Since I launched this web-based book, the top question I’ve gotten from readers is
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.
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.
27 May 2014