Return to Print

The only thing I don’t like about Craig Mod’s Will digital books ever replace print? in Aeon is the fact that I didn’t write it. Mod read everything on a screen from 2009—13, but then returned to print.

One of the interesting themes is trust, which you wouldn’t expect in a piece about books:

When we buy a physical book, we can do with it what we want – cut up the pages, burn it for warmth, give it to friends, and so on. Because the contract of ownership between reader and object is implicit, not dependent on any third party, the physical book also becomes a true souvenir of the reading experience. One that can’t be revoked because of broken or neglected software. In effect, a longterm trust is embedded in the nature of a physical book.

But, where we can continue to rely on the physical object of a book, the same can’t be said for ebooks, whose platforms are closed, and at times capricious:

Individually, these niggles might seem small and inconsequential, but over time they gnaw, erode trust, and perhaps inspire one to move back to print. Back to an ecosystem that’s old but fully formed, chock-full of reliability and delight. In contrast, our digital book ecosystems feel stillborn. Certainly not like the same fresh, potent universes they did five or six years ago when the Kindle was nascent and the iPad had just been announced. As our hardware has grown more powerful and our screens more capable, our book-reading software has largely stagnated. Many of the typographic and user experience gripes I had during my four years of peak Kindle usage remain to this day.

In other words, digital books and the ecosystem in which they live are software, and software feels most alive and trustworthy when it is actively evolving with the best interests of users in mind.

Even though I’ve been reading ebooks exclusively for the last four or five years, this has me considering a return to print.

Setting up ownCloud

A few days ago I posted about ownCloud, an open source Dropbox alternative and mentioned that I’d be installing and mucking about with it this weekend.

I’m happy to report that installation couldn’t have been simpler. I already have an account with Digital Ocean, where I set up their cheapest “droplet”1 with ownCloud pre-installed. I lost a few hours trying to get an SSL certificate from StartSSL working, but I gave up and just used the self-signed certificate that was pre-installed from the get-go.2

I then pointed a subdomain at the droplet, which required whitelisting it in some kind of config file. I was able to do this entirely through the web app. Then I installed the Mac OS X client and iOS client and now I basically have the same user experience as using Dropbox.3 I moved my Calibre library (a little over 1GB) into my ownCloud folder and it synced within an hour with no issues. Now I have all of my DRM-free ebooks available to me wherever I go without having to manually import them through iTunes first.

Now, time to see if I actually find this useful or not.

  1. For $5/month, you get 20GB of storage and 1TB of bandwidth. It’s (supposedly) trivial to upgrade to the higher tiers. 
  2. Self-signed certificates for something like this are perfectly safe. You’ll just get a warning the first time you connect that your browser/app couldn’t verify the identity of your server. That’s fine. 
  3. Except for all of the applications that come with tight Dropbox integration. 

For Ebooks

The topic of ebooks and the digital reading experience continues to interest me. I’ve asked if you can love an ebook, and wondered about how the digital medium will shape the form of writing. Despite the shortcomings of ebooks and the pathetic lack of care with which content is being produced for digital consumption, most of my reading over the past year has been digital. Here’s why:


Just like with a camera, the best book is the one you have with you. I have an entire library’s worth of books in my pocket, ready to read at a moment’s notice. Even better, when I open my latest read on my iPhone, it’s in sync with where I’d left off on my iPad, and vice versa.

Space Constraints

Since I can fit a library in my pocket, I don’t need to find space for bookshelves in my very small 325 square foot living space. I am definitely concerned about the future of this library due to DRM, but I remain hopeful that this will sort itself out like in the music industry.

Cheaper, Faster

The Kindle edition has always been cheaper in my experience of browsing Not only this, but it’s instant. The space between “I’d like to buy this” and owning the book moves from the hours or days of shipping or trips to bookstores to a minute or two. This makes me buy many books that I wouldn’t have bothered with previously, due to both lower prices and hassle.

