My last word on DRM

Trying to change a major publisher’s mind on DRM is a lost cause. That’s why even though I disagree with IDPF’s DRM efforts, I can only hope that their work will result in the wholesale adoption of a completely ineffective and useless DRM technique and bring us into a de facto DRM-free world.

(You could argue DRM isn’t a problem for existing consumers. That’s true, but only because we just buy from Amazon.)

What I hadn’t expected but has become abundantly obvious over the past year is that the publishing industry has a pathological preoccupation with controlling the reader’s actions. I had originally expected publishers to respond to reason, logic, and ruthless capitalistic ROI calculations (all of which weigh against DRM). But those who favour DRM do not respond to logic. When nailed on one argument they slip over to another:

No no no, piracy isn’t a problem, it’s uncontrolled sharing

Po-tay-to po-tah-to. When it becomes hard to find evidence that piracy affects revenue the response is to rebrand it and claim that it’s still a problem.

I don’t quite know how to deal with an irrational obsession on that scale. Obviously, if piracy is cutting your revenue, that is a bad thing. But so much of the concerns around piracy are indistinct and vague—piracy worriers can’t articulate specific business consequences beyond ‘lost sales’ hand-waving with no data to back it up.

My own views on piracy, as a result of having worked in the software industry for a few years, is that, insofar that it’s an actual revenue drain, fighting it is largely a lost cause. As games developer and publisher Jeff Vogel has been fond of pointing out: if you’re selling a digital product, by definition everybody who decides to give you money is an honest person. The dishonest people will just pirate your product without a care or worry. Heavy-duty, iron-clad DRM can’t force the dishonest to buy and imposing it would have massive detrimental results both for the honest reader, the author, and the publisher (but not the dishonest reader). The dishonest would rather simply go without than pay. And even if you could force them, they’d be the customer from hell, overloading support channels and public forums with Olympic level whining.

So why worry about them? ‘Pirates’, even if you can prove they exist and affect revenue, which most publishers discover is hard, are a non-factor from a business perspective, about as relevant to your sales as Mac users are to a Windows developer. They simply aren’t a part of our market. This fact is also a big part of the reason why measuring piracy and the impact of piracy is so difficult. It’s like trying to measure the GDP impact of a Buddhist chanting. Non-participation isn’t measurable. Estimating the loss from non-participation is little more than science-fiction.

I wouldn’t mind talking about piracy to publishers if they discussed the issue in the same logical, matter-of-fact, manner that most indie software developers discuss it. But they don’t. What publishers mean when they say ‘piracy’ is more of a general worry about change and new technology and so most of them are extremely reluctant to discuss the details of what they believe and fear.

In publishing, the piracy concern is a superstition, magical thinking driven by a hope that the digital space is fundamentally inhospitable and the old times will be proven to be fundamentally superior to the new. The believers resist all attempts to empirically verify whether there is or isn’t a problem. Arguing with them is like arguing with a creationist. They don’t want proof, even if it is in their favour, because what they want is blind faith. What is worse is that many are using the fear of piracy as an excuse for not entering interesting new markets, which is a loss of opportunity, money, and revenue more certain than any threat that stems from piracy.

The real problem publishers have

Tracing the problem right down to its roots, it’s clear that the publishing industry’s behaviour towards readers (not their readers since we’re talking about the author’s readers not the publisher’s) comes from the same source as their behaviour towards authors.

Just as with authors, who they saddle with fundamentally unfair and insulting contracts, publishers simply have a disdain and fear for readers, preferring to let proxies like bookstores take care of all direct contact with them.

I see no other way to explain their behaviour. You just don’t do these things to people you like (readers or authors).

DRM is an extension of that disdain and fear. It is intrinsically hostile to the reader. It’s value isn’t supported by any evidence of substance. Publishers are willing to harm their authors’ readers just on the possibility that they might be doing something they disapprove of. There is no evidence of harm to the author or the publisher.

The question whether sharing or piracy actually takes place or whether it will affect publisher revenue is clearly irrelevant, otherwise they would have abandoned DRM years ago.

DRM will never be harmless even if it’s useless at preventing piracy or sharing



Outside of the fundamental disrespect for the reader it represents, there is one major business reason why DRM is a very bad idea for publishers:

It involves inflicting a recurring technical, infrastructural, and administrative cost on all of their sales in perpetuity to solve a problem they can’t prove exists. By tying their entire catalogue, in perpetuity, to the fate and competence of a single external service provider (whoever provides the DRM solution) publishers are taking a business risk of unfathomable proportions. These are the kinds of risks that sink large companies.

That anybody would make this sort of decision without hard evidence to back it up is utterly mind-boggling.

The unevenly distributed ebook future

(This is the fifth post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

Data serves the status quo.

Anything new or undiscovered by definition does not have a data footprint. Existing data collection and filtering techniques have biases that do not take the unknown or unfamiliar into account.

Unless you have a clear theory and a well-designed experiment to prove or disprove it, the only thing more data will tell you is that your preconceptions and existing biases are correct. With enough noise, your brain will find it easy to ‘discover’ patterns and correlations that support whatever it is you want supported. Data, on its own, serves your worldview.

