Word of mouth ... stone tablets ... paper ... printing press ... ebooks. I expect that publishers have learned a lot in that time as to how to put together a commercial product. But when it comes to ebooks, especially Kindle books on the iPad and iPhone, publishers seem to have taken several backwards steps.
Over the weekend I succumbed to the Kindle hype and downloaded the app to my iPad. Partly his was down to play with something new, but mostly is was down to my voracious appetite for books out-pacing my ability to store them.
I've made no secret of the fact that I'm no fan of the Kindle hardware, but the idea of being able to buy a digital book as easily as I buy a physical one, and have it streamed to my iPad in a matter of seconds appeals to me. Never underestimate the siren song of instant gratification.
Within moments I had bought - and pre-ordered - a whole pile of books. In the real world these books would have have been a real test of strength for my mailman, but as ethereal digital copies they were downloaded and available to read on my iPad in mere seconds. No waiting. No packaging to get rid of. No new shelves to put up. No needing to decide which book (or books) to carry with me.
But it's not all fun and games.
The more I read, the more I got annoyed and the more I felt that as a digital download sucker customer, I was getting a second-rate product.
Publishers and Amazon (it's hard to know who to blame for some of the issues), here are some things you need to sort out amongst yourselves:
- Books go above and beyond the written word. Books have diagrams and charts and tables and photographs. These need to be clear and readable. In several of the Kindle books I read over the weekend, non-text elements of the books looked like they were faxed into the document from the 1990s. It seems obvious to say that this stuff should be readable, but it seems that it needs saying.
- Another issue is formatting. There's no such thing as a fixed page in Kindle's electronic world. Font size can be changed to suit the mood and eyesight, so references to "page 54" or "the next page" are, at best, useless, and at worse betray the fact that the book hasn't been edited in any way for the electronic format. In the early days of ebooks, I could overlook this, but as Kindle and ebooks go mainstream, it's clear publishers are in a grab for new money for old rope.
- An index consisting of page numbers ... are you kidding me? Adding a note telling the reader to use them as search terms isn't all that helpful either.
- Plenty of publishers have specific formats that rely heavily on graphics for formatting - bullets, notes, headers and so on (take for example Wiley's "Dummies" guides). Again, these graphics need to be scaled in such a way that they don't end up looking like some kind of eye test combined with a Rorschach inkblot test. If the graphics aren't clear, not only do they lose meaning, they add to on-screen clutter that actually detracts from the book.
- Weird formatting or poor editing. One book (a Jack Reacher novel, Gone Tomorrow) seemed to suffer from some seriously odd editing issues. First, the drop capital didn't work, then any capitalization on the first line was obliterated. Again, like someone never bothered looking at the final output.
- Talking of clutter, another thing that annoys me is the practice of fixing the background color of certain blocks of text. The Kindle app gives you the option of black, white or sepia page, but sticking blocks of text on a fixed color background kinda makes this useless. Style over function, which when playing with people's eyesight, is antisocial.
Come on guys, sort out this mess and give ebook readers a decent experience.