Unobtrusive Notes

This point marks the transition from “already here” to “just over the horizon” in terms of digital reading experiences. You can highlight and annotate ebooks on many ereading platforms, but I haven’t yet seen an implementation that beats the marginal note for ease and non-interruption of reading flow. But, since I both like taking notes and hate reading books that have them (unless I’m explicitly looking for them), the ability for ereaders to toggle their display on and off increases my reading pleasure greatly.

In a future where ebook annotation is no longer a hair-pulling experience, we’ll see some interesting things come out of the data that can be mined from the aggregate of these notes. Publishers and authors will get some of the best feedback ever from their readers. Professors will be able to annotate their student’s texts. We’ll be able to overlay our own texts with the notes of some of our intellectual heroes. This is going to be awesome.

Custom Reading Experience

Nothing beats a well-typeset text produced with skill and care by a real typographer. But nothing’s quite as frustrating as reading a good text that’s been mishandled with amateur typography. The ability for users to control the typography, layout and style of any text they read will lead to many improved reading experiences (and many a diminished one, sadly).

Another thing I’m hoping for is never having to read another bloody endnote again in my life. Texts can indicate notes and leave it to the ereader to display them it whatever way it sees fit. Prefer endnotes? Go ahead and enjoy your terribly mistaken preference without damaging the rest of us who know that footnotes are the only way. Even better, ereaders might even allow an entirely new notes design that beats both.1

Part of the Semantic Web

Imagine being able to seamlessly link in and out of ebooks. Tap/click a footnote reference right into that particular work2. Imagine the lines blurring (or even disappearing) between books, journals, magazines, weblogs, and other forms of writing that are digitally distributed. This is not the case right now, but the conversation is happening.

In Transition

Digital reading is in transition. I’ve only listed current and currently imaginable advantages to ebooks over their paper siblings, but the true ereading revolution is yet to come. We’ll know it’s here when books are treated like vinyl records today: a collector’s item for purists; a higher fidelity, more sensuous experience. Until we move beyond the current template of the printed edition being canonical and the digital version being an afterthought, we won’t really be able to weight the pros and cons of printed vs digital reading. Even so, ebooks make a compelling argument for themselves today, and will only make a stronger one in the future.

  1. The design challenge and reading experience of notes is a minor obsession of mine. I probably will write a post about this in the future. 
  2. Assuming you own or have access to it. That’ll be far more complicated than the linking standard. 

Vestigial Tail Ebooks

After writing my recent piece about the ebook-reading experience, I engaged in (more like was on the receiving end of) and interesting twitter conversation between @pensato and @oo, who had some great thoughts on a question my previous essay begged: what does the the medium of electronic reading have to say about the form and content of what we read? Or are ebooks actually the vestigial tail of paper publishing as we move into the age of digital texts?

Different media tend to encourage the production of different artefacts, and the arrival of a new medium tends to be be a time of chaos, experimentation, and play with the possibilities and limits of the medium. It is also a time in which those invested in the well-established rules and practices of the old medium respond with 1) denial, 2) anti-new rhetoric, 3) attempts to shoehorn their old media products into the new medium, and 4) evolution or death. It seems to usually be death, as the ossified culture of the “old guard” does not adapt well to a changed world.

What has been particularly interesting about living in a digital age is how many times we’ve been able to see this play out in the space of a few years.1 Music, movies, magazines, news, books: each of these industries have had–and are having–their production and distribution modes changed and challenged. One example is that, in the age of downloadable music, many musicians are choosing to release individual songs as they are completed rather than labouring to complete entire albums of songs grouped around the former limit of LPs and CDs.2

It’s surprising that books are the last industry affected.3 Various platforms have promised ebooks for some time now, but the Kindle’s arrival in 2007 seemed to signal the first real steps into the ebook age.