This is the problem with almost all analytics systems in common use. Unless you are running a tightly controlled experiment, the only thing data will do is paint you a general picture of the status quo; it’ll give you the shape of, say, your web traffic—the ‘sources’ of the nameless mass that fills your comment threads with tripe—but it won’t help you discover any of the ‘whys’. Why are they here? Why did they read it? Why did they comment? Why did they (or didn’t) come back?

Why didn’t they buy my book?

To pretend that an A/B test can tell you why a reader decided not to buy the ebook edition of a footballer’s biography is to accept a worldview that is incompatible with the very act of publishing longform prose in the first place.

For a simple A/B test to be able to tell you why a reader made the decision not to choose a book or a format you have to believe that the human mind is a simplistic machine, driven entirely by pre-programmed responses to external stimuli, to be hacked by an enterprising grifter. A mind like that is never going to comprehend, let alone enjoy, extended piece of text. A humanity like that would never have risen out of the mud to read or write books.

You can A/B test small theories and small issues, but it is not an experimental model that will help you find answers to complex questions or understand complex problems.

Before we do anything else, when we have an issue, we need to come up with a theory—an idea for how things work that you can then explore and try to prove or disprove.

Then you need to figure out an experiment that specifically disproves that theory, which is sometimes next to impossible because, we in publishing don’t have access to the environment where the experiments need to be implemented and run.

If this method seems slow and awkward (the only conclusive result you can have is partial disproval, not confirmation), then that’s because it is. It’s also the only way to know. Anything else is guesswork.

It’s a classic quote that is tailor-made for the modern internet: short, facile, glib, simplistic to the point of being useless.

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

—William Gibson

The problem with the line is that it’s using the term future as a shorthand for technology and the changes it engenders—equating it with progress.

It has a simple message: progress remains a two-dimensional timeline (past → present → future), but that places, markets, and cultures are unevenly distributed along that timeline. Crap countries are stuck in the past. Good countries have a head start on the future.

As such it isn’t much of an improvement over the standard progress myth. In fact, it makes it worse by adding a dollop of neo-colonialism into the mix. “They are savages because they just haven’t had their share of our ‘future’ yet—not because a broken global economic system is holding them in debt-slavery”.

The publishing industry has bought into this idea wholesale. Some publishing markets are, according to this worldview, further ahead on the progress timeline than others. It also implies that advancement along the timeline is inevitable, even if it progresses at varying speeds. Romance and other genre fiction tend to dominate ebook sales and so must have more ‘future’. Non-fiction less so and must therefore have less ‘future’ and more of that crippling ballast called ‘past’. Big mainstream titles hit the ebook market in seemingly unpredictable ways. Some garner decent ebook sales while others seem to sell only in print. There, the ‘future’ seems to be randomly distributed, like a stress nosebleed over a term paper.

This, obviously, implies that the ebook will either eventually dominate universally or at least capture the same large percentage uniformly across the market.

I don’t think that’s going to happen.

The various publishing markets differ in fundamental ways that won’t be changed by ebooks. As others have said, ‘ebooks are terrific and haven’t changed a thing’.

Some will switch entirely to ebooks. Some partially. Some almost not at all.

If you’re going to generalise about readers, try not to generalise too much and stick to specific tastes and behaviours. Anybody claiming or even implying that an entire age group or economic class broadly behaves in the same way clearly hasn’t been observing book buyers for a long time. Claiming that those under twenty-four prefer print or that the more affluent prefer ebooks is useless even if it were true (probably isn’t) because those categories are too broad for us to guess what sort of books they are buying. Knowing that buyers of a specific genre prefer one format over another is clearly more useful than finding out that two-thirds of the young people who couldn’t avoid your survey didn’t like ebooks. One is actionable. The other isn’t.

It would be even better if we were able to make an educated guess of how a genre’s readers break down into behaviour groups:

  • Does a single kind of reader dominate? (casual readers, heavy readers, blockbusters only, etc.)
  • Or, is the readership more varied than that?
  • Is the distribution of the kinds of readers reliable across the genre or do sub-genres or individual titles differ substantially?

We are largely working blind here and unless you manage to get a critical mass of readers to buy from you directly and then read the books in an environment you control (good luck with that), it will be impossible to get even vaguely accurate guesses.

Some titles aren’t going to sell well as ebooks and there isn’t anything we can do about it except pray they turn into blockbusters. Because, if the title does turn out to be a blockbuster, you can always pay for a proper ebook version once the money starts rolling in.

The converse also holds true for ebook-heavy genres where the credo “ebook-first, print if popular” might well be printed above the door of every publisher (self- or other-) in the future.

If you have a title that is:

  • Visually rich.
  • Or, poses in some way to be an ebook production challenge.
  • And, is likely to appeal mostly to a print buying audience (this can happen for a variety of reasons).

Then the logical action to take is to quite simply not make an ebook version. Unless a high quality ebook is an almost free byproduct of your production workflow spending money on creating an ebook version of a title like that is likely to be a waste of money.

Conversely, print will not be viable for some markets within the industry, generally those dominated by ebook readers or have been thoroughly disrupted by apps and websites.

Either way, the single biggest concern publishers should have is to figure out ways to either discover or change the composition and shape of their readership. Making decisions on digital production will be next to impossible without that knowledge.

