4 Questions I Ask Myself About E-Books

by | Feb 9, 2010

Digital textI’ve been talking off and on for the last few months about the eventual demise of the book as the primary conveyer of what we probably should start calling “text.”

When E.M. Ginger said that we probably haven’t seen a book on an e-Reader, and we may never see one, I had to agree.

I don’t look at the advance of technology as either a good thing or a bad thing. It is an inevitable thing, and it seems smart to try to see where the change is going. Printed books have advantages and disadvantages as “text delivery systems” just as e-Books do. (I would start calling them “e-Texts,” but I don’t need another hopeless battle in my life at the moment.)

The Godfather Weighs In

Dan Poynter, author of the Self-Publishing Manual, and a self-avowed “godfather” to thousands of self-publishers (me included) sees the change coming, and he’s enthusiastic. Dan likes the idea of cutting all those pesky costs, and becoming purveyors of pure “information products.”

But what are we to make of the statement at a Digital Book World presentation Dan did with Mark Coker of Smashwords, that e-Books:

liberate text from complex formatting and layout.

Or that one of the reasons e-Books are superior to print books is that they are less expensive to produce, since you have “no typesetting.” They point to all the “free” file converters that will process your plain vanilla MS Word file and spray it into a variety of digital formats.

Yes, text is freeing itself from many old constraints. It was while these thoughts were swirling in my mind this morning that I picked up today’s New York Times to find a small item under “Media Talk” by Motoko Rich titled Kindle Books in Snack Sizes.

We Could Call Them McBooks, But We Won’t

As it turns out,

FT Press has introduced two series of short, digital-only titles for professionals who want quick snippets of advice for $2.99 or less . . . through the Kindle booksotre on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble’s e-bookstore.

These are 1,000 to 5,000 word versions of books that have already been published. (A typical business book is about 50,000 – 70,000 words). 242 titles are already in print, with plans to hit 500 by the end of the year. The item goes on to say that demand for longer books has fallen because people only want to “access” pieces of books, not the whole thing.

Here’s my favoite quote from this article, from Seth Goldman, who runs Honest Tea, a maker of organic teas, and is also the author of one of the books “shortened” for sale in this new format:

“There is size and substance to it, but it’s not a full meal,” Mr. Goldman said. “It’s a healthy lunch on the go as opposed to the seven-course meal”

What Does It All Mean?

Text is being liberated, while we reduce books to 1,000 words of healthy McBites. Once the book ceases to be a book—an arrangement of sequential pages on sheets bound together to form a whole—it becomes simply text, to be processed, lengthened, shortened, adjusted to fit the user’s needs. Who are we, after all, to say you shouldn’t read War and Peace in Verdana, as you’ll be able to do on the iPad?

A book is something fixed for a time: a text, in a physical container, expressed through the typography used to embody it. An e-book has none of these properties, and that’s why it isn’t really a book.

But beyond labels and semantics, the book is the ultimately long-text delivery system, honed to near perfection by 500 years of experiment and refinement.

But wait, there’s another slide in the Poynter/Coker presentation that tells more of the story.

Winners and Losers? Who’s Counting?

This slide is called “Winners and Losers in the new ebook supply chain” and it includes in the winners “Publishers, Authors, Readers, ebook Retailers and ebook Hardware Makers.” Sounding pretty good, yes?

Who are the “Losers”? “Tree growers, tree pulpers, ink, glue, printing press makers, Printers, remainderers, slow-to-adapt Print Publishers, Print Bookstores.”

Okay, so the way they’ve set it up, we have on one side, authors, readers and publishers. Against them are pitted the tree pulpers, glue makers, and the slow-to-adapt crowd. That’s a pretty slanted, but damning, picture. But notice that there are no typographers on this list, no editors, no cover designers, no layout artists, no indexers, no proofreaders. I wonder if they are winners or losers?

Here We Go

You’ve probably figured out that I don’t know where this is leading any more than you do. Text has been liberated, but the book is in a slow-motion death spiral. It will last a long time, but not forever. Here are the questions I ask myself:

  1. How long will it be before the economic pressure alone makes e-books the preferred—the dominant—form for publishing new works?
  2. Will a format be developed before then that allows book designers and typographers to influence the way these “texts” look on screen in a reliable, predictable way?
  3. What will be the long-term effect of moving from a culture founded on literacy, education, history and philosophy all communicated by books, to a culture that “accesses” pieces of free-floating text?
  4. How many institutions built around the book—libraries, book stores, publishing houses—will be either transformed or eliminated by the move to text and e-books?

What do you think?

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Joel

    Graham, thanks for your thoughtful comment. There’s no doubt that the e-Book is in its infancy, and like other new forms, will attempt to imitate or replicate the experience of book reading, until it truly becomes whatever it will become on its own, without reference to earlier models.