The steps for ebooks have been unique. Music was transformed first by Napster piracy, with iTunes later succeeding by being easier and better than piracy. Movies have moved from Bittorrent to Netflix. Newspapers and magazines are either fading into popular irrelevance or moving into niche publications. But ebooks have faced neither the free, illegal distribution of the former type,4 nor the persistent attrition of the latter. Perhaps this in and of itself explains why book publishers have been so late and reluctant to join the digital publishing party: they faced no apparent threat.

It’s also worth noting that, until the Kindle came along in 2007, there did not seem to be any hardware that people particularly wanted to read something of book-length on. An LCD may be more crisp than a CRT for reading, but nobody was clamouring to read a novel on one. The Kindle’s E-Ink5 display, and the iPad’s higher-resolution LCD screen–and more natural form-factor–made reading longer digital works suddenly seem feasible.

These exciting developments can, however, obscure the fact that ebooks have shown up at a point where the production and consumption of texts has already adapated to the digital medium. The Web has been changing our reading and writing habits for almost 20 years, partly because the medium promotes short attention spans,6 and partly due to the very fact that computer screens do not encourage long engagement with a text.7 Digital texts in the age of the Web have become shorter, more concise, and, above all else, linked. We’ve become accustomed to our digital texts being available instantly anywhere and, increasingly, on myriad devices.8

Ebooks therefore fundamentally misunderstand the digital reading medium. In their current incarnation–an afterthought in the traditional print publishing process–they have no future. Book publishers want ebooks as mere gravy atop their existing business model rather than seeing digital publishing for the disruption that a new medium always is. The reality is that printed books will be going the way of the vinyl record: still around, but rarer and largely for enthusiasts. Digital publishing is already here, and the age of print publishing dominance is already passing away.

Supposing that I am right, what will ebooks be, if anything, once digitally distributed texts gain ascendancy in the post-paper publishing age? Whatever they will be, they will not be a simple one-to-one digital replacement of the types of writing that are presently printed. I contend that ebooks in their present form will be seen as an awkward evolutionary phase into the era of digitally distributed texts. As payment systems become increasingly frictionless, we will see a variety of forms of writing sold, purchased, and read on myriad devices and platforms.

It’s taken me nearly 1200 words to get here, but I might finally have enough background to start discussing the form of the “book” itself in the digital age. The short answer is, it will vary. For instance, I think we will see a renaissance of the short story. If I even asked you to name a famed short story author, you would likely draw a blank.9 We might also see a resurgence of the serial novel, much favoured in Victorian England. The conceit of requiring a certain amount of page-padding prior to publishing will simply cease when publishing is only a keystroke away.

In the realm of nonfiction10, I believe that the essay will gain prominence. As one who enjoys writing and reading essays, this is great news. Many nonfiction books I have read would have been far better essays were it not for the legitimacy-conferring length requirements of the print industry. Digital distribution allows writing to be just as long as it needs to be, which is often much shorter than the current print economy dictates.

New terminology will arise, but the lines between books, ebooks, blogs, essays, and other forms not yet imagined will blur, separate, and evolve into whatever form(s) actually work for electronic texts. Not only will shorter forms gain prominence due to diminished attention spans and greater ease of publishing, we’ll also see new forms of writing that truly inhabit the possibilities afforded by multimedia, interaction, and hyperlinks. These forms already exist, but in the coming months and years will move out of the margins and into the mainstream as the forms that digital distribution is uniquely able to produce. It’s going to be a bumpy, fascinating ride.