Bling it up for education

(This is the fourth post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

One industry gambit these days is to annotate a literary classic with videos and audio and all sorts of interactive content before foisting a cacophony of celebrity videos on unsuspecting students—who are wholly undeserving of the torture, annoying as they can be.

The theory is that these apps are the natural progression from those hefty annotated versions of Shakespeare’s crap and other similar monstrosities that are used in education.

Unfortunately, education has become a cash cow for almost everybody except teachers and students—both are regularly forced to buy overpriced rubbish coughblackboardcough by a novelty-seeking idiot managers—so the prospect of ‘rich and complex’ (read: expensive) apps and ebooks fills the business peoples with glee.

(Whenever you hear of anything becoming a success in education, you can guarantee that students and faculty got shafted somewhere in the process. They always do. Education today does not exist to educate. It’s a vehicle that lets governments and local councils reward their corporate patrons with easy money while coincidentally babysitting children and adolescents at the same time. Education does very little educating.)

(I hope you can tell that I used to lecture at university, teach teenagers at junior college, and spent a decade or thereabouts in academia.)

Very few of these apps, or ‘rich’ textbooks in the iBooks Author style, are going to be long-term successes (at least, not if they are allowed to earn their keep on their own merits) for a simple reason: they don’t add anything that the reader values.

What most students need is for ebook reading apps to support two things:

  1. Proper—sophisticated—hypertext support so that the experience of reading an annotated classic is more natural and switching between the main text and an annotation is fluid and seamless. Bonus points if the student can easily add hypertext (and a variety of link types and styles) to the text.
  2. An easy way to get a student’s highlights, links, and annotations out of the app and into a writing program while maintaining structure and metadata so they can use them in their notes and essays and references.

And, of course, all of the above is kind of useless if it is joined at the hip to a single title. Curricula worldwide vary too much for this to be bolted on, ‘value-add’, features custom-built by a single publisher.

Stamping yet another talking head into the margins of yet another literary classic doesn’t help them at all. Getting another poncey TV celebrity to gush about how much they loved a piece of overrated mandatory part of the national curriculum does not add value. Worse yet, getting dozens of them to read the same goddamn passages of the same goddamn book that most students rightfully hate as the goddamn reactionary tripe it is, does not add value to the text.

It’d be different, of course, if studying performances of poetry and plays was a core part of the modern curriculum. But it isn’t. It’s all about the text not performances. Analysing performances isn’t marked or valued by the core curriculum so no student will get any value out of an interview with an actor on how they approach the role of Hamlet.

It should, obviously, be a part of the curriculum since digital video and apps are democratising access both to recordings of performances and to expert analysis thereof. But, it isn’t.

I should outline my basic educational philosophy since it goes a long way to explain why I hold the above opinions.

Of course, at most five of you will ever read this far since most blog readers will just scan the first few paragraphs and then decide I’m a nutter without reading any further.

Which is good, because it means I don’t have to appeal to the moron constituency for the rest of this piece.

The only thing you learn in school, college, and university is what you do—the methodologies, rituals, and practices of each discipline. What you remember isn’t what you learned because, most of the time, what you remember isn’t what you memorised in the first place.

You see, memory is notoriously useless. It degrades severely with time. It peaks very early (late teens to early twenties) considering the lifespan of the average human and is downhill from there. It is extremely unreliable—the very act of recalling something modifies the memory—so you can’t completely trust what you remember. In the very few situations memory is truly reliable it’s because it has been supported by habit, routine, rituals, and practices. So, again, actions and methodology are really all that you learn.

(There is quite a bit of research and evidence going back decades that lend credence to the above view of memory, by the way.)

This is the reason why universities, colleges, and schools today are, In My Not So Humble Opinion, next to useless for pedagogy. They are brilliant social institutions: halfway houses where barbarian teenagers are contained—figuring out the basics of community, friendships, and relationships—until they are fit to enter society at large. Teachers, on the other hand, have been reduced to over-qualified babysitters. At many institutions they are no longer allowed to grade people based on the work that went into the papers they write or the work they do. They can’t give those who plagiarise a stern warning by giving their essay a failing grade. In many of these establishments, ‘C’ is the lowest grade a teacher can give without getting reprimanded either by their superiors or by irate parents, who seem to think that taking away a vital feedback tool will improve their children’s education. Teachers at earlier stages of the school system (as in: not university) spend most of their time preparing students for standardised tests, which are educational toys that bear no resemblance to any sane practice outside of education. In the universities, teachers spend most of their time getting students to exercise rote memory skills until they have done their time and can be stamped ‘fit for employment’ with a diploma.

The only thing those kids are learning is how to sit still, listen to an authority figure, and take exams. And textbooks only work for autodidacts. (Autodidacts are people who habitually integrate what they read by exercising the new ideas they encounter. True autodidacts aren’t people with a talent for memorisation. They habitually integrate new ideas by doing, if not actually, then virtually—visualising actions as they read.)

What you learn in history class, for example, shouldn’t be dates or names or events, but how to discover those facts through research and present them, verbally or in writing. And the only way to teach that is to make the students do it. If a teacher can’t give a student a lower grade for not doing the work, then they are, by definition, not allowed to grade them for what they have learned. They are only allowed to grade them on a temporary biological anomaly: the young brain’s superior ability to recall facts.

