E-books and Their Tables of Discontent
I spent some time this week researching e-book conversion services. My partner and I recognize the need to become familiar with the process that will soon be a required format for the books we produce. Although well aware that "soon" really means "at least two years ago," I have learned to embrace my behind-the-curve status technology-wise.
I visited sites for e-book conversion services and e-book aggregators. As I understand it, both convert their customer's content into the digital formats required by the wide variety of available e-readers, but aggregators also partner with publishers to provide a platform for that content that end users can access online.
During my search, I came across numerous eyebrow-raising statements along this line:
E-readers do not address the concept of static page numbering.
And because they do not address that concept, page numbers change each time the user adjusts the font size of the text, which in turn renders the table of contents (TOC) and index virtually useless.
While it may be understandable that online readers, who are used to scrolling as they read, adjust to this convention for their e-readers, that doesn't make it acceptable.
Developers of e-readers claim to provide the digital experience of reading a book, but they seriously fall short on several aspects of that promise. For example, a placeholder doesn't negate the need for page numbers; a live link to each chapter opener doesn't excuse the absence of a functional contents page or an index of any kind.
Amazon may boast that their sales of Kindle fodder now outpace those for paperback books, but the majority of those books are nonfiction, which makes them reference books that need working contents pages and indexes.
Creating interactive references like these takes more effort—just as compiling a noninteractive index does. It is hard to believe that their absence is due to a technological impossibility. More likely, publishers are foisting onto readers serious quality concessions for the sake of their bottom lines.
I have no doubt that e-readers are marvelous devices and have begun to alter completely the way people read. But so far the lion's share of the e-book market is middle-aged—my demographic—and most of my contemporaries are at once intimidated and awed by technology. New digital devices fill us with delight and gratitude at how they can make our lives easier.
But most of us have been reading a lot longer than computer developers have been creating digital devices. Now that the e-blush is off the rose, it is time for some healthy skepticism. If publishers want to market a duck that walks like a duck, then they shouldn't expect us to accept that it "can't" quack like one, too.