  1. Not that the process is finished. The major music labels, for example, have still not evolved or died. 
  2. I am grumpy and old enough to still far prefer listening to whole albums. Random playlists make me twitch. 
  3. Surprising because it is plain text, the basic substance of books, which has always been easiest to transmit electronically. 
  4. It’s not that ebooks aren’t pirated, it’s just that they aren’t pirated often. 
  5. Sigh. Another e-prefix. 
  6. This is the received wisdom, but I speculate that posture and mediation are more important factors than monitor technology. Most long-form reading is done in a relaxed position, in something like an easy chair or a hammock. The computer task chair hardly competes. Also, the mediation of keyboard and mouse have always made computers feel vaguely hostile–the quick embrace of touch screens has made this obvious. This is where e-readers are a definite advance: they are human-scaled and hand-held. 
  7. “For free” should arguably be on that list, but I think friction, not cost, is the major determiner here. I need to be able to pay for content I want at the speed of the web–now–or I won’t pay at all. Think OAuth for my credit card. 
  8. Flannery O’Conner and Alistair MacLeod are my own favourites. 
  9. I loathe the term nonfiction. We might as well term “fiction” non-reality. Terminology shapes perception. 

Can you Love an Ebook?

My idea of misbehaviour in elementary school was to read a book under my desk while we were supposed to be paying attention—books generally had more interesting things to say. I readily affirm that some of my best friends are books but, as the age of ebooks1 appears to be dawning, I’m trying to ask myself how firmly wedded my love of reading is to the form of the book.

It has fascinated me that, although text is the easiest thing to transmit online, ebooks are one of the last analog media to truly make the transition into the digital age.2 Who reads novels or dissertations in a web browser?

While there have been a variety of ways to read and purchase ebooks for a while, it was only with Amazon’s late-2007 foray into the market with the Kindle device and store—aiming for an iPod-iTunes synergy—that ebooks really seemed to be arriving as a viable way to read content. Fast forwarding to the present, we’ve seen an explosion in this space. Amazon’s Kindle Store is the current premier content publisher (Apple’s iBooks store has fallen flat thus far), especially since Amazon has foregone an Apple-style lockdown by virtue of providing reader apps on iOS, Android, and Blackberry platforms in addition to their own Kindle device.3

But this state of the ebook matters little compared to the fundamental question animating this essay: can I bear to transfer my love of reading into an ebook medium? Spoiler: I don’t have an answer yet, but this essay is part of trying to answer it.


A book is a sensory playground. Hardcover or soft? Trade or paperback sized? Does the cover entice me to crack its spine or not? The texture of the paper and the quality of typesetting, the new vs. old book smell; underlines and highlights from a previous owner: these are all sensory indicators that help us to judge a book before we’ve read a word. But an ebook is ephemeral, independent of whichever device will be used to display it.

The ebook’s ephemerality also gives me a poor sense of spatiality within a text. Or, in plain English, I don’t have a clue how far into the book I am while reading.4


The physicality of an ebook matters to my experience as a reader, but it also affects those around me in some surprising ways. When I’m reading an ebook, my wife can’t tell if I’m reading a book or using any of the other (generally entertainment-driven) aspects of my iPad,5 and has no cues to know if I’m in “engrossed in reading, interrupt at your own peril,” or “feel free to interrupt, I’m not doing anything useful” modes, respectively. Also, since she has no book cover to look at, she has no idea what book I’m reading and has no easy way to segue into a conversation with me about what material I’ve been engaged with once I put my device down.

But perhaps the most damning aspect of ebooks is that I can’t share one with a friend.6 DRM’d ebooks can’t be shared, and non-DRM’d books aren’t so much shared as duplicated. In the latter case, I haven’t parted with my copy of the book, making the act less significant. In either case, my friend is not holding the physical artifact I once held. She cannot see the place where I underlined an important point or where I made a marginal note questioning the author’s sanity, since she has her own copy.7

An even worse implication here is for libraries, and especially public libraries. What does a library mean without books? How can I sign out an ebook? Will there be artificially-imposed DRM that demands the the book be erased from my device after a few weeks? Public libraries exist to democratize knowledge among the population that cannot necessarily afford to purchase books, yet this population may not be able to afford an ebook reading device8, leaving them with the unpalatable option of sitting at a dumb terminal during library hours.9


There’s an implicit, but rarely articulated, argument that ebooks are more environmentally friendly than their printed brethren, as seen in the epithet “dead tree edition.” But, does this hold? I’ll likely only use my current ebook reader10 for another 2-3 years before replacing it with the latest model, a pattern which most will follow, contributing to the mostly-silent dilemma of digital component disposal. And I certainly never stop to think of the energy demands of constantly recharging my digital reading device, nor of the massive data centres that distribute ebooks at enormous energy cost. I would be interested indeed to see a comprehensive cradle-to-grave comparison between ebooks and paper books.