Which should make it obvious why I consider most of these ‘rich’ educational apps—classic texts littered with videos or textbooks with zooming 3D and images—to be a waste of money. They don’t help the student do anything. But if you integrated proper writing tools into the reading app, enabling styles and structure in the notes the student writes and proper export tools for those notes so they can easily use them in their papers, then you’d be doing them a real service.

As writer, editor, and horseperson Seriouspony is fond of pointing out, there is a big opportunity here for changing the structure and writing of textbooks to match what we know about memory and learning—compensating for the basic flaws in human memory by changing the text, not by adding inconsequential interactive ‘bling’.

This is something publishers and writers could do that would have a greater impact on learning than any of these ‘enhanced’ apps or ‘rich’ textbooks.

The current educational orthodoxy among both educators and policy makers has for a long time been that education is a matter of moving information between two receptacles: the textbook and the student. Improving eduction in this worldview is largely a matter of improving the receptacles (better textbooks or better students through weeding out the incapable receptacles, i.e. the poor and those they consider genetically unsuitable).

You’ll note that the teacher’s skill at teaching doesn’t enter into the equation in this worldview. If this theory were true you’d be able to replace teachers with minimally trained low wage workers, so long as they made sure to use the latest textbooks. And because policy makers do believe this theory, this is basically what they’ve been attempting to do in the public education systems in many western countries.

It’s a worldview that has been thoroughly undermined just by research into memory—that’s without even getting into the results of other studies in education and learning, or experiences in countries where this model has been avoided. It’s understandable that people who labour under this delusion don’t worry too much when the practice of essay writing or presentation or other methodologies of the disciplines taught is being debased. In fact, if you think those practices get in the way of moving ‘stuff’ from one receptacle to another, you might even prefer them to be abandoned completely and cheer when they stop making students write essays.

It’s this very same worldview that drives the development of new textbook technologies, more interactive online learning environments, and the adoption of tablets in the classroom. None of these are designed or intended to improve the doing that the student does but to improve the source receptacle—add decoration and ’bling’—resulting in better teaching through better containers with more features.

Which is a pity, because the current drive for change and adoption of new classroom technologies could have been an opportunity to reform teaching; bring the doing in the classroom up to date with the doing in real life.

The above philosophy of eduction is not mine and it certainly isn’t new. It was best outlined by John Dewey in 1916, almost a century ago, in his book Democracy and Education.

(Yes, both my opinions on art and media and my opinions on education are based on Dewey’s ideas. At least I’m consistent.)

The core of his ideas, the essential heart of his view of education—long since forgotten—is that a public education system is not there to prepare people for the labour market; it’s not there to give kids skills they can use to get jobs and be better at them; it’s not there to improve the economy or increase the student’s chances of earning more money upon graduation.

The heart at the centre of his philosophy of education is that the only defensible purpose for a publicly funded education system is to create enlightened voters. Voters who can make informed and reasoned decisions when it comes to voting in elections.

The public education system is there to make citizens, not workers.

Anything else we get is a bonus.

Conversely, the motivation behind modern education—the system we have now—isn’t nearly as pragmatic (for what motivation is more pragmatic than the wish for a stable society with few opportunities for demagogues and fascists?). The foundation of modern education is a rapacious desire for more money, more power, higher acclaim, and more bodies under your foot that you can trample in your rat race up the status ladder.

Schools today are training grounds for mercenaries who understand that grades and status are a matter of power and coercion, not skill and practice. The parents know this and the students know this. We all know this.

And like all mercenaries, we sell out our ideals, our loyalties, our service, to the nearest scumbag willing to pay, while we let our governments serve the highest bidders.

Ergodic literature

(This is the third post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

Ergodic literature is a fancy term for being intentionally over-wrought and difficult. Sometimes this can be an effective tool, much like when a psychotic gym teacher forces you to run several times around the Reykjavík Pond the exercise makes you appreciate a coke and a hot dog (with ketchup and crispy fried onions) that much more. Or, you know, the effort makes arriving at the destination that much more blah blah blah.

(Actually, the only thing the psychotic gym teacher accomplished was to teach us how to sneak off and get hot dogs when we should have been jogging around the pond.)

The app Fish, for example, plays with being deliberately difficult and not allowing you to tap back and revisit earlier chapters. Reading it is a one way trip. You go from the beginning, to the end, and then you can start over. You cannot flip back. You cannot browse forward. You read it, in order, or you don’t read it at all.

Author control over the reading process also used to be a feature of many early hypertexts. What? That wasn’t just because they were a UI mess? Well, yes, that as well. They were an UI mess compounded by a severe case of ‘intentionally difficult’. Arseholes!. Lesson learned: only let yourself be deliberately difficult in a feature when the others are easy peasy.

The non-psychotic rationale behind this approach is often (mistakenly, in my view) conflated with a school of thought pioneered by John Dewey. You may know that school of thought by the more commonly known facile formulation by pseudo-intellectual bildungsphilister catchphrase artist Marshal McLuhan:

“The Medium is the Message.”

So, making something difficult, making it require some sort of effort, skill, foreknowledge, or time, changes the meaning of that something, because the medium with its difficulties has an inherent meaning. A piece of text that is only visible when you’re constantly drawing circles on your phone while hopping on one foot means something different than the same text on an otherwise straightforward website. Text that can only be read while standing in a bus stop in Croydon means something different from the same text in an ebook.