    I sense your optimism in your hope that the demand from readers will be crucial in the development of better typographic experiences from e-Books; I hope you’re right!

  2. Graham Storrs

    Nice post, Joel. I’m a writer and lover of books and I do appreciate typography and other design elements found only in paper books. You say that “the book is the ultimately long-text delivery system, honed to near perfection by 500 years of experiment and refinement,” which is almost true. Within the limits of its technology, and the economies of the medium, the paper book has indeed been optimised over the centuries. Mark Coker is right to emphasise how early we are in the evolution of the ebook and, especially, the ebook reader.

    When a technology is expensive and limited (as it is now) and there are few conventions, let alone standards, in place, we tend to end up with the lowest common denominator – something adequate. There are trade-offs and the market (the reader) eventually zeroes in on what is necessary and what is merely nice to have.

    In the mid-1980s I used to design hypertext systems. One in particular used SGML rather than HTML and had a very sophisticated semantic link system. The Web with its HTML and primitive linking was inferior in so many ways – not just markup – but the Web was the easy victor in the market for all kinds of good technical and social reasons. One day, I expect the Web to evolve towards the kind of system we built back then, but it may take several decades more. The Web is just a baby as far as technical development goes, too.

    It is possible that demand from readers – who have been well spoilt by the beautiful books now available – will demand the development of high-quality design, layout and typography, in machine-manipulable, reflowable, customisable formats. My guess is that there will be more focus on screen technologies, rights management, and price/performance, before design floats to the top as a major issue.

  3. Joel

    Dick, great post. I left you a comment, but I recommend anyone who wants to continue reading to head over there and check it out. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Joel

    Bowerbird, your project sounds interesting. I hope you’ll report back about your progress, because it sounds fascinating. You’ll find me in the corner perusing Craigslist for jobs.

  5. Joel

    Mark, I definitely see the technology changing quickly as e-readers become more adept. The devices we have now will probably look very primitive in a short time. It’s impossible to guess in which direction the combination of text, video, audio, and full-color graphics will move. I guess I don’t consider softcovers expensive because I compare them to hardcovers (or a night at the movies!). It remains to be seen whether the model we have now, and the very low prices for e-books, will truly allow the book business to prosper going forward. That will be interesting to watch. $1.99 books in 2010 seems like a loser, but who knows what economic model will rise to replace the 19th century version we’ve been working with?

  6. Dick Margulis

    Bowerbird—and Joel,

    I don’t think print designers will need to look for other work for a long time. Here’s my take on the subject: https://bit.ly/aIrWFW (not a direct response to either of you, but related).


  7. bowerbird

    i’ll be brief here.

    i will be releasing software soon that will enable
    users to customize e-books to their preferences.
    (provided that they can access the actual text.)

    all without having to know any x.m.l. or .html…

    i intend that this tool will produce good typography,
    and i will continue to work to improve it in this regard.

    in other words, i see no reason that design and e-books
    need to be in conflict. indeed, i believe that when readers
    can control the “shape-shifting”, they’ll find that readability
    and the beauty of the book will increase by leaps and bounds.

    but print book designers might want to look for other work…


  8. Mark Coker

    Joel, I think it’s important to consider how technology evolves. Today, ebooks have serious limitations. In the future, the technology will get better and will more easily support a richer experience, assuming consumers want a richer experience.

    I actually believe ebooks will help *save* book publishing. Print books are too expensive, which limits access to readers. Lower cost ebooks, combined with the rise of frictionless self-publishing, will lead to more books, greater diversity of expression, and increased likelihood that truly brilliant writers can leave their legacy to the written word.

  9. Joel


    Thanks for the Blio link. Since it’s not available I guess we’ll have to wait and see what exactly it’s good for.

    Obviously, a world in which one can get covers for $35 is a world without professional designers. Which would probably suit some people just fine, I suppose.

    As a self-published author, I have tremendous respect and admiration for the DIY passion. But for me, it functions best in parallel with the work of professionals. And I don’t participate in the zealotry of some of the DIY-ers, who seem to be bent on leveling the world so no one thing stands out all that much.

    But the crux of the matter is in your observation that the technology imposes a trade-off. In exchange for actual typography and a message crafted to communicate the author’s message through subtlety and quiet artifice, we get:

    a flexible shape-shifting reflowable book that works reliably across multiple formats and devices, and a book the customer can customize (or mangle) on their own by modifying the font, font size, style, line spacing, background color, etc etc.

    If there is a choice, I’m all for trade-offs. If there’s no choice, and “books” in the future will become shape-shifting agglomerations of text, I’m not so sure we’ve actually gained anything except convenience. I.e., McBooks.

    I appreciate your taking the time to follow up here, Mark, thanks for that.

