—de­vel­oped a use­ful level of de­sign sophistication.

The web also of­fers some unique ben­e­fits. Un­like PDF or other sta­tic e-book for­mats, a web-based book can be part of the search­able, hy­per­link­able flow of web in­for­ma­tion at large. It’s eas­ier to up­date, so it main­tains a bet­ter con­nec­tion to the au­thor. It can have soft­ware-based fea­tures pro­vided by the server or the web browser. It is, in short, a liv­ing thing.

And yes, the pay­ment model is lack­ing. But if we want a fix, we don’t have to wait for some stan­dard-mak­ing au­thor­ity to draft a tech­ni­cal rec­om­men­da­tion that browser mak­ers may or may not im­ple­ment in the com­ing years.

Rather, we can fix it right now, our­selves. We can do this by start­ing to prac­tice a habit of read­ers vol­un­tar­ily pay­ing au­thors. If we do that, we can cre­ate a rich fu­ture for dig­i­tal books. If we don’t—if we set­tle for the se­verely lim­ited view pro­pounded by com­pa­nies like Ap­ple and Ama­zon—we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.

Reader, I’ve made my choice. I’ve made this book avail­able un­der a vol­un­tary-pay­ment scheme (see How to pay for this book). More re­cently, I’ve made its un­der­ly­ing web-pub­lish­ing sys­tem, called Pollen, avail­able to other au­thors for free.

The rest is up to you.

—Matthew But­t­er­ick
27 May 2014