Academics love this line of thinking.

—Let’s wrap barbed wire around the reader’s iPad while I stomp on their toes and you threaten to defenestrate their pet Chihuahua.

—Ooh, what if we attach a GPS to the Chihuahua so the reader can see on the iPad where it lands? Locative media!

People obsessed with ‘innovation’ and doing ‘edgy’ things also like this approach. Computers are already a difficult pain in the arse. Making things difficult is easy and—bonus!—turns out it adds arty meaning to shit you don’t care about enough to do properly.


(Err, no. Most of the time readers will astutely observe that interactive ergodic literature is hostile to the reader. It also alienates every sensible person on the planet.)

It’s conceivable that this approach might be appropriate under some circumstances. Such as when the source material really does benefit from being closely tied to a location, or when the effort involved demonstrates something meaningful for the text. But even then the benefit is undercut by the fact that it’s fucking annoying.

Does my antipathy towards ergodic literature make me a populist. Yes. Fuck off.

This trend is particularly tragic because Dewey’s ideas (and McLuhan’s by virtue of being derivative as hell), as far as the artist and author are concerned, have more in common with wabi-sabi than ergodic literature. It’s about embracing the imperfect means by which you tell a story or create art, acknowledging the means, their flaws, their strengths as a fundamental part of your creation. It’s not about pissing off the reader.

The last two Knights and Necromancers stories

(This is the first Stumbling into Publishing post.)

A while back I started an experiment where I self-published a series of sword and sorcery novellas.

I’m ready to declare the experiment a failure for a variety of reasons.

The biggest reason isn’t that I didn’t get any readers (although they were very few and far between) but that I’m dissatisfied with the product. When I started I had what I thought were six decent novellas. But, the more I’ve looked at them the more obvious their major flaws and deficiencies become.

My plan for 2014 is to spend the year rewriting the novellas as a single story, fix everything about the setting, characterisation, and plot that isn’t working for me (which is a lot), and then figure out what to do with it once that’s done.

But, for those few of you who have been following the series, below are the final two stories in the series as originally planned, in EPUB and in MOBI.

I’ll be taking down the first four ebooks from sale and the web over the next couple of weeks. And I’m also going to write a few blog posts discussing why I consider the experiment a failure, all the things I did wrong, and all that went wrong.

  • Knights and Necromancers 5: EPUB or MOBI
  • Knights and Necromancers 6: EPUB or MOBI

The Checklist: fix iBooks image handling

Mike Cane suggested that I put together a checklist of problems that need to be fixed in ebook format handling so those at fault could be made accountable.

So here goes the first entry:

Hey Apple! Fix iBook’s image handling! Because it is totally broken.

When building an ebook with images you have two options today for how to prepare images for iBooks:

  1. None of them will display properly
  2. Some of them will display properly, seemingly at random

The difference lies in a metadata toggle called “ibooks:respect-image-size-class”. It may say respect-image-size, but it lies! A more appropriate name would be respect-image-size-sometimes-if-I-feel-like-it-and-you-sacrifice-a-chicken.

But I guess that would be to long. Maybe the name used is the abridged version.

Of course, Apple’s crazy madcap plan for worldwide sensible image sizing might have worked if every ePub production app in the world followed Apple’s rules, but they don’t. So, please stop.

So, here’s my suggestion to Apple: just render images like the browser does, paying attention to the attributes on the element and its style declarations. Don’t try to be smart because when you fail (which iBooks does frequently) you just look extra dumb.

Great text transcends nothing


Working on ebooks is how I make my living. Therefor you should take everything I write about ebooks with a grain of salt. Anybody whose economic future depends on specific viewpoints is more likely to hold those views, if not for any other reason than to avoid the discomfort of cognitive dissonance.

Yes, that does mean you should be sceptical about bankers on banking, real estate agents on real estate, and insurance salespeople on insurance, especially when they are defending the societal value of their profession as a whole. Assume they are biased and compensate accordingly. Of course, that can backfire when the professional in question is aware of their own biases and has already tried to compensate.

With that in mind…

There’s a peculiar sort of joy that comes from reading a good print edition of a great book.

@AthenaHelivoy said this here thing:

If Ebooks looked good, this sudden “novel” devotion to “intrinsic worth” wouldn’t have sprung up. … “Great lit transcends blahblah” is an uralt non-argument revamped for Ebooks.

From here and here.

There we have the problem with ebooks today in a nutshell (that and the fact that none of us actually own the ebooks we’ve bought, we only own licenses).

That isn’t to say that the ebook reading experience can’t be as good as reading print in some cases. The accessibility features of many reading apps open new titles up to those partially or wholly without sight. Changing the font size similarly helps those with bad sight. Those who read a lot of books appreciate the ebook’s relative weightlessness.

But for the vast majority of readers, ebooks as presented by Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and co. have only three real advantages. They are:

  • Cheaper
  • Immediate
  • Lighter

That’s it. Those are important advantages and, in many cases, all people need to pick an ebook over print. But ebooks still have miles to go.

Ebooks generally look worse than your average trade paperback or hardcover book. If competently done, they can manage to match or exceed the quality of a cheap paperback.

