Why there’s no e-book or PDF

Since I launched this web-based book, the top ques­tion I’ve got­ten from read­ers is “How can I get an e-book or PDF ver­sion?” Fre­quently this is at­tached to a com­ment like “Now 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 fi­nan­cial 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

My orig­i­nal ob­jec­tion to EPUB, an open e-book for­mat, was that it didn’t sup­port the ty­po­graphic lux­u­ries that I, a finicky ty­pog­ra­pher, couldn’t live with­out. A reader re­cently sug­gested I take a look at EPUB 3, a re­vi­sion of the EPUB for­mat which amounts to an HTML/CSS web­site pack­aged into a stand­alone file, with all the same sup­port for styling (in­clud­ing web­fonts) that one would find in a web browser.

Look­ing back over this piece, how­ever, I made a mis­taken as­sump­tion. I called EPUB an “open e-book for­mat”. This is true in the sense that no sin­gle com­pany con­trols it. But my mis­taken as­sump­tion was that EPUB was then (or even­tu­ally would be) sup­ported by Ama­zon Kin­dle de­vices. That is not true: Kin­dles have never sup­ported EPUB. There’s no rea­son to think they ever will. So EPUB fails to de­liver the in­tended ben­e­fit of an open for­mat, which is to let au­thors like me pub­lish to one for­mat and have the for­mat read­able every­where, as one can with email or dig­i­tal music.

Why won’t Kin­dles ever sup­port EPUB? Be­cause Ama­zon has al­ways dom­i­nated the e-reader in­dus­try, and has its own e-book for­mat called KF8. So there’s no in­cen­tive for it to sup­port EPUB. Fur­ther­more, as an au­thor, there would be no point re­leas­ing an e-book in a for­mat that isn’t read­able on most e-read­ers (namely, Kin­dles). So we’re back to the orig­i­nal problem.

Still, in the nearly seven years since I wrote this piece, it feels like the un­der­ly­ing con­sid­er­a­tions are go­ing obsolete.

First, var­i­ous lit­i­ga­tion and free-mar­ket pres­sures have meant that e-books have in­creased in price, and printed books have de­creased, to the point where the e-book is usu­ally only $2-4 cheaper. I won­der if a lot of the per­ceived pop­u­lar­ity of e-books in the years 2010–14 was mostly en­thu­si­asm for ar­ti­fi­cially cheap pric­ing—$9.99 in most cases—that Ama­zon was im­pos­ing on the mar­ket. As ev­i­dence, con­sider that based on the sales trends in the early 2010s, e-books were pre­dicted to even­tu­ally dis­place printed books. But that never hap­pened. E-book sales flat­tened, while printed books have con­tin­ued to sell well.

Sec­ond, since 2014, com­puter screens them­selves have got­ten a lot bet­ter for read­ing (see screen-read­ing con­sid­er­a­tions), thereby re­duc­ing the com­par­a­tive ad­van­tage of hard­ware e-read­ers. My only ev­i­dence here is anec­do­tal: no­body has asked me for an e-book in years.

To be fair, what­ever the virtues of browser-based read­ing, there’s still no easy way of us­ing a web­site with­out an ac­tive net­work con­nec­tion. This is es­pe­cially per­plex­ing since the main job of a web browser is to copy every­thing from a re­mote web server onto your ma­chine. It seems like of­fline ac­cess should be an easy up­grade. At var­i­ous points there have been ef­forts to make these “of­fline web ap­pli­ca­tions” pos­si­ble, but the idea never took off and now seems to be left for dead. I imag­ine it has some­thing to do with the fact that so much of the web is sup­ported by user track­ing, and of­fline ac­cess de­feats that en­tire in­dus­try. Or maybe it’s just that ever-in­creas­ing net­work ac­cess means that the of­fline slice of hu­man ex­is­tence gets ever smaller, and the need for of­fline read­ing like­wise shrinks.

Roughly, my im­pres­sion is that e-read­ers have carved a nice niche for them­selves for serv­ing mass-mar­ket books that don’t have spe­cial­ized de­sign or pre­sen­ta­tion needs, which in­cludes many or even most ti­tles. I don’t see any ev­i­dence that lay­out-in­ten­sive books (like this one) have suc­ceeded on e-reader plat­forms. What­ever the pos­si­bilites that EPUB 3 or KF8 of­fer in terms of text styling & lay­out, it’s a lot of new work to gain ac­cess to a small set of cus­tomers, many of whom would be will­ing to get a printed book. In other words, it’s a waste of time.

To that end, I re­main in­ter­ested in find­ing a path to con­vert this on­line book into a pa­per­back, prob­a­bly by some print-on-de­mand path. I don’t have the so­lu­tion yet, though I have made progress. But I still have no in­ter­est in sell­ing an e-book or PDF. This time, the mar­ket seems to have caught up with me.

As of last year, the Kin­dle sup­ports EPUB. Well, sort of—Ama­zon is not sup­port­ing the for­mat na­tively, but rather con­vert­ing EPUB books to its pro­pri­etary KF8 for­mat. Worse, ap­par­ently Ama­zon won’t con­vert EPUB books pur­chased from Google Books or Kobo, which de­feats one of the key virtues of an open for­mat. Thus, we still haven’t made much progress since the bad old days of 2014—as I wrote then, “in prac­tice you’re strongly en­cour­aged to have a monog­a­mous book-buy­ing re­la­tion­ship with the com­pany be­hind the de­vice.” I still don’t buy e-books.

—Matthew Butterick

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