  10. Mark Coker


    Yes, I think we are witnessing the destruction of the old economic model. It’s scary. Multiple factors are conspiring to drive down prices. These $50 covers (and some for less) aren’t being outsourced to India. The providers on my list are from the US, Canada and New Zealand. Not all of them will be of the same caliber as the $500 and $1,000 cover variety, but they’re adequate-to-very good, and they do the job. And why, might one ask, would someone be willing to do these for as low as $35? One designer recently told me they do it because it’s fun. Others appreciate any extra income they can get. How do professionals compete against folks who do it for fun? There’s a lot of creative talent out there in the world.

    There’s a big parallel here with the authors themselves. Most “professional” authors today are lucky to earn a living wage. Now we’ve got an explosion of new books from self-published authors. Not all of these authors dream of the front shelf at B&N. Many of these authors are happy to give away their books. How does anyone compete against free?

    I share your dread how awful it would be if all books were TNR (and at Smashwords, we recommend TNR), but I think it’s important to remember what we (the author/publisher) and the reader gain in return – a flexible shape-shifting reflowable book that works reliably across multiple formats and devices, and a book the customer can customize (or mangle) on their own by modifying the font, font size, style, line spacing, background color, etc etc.

    In answer to your question about preserving typographic integrity, take a look at the new Blio platform. I’ve got to imagine book designers love Blio – https://blioreader.com/

  11. Joel

    Walt, thanks for stopping by. For interested readers, here’s the link to Walt’s article about e-books: Digital Books are Cultural Suicide.

    Reminds me of the famous David Ogilvy quote about advertising: We know only 10% of our advertising is working, we just don’t know which 10% it is. Somehow, I don’t think a lot of today’s e-books (I’m thinking of the ones that sell for $27 or $47 or $97) are going to be in that 10%.

  12. Joel

    Mark, thanks for stopping by, and for the clarification about which of your talks and presentations are which. You are really on the leading edge here, so your opinions are interesting and valuable.

    Most typographers I know are pretty dismayed about the typographic inabilities of the e-Reader formats. Book typography is a subtle and little-appreciated craft, honed over hundreds of years to present text to readers in such a way as to enhance the reading experience without calling attention to itself.

    Now that we all have “type” on our font menu, we are all “typesetters” in one way or another. I guess my question would be, by the time we gain the ability to actually do typographic design in e-books, will there be any typographers left to do it?

    I guess another way of saying it is: Is there anything lost when all books (i.e. e-books) look pretty much the same? Times Roman for novels, Times Roman for business books, Times Roman for memoirs, you get my point?

    Because I work with a lot of self-publishers, I can see this trend you mention, in which authors hire the editors, proofreaders, indexers and other professionals, and I know that, when done well, this does result in good books. I expect, as you do, for that trend to continue.

    It’s a little daunting, with the importance of cover art, to think that these “extremely important… artistic representations” of the book can be had for $50 when covers for print books typically start at 10 times that, and top designers earn 50-100 times that fee. This is the destruction, it seems to me, of an economic model. I mean, even with the less-rigorous demands of digital production compared to print, how much time could a talented artist actually spend on a cover they were getting paid $50 for? Twenty minutes, total?

    And you make a great point about the necessity of keeping up with technical changes. It’s not surprising that, as digital products become the norm, all of us who work on these products become, more or less, software programmers. It will certainly make for an interesting transition, as the march to digital continues, to see all the designers and illustrators and editors deep in their XML and HTML manuals.

    Don’t know if I can make it to SF Writer’s this weekend, but I’ll look for a download of your talk. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

    One last request: Since you know the e-book arena far better than I, do you know of any e-books that really do a good job of transitioning from print to digital, or any that show the typographic capacities of these formats—limited though they may be—to their best advantage? I’d love to have a look at them.

  13. Walt Shiel


    Interesting analysis of the state of e-books today with some great questions.

    In a recent blog post (Digital-Only Books are Cultural Suicide), I wrote, “It probably wouldn’t matter much if 90% of the books being written today were lost forever to posterity or a future civilization trying to recover from the ashes of the past. But which 10% is worth trying to preserve?”

    I have absolutely no doubt that one day (I can’t predict when), we will lose all or large portions of our electrical grid for one of any number of reasons. When that happens, the only books to survive will be those printed in hard form.

  14. Joel

    Michelle, thanks for your comment. Although I have long thought the book would remain pretty independent of the changes going on around it, I no longer have that optimism. It’s economics, really. I sure enjoy sitting by the fire with a good book, but when the price of printing ink on paper and binding it in cloth-covered boards gets to the point—thanks to the shrinking print runs, lack of retail for books, inconvenience to the user and the delay of gratification—that it tips, books may be reduced to aesthetic artifacts, reminders of the glory of the past. But if there’s a way to get to that elusive “visual peace” you mention, I’m all for it.