But if you pick an ebook at random and compare it to its print versions, odds are the ebook will look worse:

  • Typography will generally be worse. Automated pagination in existing ereaders ignores quite a few details that print typesetters pay a lot of attention to.
  • The resolution will be slightly lower, even on retina display screens.
  • The typeface will look worse and be less readable. Most fonts are designed for print and will look too thin and wispy on a high resolution screen. Odds are none of the fonts your app lets you choose are properly designed for screen reading.
  • On a lot of devices and many apps (Android and older iOS devices) your interaction with the ebook will have a slight but infuriating lag in even text-only novels. And if your book has a lot of images you can expect a substantial infuriating lag.

Moreover, as I’ve written about before, for many readers ebooks the experience as a whole will be worse because tactility is an important part of how we experience and remember things.

Some of these problems are solvable in practice. We can embed fonts that have been designed to look good on screens. We can mark the ebook up properly and pay attention to screen-specific detail in the stylesheets. And we can make sure to read our books in apps and devices that are responsive and render the ebook well.

Other problems are solvable in theory. LaTex and similar systems show that automated pagination should be a solvable problem. And there shouldn’t be any reason why we can’t match the overall typesetting quality of print.

The problem is that we manifestly don’t. And that’s because none of the key players care. It isn’t an issue of can’t but one of won’t.

Publishers don’t care about ebook quality. They’ll scrutinise every detail of the print edition while, as @liza quipped at the Books in Browsers conference the other day, not bothering to mark up a list in an ebook as a list. Ebooks, even from big publishers, are full of OCR errors and other mistakes. Almost every ebook backlist title I’ve read so far has had an OCR error in it somewhere (a numerical ‘1’ replacing an uppercase ‘I’ being the perennial classic). Publishers quite simply do not care what the ebook version looks like.

Ebooks are often hidebound by the demand that they match the styles of their print edition, even when many of their print design choices are grossly inappropriate for digital. (Like drop caps. Drop caps simply do not work in digital since they can’t be done without compromising accessibility where they break up the word.)

Hang on…

The Drop Cap rant interlude

Modern drop caps are a nostalgic affectation by people keen on spicing up their books with decorations but who are too stingy to pay an actual illustrator to draw an actual goddamn illustration.

Originally most drop caps were proper illustrations. Each was lovingly rendered with an awareness of its context, often commenting on them in witty and clever ways, and they did a marvellous job of spicing up the reading, as all well-made illustrations do. Reusing the drop caps from a book made about as much sense as reusing the illustrations.

Then drop caps became homogenised, pasteurised, blended, stamped, and cookie-cut into standard typographic forms. They got pre-made as fonts for people who wouldn’t know decent illustrations even if they were beaten into their heads at a picket line. People who think they can get the same effect as an illustration by buying something pre-fabricated from a font foundry.

You can’t. Never. The only effect you get from a modern pre-fabricated drop cap is vacuous nostalgia and the joy of being able to piss on the grave of the art of book illustration.

Then add to that the fact that they simply do not work in a cross-platform and accessible way in digital and you get only one conclusion:


Yes. I hate drop caps. Unless you’re doing them properly as custom illustrations, of course. Then you get a pass.

The Joy of Reading

There’s a hard to define thrill that comes out of reading a good book that is well supported by it’s context and design. It’s like those moments in theatre where everything comes together to bring you a well-written play, with a great set design, perfect costumes, fantastic actors, with tone-perfect direction. The text of a play cannot transcend its actors or its staging no matter how great. Its words cannot dispel the curse of a mumbling actor or wash away the colours of a garish set. No phrase, no matter how beautifully crafted, can tone down an overacting diva.

A novel, no matter how great, cannot transcend its typography, packaging, or design.

Ebooks, quite simply, have to improve.

Quarantine all ebooks

Michael Kozlowski had this here reactionary fit:

I think its very important for all major bookstores to have an indie section because small publishers and indie authors are abusing the system.

Others have highlighted the problems with this plan.

The short version of the counter-argument: what’s a self-publisher?

Most of the major ebook retail platforms direct small publishers to use their self-serve platforms not everybody who uses them is a solo author publishing his own work.

But, there’s still an set of obvious problems here that needs to be solved:

  • Most search results in ebook retail are full of crap. You search for an author or a title and get shitloads irrelevant titles. Amazon isn’t as bad as the rest at this but they all suffer from it to some degree.
  • Dishonest publishers lie in their metadata so that they crop up all over the place, often inappropriately. (This is the cause of the recent PR disaster that caused WH Smith to shutter their website temporarily.)
  • Dishonest publishers choose author names and book titles a little bit too close to popular ones.
  • Well, lets’ just say there is a lot of general purpose gaming of the system by dishonest people.

You can try and solve one thing but then the dishonest will just find a new exploit. It’s like the arms race between Google and black hat SEO folks all over again.

Instead I have a simple suggestion:

Quarantine all new ebook titles, even those from big publishers. Only remove the quarantine when either the ebook or its print counterpart has sold more than 100 copies.

Quarantined titles only appear on Author pages and if you follow a direct link to their page. This means that most publisher online sales and marketing campaigns would still work as normal.

Once a title has sold 100 copies it is reviewed by a human to see if it fulfils the ebook retail platform’s quality requirements. If it does, quarantine would be lifted. If it doesn’t, the publisher gets a notice as to what it is that needs to be fixed.