Another aspect that doesn’t get much play when it comes to ebooks is very basic: how does one cite a quote from an ebook? Page numbers are no longer relevant when content fluidly adapts to various devices’ screen size, and ebooks are still too new to have an agreed-upon standard of responding to this variability. We could use some combination of chapter, section and paragraph numbers for our citation (as in the days prior to page-numbered books), but this is tedious and largely useless without 1) agreed-upon standards and 2) implementation of these standards in ebook readers. For instance, as an academic, I should be able to highlight a passage and invoke a function to provide a citation for my research in an acceptable format.

A good citation standard would also beg the question of a good linking standard, which also doesn’t yet exist. I should be able to click/tap on a citation and (if I “own” the cited book) be brought to that passage in the cited work. But DRM and the continued halfhearted embrace of the true potential of ebooks on the part of big publishers provides little hope on this front.11

And, speaking of citing, there’s probably little need to point out the utter and complete stupidity of disallowing copy & paste functionality in ebook readers like Kindle and iBooks. The lesson of iTunes’ success is simple: be better, easier, and less frustrating than piracy. Artificially locking out one of the fundamental advantages of digital text due to fear and outdated business models is no way to move into this new medium.

Not All Bad

New technology is always a tradeoff. Early adopters love to tout the advantages, while those entrenched in the old paradigm respond with a mixture of fear and ostriching.12 A more nuanced perspective asks, what have we gained, and what have we lost? This essay has detailed my sense of loss in moving into the new medium of ebook reading. While many of the drawbacks enumerated in this essay are due to ebooks being relatively new and therefore immature, the specifications and software will grow in power and nuance to not only address many of these issues, but also to produce an entirely new paradigm of publishing, learning, and knowledge-sharing. I both welcome and dread that day. Paper-based books are familiar, and therefore comforting. And yet, I cannot help but believe that the easy distribution of learning via electronic text holds potentiality that those of us living through this transition cannot even being to grasp. Whether these are good days or bad, they are not dull.

  1. I wish we had a better name. Ebook, e-book, eBook, digital book? I’ve chosen ebook in accordance with the convention of calling electronic mail email. 
  2. Sure, we’ve been doing a lot of reading on the web for the last 15 years, but little to none of it has been at lengths comparable to paper & ink books. 
  3. This is not to say that that Amazon is not attempting a platform lockdown. It is simply attempting to promulgate its locked-down platform by virtue of ubiquity: you can use their proprietary platform everywhere. 
  4. This is a design concern, addressable in a variety of ways. But none that I have seen or experienced thus far beat the quick glance at a physical book’s progress. 
  5. This is less important on dedicated reading devices such as the Kindle or the Nook, but it is unlikely that they will have much staying power. Digital = convergence. 
  6. Although the Kindle platform allows lending, it’s currently hobbled in that books may only be lent one time for a 2 week period, lend-ability is opt-in for publishers, and only currently available to US customers. 
  7. Technology might catch up here in interesting ways. Craig Mod has interesting thoughts on ebook heatmaps (and many other things ebook-related). 
  8. Although many cellphones may be technologically advanced enough within a few more years. 
  9. Which might be the solution in any case due to DRM issues. 
  10. An iPad 
  11. There’s work being done on this front, but it’s still early days and subject to the approval of publishers who do not appear to want to embrace electronic publishing.. 
  12. If I just put my head in the sand, it’ll go away.