  15. Joel

    Cheryl, thanks for your thoughts and your optimism. I’m not sure I see the same result as you from the “inventory model” changing and fewer books making it into print. At some point bookstores may just not make economic sense, when most books are direct to digital. And I guess part of my situation is that I am very “object oriented” rather than strictly “content oriented” since the book, to me, represents a pretty good melding of form and function. But as far as out of print is concerned, yes, the print-on-demand and e-book innovations will certainly mean more of the literature of the past will remain available. Hey, that’s a good thing!

  16. Mark Coker

    Hi Joel, interesting thoughts.

    Just to clarify, I might have confused you with the latest post on the Smashwords blog. Dan Poynter and I are speaking this upcoming weekend at the San Francisco Writer’s conference on a panel called “The Ebook Revolution.” The “P-Books to E-Books” session Dan and I presented last year at IBPA’s Publishing University, from which you viewed the slides on Slideshare, was different. And two weeks ago I moderated a supply chain panel at Digital Book World that included a completely different set of people (3 large publishers and Ingram).

    Lots to keep track of. :)

    In answer to your question, what about, “typographers on this list, no editors, no cover designers, no layout artists, no indexers, no proofreaders?”

    My two cents:

    Typographers – Type, at least in the current generation of ebooks, is less relevant than in print, so folks who specialize here may have a rough road. Complex typography, especially in fiction, can actually interfere with good ebook design because it can introduce problems given the first generation nature of ebook technology. As ebook technology matures to handle more complex layout and design, typographers should find a welcome role with ebooks.

    Indexers – For as long as authors/publisher do print books, these folks will have work. Indexes are more complicated with ebooks, but extremely useful.

    Editors, proofreaders – I think all these folks are more important than ever. Every book benefits from these functions. Increasingly, these folks will be working directly for the authors and for smaller indie presses.

    Cover designers – I think covers are extremely important to ebooks. They’re an artistic representation of the book, and a good cover not only assists the marketing of the book but it also adds to the reader’s enjoyment of the book. For folks who make their living designing covers, though, they’ll face stiffer competition from indie purveyors and even authors themselves (who, more often than not, need the help of a professional). It’s easy to find good ebook cover designers for $35-$50/pop.

    It’s also worth considering new opportunities created by the rise of ebooks. There’s an opportunity for all the folks above to dig into ebook design from the technical side. Learn to code HTML and hand-code your EPUB and Mobi files. Once you learn to tinker with the inner guts of the ebook files, you’ll have better opportunity to add value on the typography and design front.

  17. Michele DeFilippo

    When TV was invented, everyone predicted the demise of radio. TV took it’s place along the spectrum of ways to receive content. Social networking and e-books are doing the same thing now. We can celebrate the appearance of e-books, but we don’t have to talk about the demise of traditional books. We will all find the information we need in different ways at different times.

    I would certainly cheer if they stopped delivering 5 printed telephone directories to my home every year, but I find it difficult to believe that the sensory experience of flipping through a coffee-table book in front of the fireplace will go away. There will always be a place and a time for relaxation, reflection, and beauty, and books deliver that in a way that no ugly-text electronic device can, at least at the moment.

    We now have a chaos of content coming at us from all directions at ever-increasing speeds. Eventually we’ll remember that the jobs of proofreaders, indexers, and editors came into being for a reason, as did the tasks of book design, quality typography and cover design.

    Everyone I talk to feels overwhelmed at the amount of information we feel pressured to process on a daily basis. Sooner or later we’ll again seek out quality control, organization, and visual and mental peace.

  18. Cheryl Anne Gardner

    I forgot to mention, the out-of-print model will change as well. Titles won’t ever have to be taken of print when they cease to turn a profit. Ebooks are all profit after the conversion, and so authors and publishers will continue to earn on their entire collection for eternity if they want to.

  19. Cheryl Anne Gardner

    I don’t really think the concept of “the book” will ever be eliminated. I also don’t think much of the infastructure involved in the print world will be eliminated either. Everything is just going to change a bit. There will still be a need for typographers, cover designers, editors etc … and as far as libraries and book stores, I think the inventory model will change. Less books will make it into print, but more authors will be published via straight to ebook contracts, resulting in more art and a more diverse voice. Print runs will get smaller, store inventory will get even more selective, and there will be fewer returns and waste. I see Pod kiosks as well as digital kiosks not only libraries but in books stores.

    Everything about the book is going to change. For the better I think as we become more content focused and less object focused. And reducing a book to a virtual byte is at least as old as Cliff’s Notes. There will always be people who want to “experience” a story, and there will always be people who want to speed read.

  20. andry sianipar

    Greetings from the island of Bali-
    this is my first visit…
    and i really love your articles..
    i think i can get more lessons here..
    thanks for sharing..
    dont forget to visit me back…
    see you…



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