–But this would destroy the sales for most self-publishers.

Not really. It would smash everybody who doesn’t have the platform, PR, or sales mojo to sell more than a 100 copies down to zero. But it would increase search discoverability and the sales of those who do sell more than 100 copies. Consider it a ‘you must be this tall to ride’ kind of thing. The ebook retail platform would probably increase their overall sales with the added bonus of preventing forever PR disaster like the one that took place last weekend.

Would it piss everybody off? Absolutely, and on that basis alone I think it should be implemented on all major platforms.

The self-publisher’s perspective of the ebook market

The writer Rosen Trevithick said this here thing:

For goodness sake Kobo, I took a risk publishing some of my titles with a relatively small eBook vendor. It took days to jump through your formatting hoops and I lost my bonuses for being exclusive to Amazon. I did this because I wanted to support an alternative to the market leader. You reward me by stabbing small publishing companies in the back. I’ll think twice about publishing with you in the future because you clearly aren’t ready to earn a larger share of the market.

Everything she says is true. But… I’d like to use this current crisis and her point about Kobo shafting small publishers as an excuse to look at what the ebook market looks like for a self- or small publisher.

  • Kobo’s search has always sucked (discoverability is non-existent) and they clearly have some sort of infrastructure problem (otherwise they’d have done the ‘purge’ the same way Amazon did, by flipping all suspect titles to Draft and forcing people to submit via a tighter process). They’re also clearly willing to completely shaft everybody using their self-serve publishing platform Writing Life whenever it suits them, PR-wise.
  • WH Smith. Non-existent as far as most self-publishers are concerned. No sales. No love. And now their site is shuttered.
  • Waterstones. Again, non-existent as far as most self-publishers are concerned. No sales. No love.
  • Foyles. Ditto.
  • Insert random bookstore’s Adobe DRM-based ebook platform. Ditto.
  • Feedbooks. Love the people behind Feedbooks but most self-publishers won’t even have heard about them, and you can only offer your stuff for free.
  • B&N Nook. Volatile as hell. Seems to be in terminal decline. Also unavailable to non-US self-publishers.
  • iBooks. A major hassle to use and submit. And, for most people I’ve spoken to, near non-existent sales.
  • Smashwords. Only really useful as a way to get into the above stores. Otherwise, meh.
  • Kindle. Stagnant platform. Almost all of the new features (series, Kindle Shorts, etc.) belong to Amazon Publishing and aren’t self-serve (and after the WH Smith porno brouhaha, two guesses as to why that is). But, it is where all of the sales are. And exclusivity offers several features that are likely to increase reach, visibility, and sales.

For those of us interested in a more open and varied ebook market, there is a singular harsh truth we must accept:

Amazon is playing the game better than the rest. That’s why they have the biggest share of the market.

I’d bet that even if Amazon abandoned discounts across the board, they’d still have their current marketshare simply because they seem to be doing a better job. Even their Kindle for iOS app has improved into borderline tolerability after the latest update.

So, if the EPUB crowd wants to compete, they need to up their game.

But, no. Instead they are either in a tailspin (B&N, WH Smith’s ecommerce side) or seem to be perpetually operating with all weapons set to ‘bland’ (Kobo, iBooks).

And, which is the fun bit, whenever something goes wrong, they don’t seem to hesitate to shaft the self-publisher.

So, I find it hard to blame any self-publisher who decides to go exclusive with Amazon. Nor do I blame any consumer who decides to buy a Kindle device or sticks to Kindle ebooks only. You don’t win customers by appealing to their charity. You have to give suppliers a reason to work with you, and buyers a reason to buy from you.

ETA: At the moment, the most sensible strategy for consumers is to buy from Amazon (and make DeDRMed backups if they are computer literate enough to Google and then use a drag and drop app). KF8 files convert nicely to EPUBs is you plan on moving to an EPUB-based platform in the future. At the same time the most sensible strategy for a small publisher is ‘it depends’.

Just say no to ebook CSS and JS

You think I’m joking?

One of the biggest issue publishers face with ebook production is the somewhat adversarial attitude ereader and app vendors have taken towards publisher stylesheets.

Publisher styles are largely overridden by default at Kobo, B&N, and in Aldiko. Even iBooks requires you to slot in a set of proprietary meta tags before it respects your font and image decisions.

Problems with vendor stylesheet overrides:

  • They are inconsistent from platform to platform, vendor to vendor, and device to device.
  • They are partial and only cover a portion of the meanings and structures you can express in even basic HTML.
  • Some of them are only applied when the ebook is loaded through the vendor’s service, not when opened directly by an app (I’m looking at you Kobo).
  • They make regular CSS unpredictable. CSS is a complex language so mixing regular CSS in with a set of aggressive overrides can have unforeseen results, like low-contrast element colours, invisible text, badly sized or even indecipherable images, and more.

Vendor overrides are one of the biggest time sinks in ebook development. Because they are only partial, we have to include our own styles, but the mix is often unpredictable. The number of basic things that break, seemingly randomly, in Kobo, iBooks, or whatever random RMSDK-based ereader you have this week is too high to be disregarded. So, we test, and fix, and test, and fix.

(The simpler your stylesheet is, the less you have to test, obviously. Which is a decent motivation to make your styles as minimal as you can. Unfortunately, too many publishers and authors are dead set on forcing ebooks to mimic the styles of their print edition, filling it with all sorts of stylistic crap that’s patently inappropriate to digital. I draw the line at drop caps, which just can’t be done properly in an accessible way in digital. They are a trite Victorian affectation that compromises readability.)

To make matters worse, a lot of the ebooks publishers are releasing are full of insane crap that even the worst hack web developer wouldn’t dream of trying to pull off. Like making every element of a book either a P or a SPAN.

Which is a practice that makes the noise people at the IDPF make about non-xml HTML5 being tag soup pretty ridiculous, XHTML is just as capable of non-semantic tag soup as HTML. Oh, and it also makes any claim of EPUB3’s superior accessibility rather silly as there’s no way for screen readers to tell which P is supposed to be a heading and which is actually a paragraph. Complex accessibility features are meaningless if all the publisher gives you is a indistinct blob of tags.

Then there’s the tendency of some systems to output ebooks where the only styles come in the form of style attributes on every single element, making any attempt to work with the styles of the ebook impossible.

The biggest problem with these ebooks is that everybody thinks they are okay because they look okay when opened. Headings are bold and large, because that’s a bit of CSS most vendors respect. Quotes are indented. Italics are italicised. The basic structure of the ebook looks preserved and the stupid crap in the ebook is ignored. Vendor overrides basically work for crap ebooks. From both the publisher’s and the vendor’s perspective this is a success. The vendor is happy because an atrocious ebook file is made readable and a large portion of their inventory remains sellable. The publisher is happy because they are short-sighted fucks who just got away with not giving a flying toss about ebooks and feel fine about making zero investment in the biggest growth area in publishing since the introduction of the paperback (yes, they are morons).

But, they are both wrong. That ebook is broken and needs to be fixed. It’s inaccessible to screen readers. It’s an opaque blob to text analysis like Amazon’s X-Ray. It’s an indecipherable mess to search engines (which are going to be damn important in the future). An ebook that doesn’t have structure is broken and unacceptable.

I propose a conditional surrender

The more I discover about existing publisher ebook production processes, the more I talk to people ‘on the inside’, the clearer it becomes that a substantial portion of existing ebook inventory is quite simply rubbish. No structure. Crap stylesheet. Broken markup.

So I propose that ereader vendors simply turn all publisher styles off and never even consider enabling javascript. Considering how much of a mess these clowns are making of basic markup and CSS, how likely do you think it is that they can do javascript safely?

Not bloody likely at all.

In exchange, what we need you to do is to improve your built-in stylesheets. We need you to support common markup practices like figures and captions, headings and subheadings, horizontal rules that don’t look like a 90s flashback and so on. Best if you support them both in markup patterns and as class-based microformats.

WordPress’s classes for captions and images with .alignleft .alignright and the like are a good start. As are common microformats such as hAtom and hNews.

And if you can support basic HTML5 structures such as:

    <p>Tag line</p>


    <img blablabla />
    <figcaption>The image's caption</figcaption>

If you manage to render every bit of those patterns appropriately (e.g. subheadings, tag lines, captions, etc.), that would be nice as well.

Oh, and don’t forget some nice styles for tables. Standard syntax highlighting for CODE elements would be a bonus.

–You aren’t serious?

I absolutely am. The key here is a full-featured built-in stylesheet that correctly styles all major structural elements of the book. This would mean that the only thing you need to do to make sure an ebook is okay is to load it and see. If it looks like a heading it will be a heading, etc.. Everything will be what it looks like. Books with crap, inaccessible, structure will have crap inaccessible styles and so be exposed immediately. Books that are properly structured will look as great as the vendor and reader (with their chosen settings) intended.

It would do to ebooks what RSS and SEO did to websites.

(In case you weren’t around in the web industry over a decade or so ago: the structural quality of web development tools and CMSes didn’t begin to improve until client apps that required structural quality began to be important, namely RSS/Atom readers and search engine crawlers. Before that most tools generated markup that was an atrocious mess of tables and font tags. Any publisher who thinks search engines won’t be important to ebooks is very mistaken.)

Ebook production would be dramatically cheaper and simpler, largely consisting of making sure that the structure of the ebook is preserved throughout the editorial process. Little to no testing required and people can focus on bikeshedding the cover design instead.

—You can do this already by just not including any styles in your book.

That only solves my problem (production costs) and it only solves it if my book is only plain text with a few headings, italics, bold, and maybe some quotes. Existing built-in stylesheets are inadequate to the job.

It doesn’t solve the problem of how to motivate publishers to improve their ebooks without making them unreadable. By robbing the faux-headings and the like of their styles you surface the blobby soupy nature of the book without destroying it. And knowing how crap the ebook in general will be, it’d probably still look a lot nicer than if you enabled all styles and let the publisher’s incompetence shine through.

The built-in stylesheets provided by vendors cover too little of what an ebook needs. Add in figures, captions, table styles, code highlighting, some structural awareness—headers, footers, article, and the like—a few microformats, and some nice horizontal rules and we’d be mostly sorted.

Then, once you got your built-in stylesheet in order, just turn off all publisher CSS completely and tell everybody to go and fix their fucking ebooks.