Why Are Ebooks So Terrible?

Perhaps you’ve noticed that ebooks are awful. I hate them, but I don’t know why I hate them. Maybe it’s snobbery. Perhaps, despite my long career in technology and media, I’m a secret Luddite. Maybe I can’t stand the idea of looking at books as computers after a long day of looking at computers as computers. I don’t know, except for knowing that ebooks are awful.

If you hate ebooks like I do, that loathing might attach to their dim screens, their wonky typography, their weird pagination, their unnerving ephemerality, or the prison house of a proprietary ecosystem. If you love ebooks, it might be because they are portable, and legible enough, and capable of delivering streams of words, fiction and nonfiction, into your eyes and brain with relative ease. Perhaps you like being able to carry a never-ending stack of books with you wherever you go, without having to actually lug them around. Whether you love or hate ebooks is probably a function of what books mean to you, and why.

When discussed in the present tense, ebooks means Amazon Kindle ebooks. Competitors are out there, including tablets such as the iPad and the various software that can display books in electronic format. Precursors are also many. Ebooks appeared on Palm handhelds in the late ’90s. Microsoft made a reader for its equivalent, Windows CE. The first commercial e-ink reader was made in 2004 by Sony, not Amazon, although you’ve probably never heard of it. Barnes & Noble still makes the Nook, a Kindle competitor that seems like the Betamax of ebook readers. Before all of these, it was always possible to read on computers, portable or not. Adobe’s PDF format, first released in the early ’90s, made it easy to create and share print-formatted documents, viewable on any platform with a PDF reader. And you have been able to scroll through Word (or WordPerfect or WordStar or plain text) documents for as long as computers have existed, even if few would call such an experience reading.

Stop and reread that last clause, because the key to understanding why you love or hate ebooks is pressurized into it. Agreeing that books are a thing you read is easy enough. But what it means to read, what the experience of reading requires and entails, and what makes it pleasurable or not, is not so easy to pin down.

Consider, for example, the Kindle DX, a 2009 follow-up to the original, 2007 Kindle reader. The DX’s 9.7-inch screen was 50 percent bigger than the original’s six-inch display, and the newer model could also show PDFs. Seen as a potential disruptor of technical, academic, and other specialized reading uses, the DX was a failure, at least in comparison with the paperback-size original Kindle and its successful follow-ups, including the popular Paperwhite model. Students and technical readers didn’t want to consume documents on the gadget. By contrast, readers of genre fiction or business best sellers were more willing to shift their practices to a small, gray screen.

Reading is a relatively useless term. It describes a broad array of literacy practices, ranging from casually scanning social-media posts to perusing magazine articles such as this one to poring over the most difficult technical manuals or the lithest storytelling. You read instructions on elevators, prompts in banking apps, directions on highway signs. Metaphorically, you read situations, people’s faces, the proverbial room. What any individual infers about their hopes and dreams for an e-reader derives from their understanding of reading in the first place. You can’t have books without bookiness.

Bookiness. That’s the word Glenn Fleishman, a technology writer and longtime bookmaker, uses to describe the situation. “It’s the essence that makes someone feel like they’re using a book,” he told me. Like pornography or sandwiches, you know bookiness when you see it. Or feel it? Either way, most people can’t identify what it is in the abstract.

Fleishman and I took a swing at defining bookiness anyway. A book, we decided, is probably composed of bound pages, rather than loose ones. Those pages are probably made from paper, or leaves akin to paper. These pages are likely numerous, and the collection of pages is coherent, forming a totality. The order of that totality matters, but also the form of bound pages allows a reader random access to any page, via flipping and fanning. Books have spreads, made of a left (verso) and right (recto) side. You can look at both at once, and an open book has the topology of a valley, creating a space that you can go inside and be surrounded by, literally and figuratively. Some books are very large, but the ordinary sort is portable and probably handheld. That held object probably has a cover made of a different material from the leaves that compose its pages. A stapled report probably isn’t a book; a coil-bound one with plastic covers might be. A greeting card is probably not a book; neither is the staple-bound manual that came with your air fryer. Are magazines and brochures books? They might be, if we didn’t have special terms for the kind of books they are.

Whatever a book might be, all of the things that an average person might name a “book” evolved from an invention more than two millennia old, called a codex. Prior to the codex, reading and writing took place on scrolls—long, rolled sheets of paper (or vellum or papyrus)—and then on wax tablets, which a sharp stylus could imprint and its tapered end could erase. The ancient Romans sometimes connected wax tablets with leather or cords, suggesting a prototype of binding. Replacing the wax with leaves allowed many pages to be stacked atop one another, then sewn or otherwise bound together. Codices were first handwritten or copied, then made in multiples when the printing press emerged. I’m skipping over a lot more detail—a whole field, called book history, addresses this topic—but the result connects today’s best seller to hand-gilded illuminated manuscripts, the earliest records of the Gospels, and more. Two thousand years after the codex and 500 after the Gutenberg press, the book persists. If something better were to come along, you’d expect it to have done so by now. In other words, as far as technologies go, the book endures for very good reason. Books work.

Given the entrenched history of bookiness, a book is less a specific thing than an echo of the long saga of bookmaking—and an homage to the idea of a book bouncing around in our heads, individual and collective. That makes books different from other human technologies. People have always needed to eat, but methods of agriculture, preservation, and distribution have evolved. People have always wanted to get around, but transportation has unlocked faster and more specialized means of doing so. Ideas and information have also enjoyed technological change—cinema, television, and computing, to name a few, have altered expression. But when it comes to the gathering of words and images pressed first to pages and then between covers, the book has remained largely the same. That puts books on par with other super-inventions of human civilization, including roads, mills, cement, turbines, glass, and the mathematical concept of zero.

As the book snowballed forward in history, it collected accoutrements of refinement rather than evolution. If you have a high-quality hardbound book nearby, pick it up and look at the top and bottom edges of the binding, near the spine, with the book closed. The little stripey tubes you see are called head and tail bands (one at the top, one at the bottom). They were originally invented to reinforce stitched binding, to prevent the cover from coming apart from the leaves. Today’s mass-produced hardcover books are glued rather than sewn, which makes head and tail bands purely ornamental. And yet for those who might notice, a book feels naked without such details.

Now open the book and turn to its first pages to see another example of how print-book habits die hard. Find the first normal page. I bet it looks the same no matter the book: a mostly blank page showing the book’s title and author. If you turn again, you’ll see that it’s followed by the exact same page, but with more information. Why are both of these title pages here? The first one, luridly known as the bastard title (or half title), was created to protect the full title page behind it during the binding process. That was necessary because printers printed only the pages of a book, which individual readers would send to a binder to encase in leather covers, perhaps to match the rest of their library. That meant that the pages themselves would be cast about quite a bit during transit to and from these varied trades. After binding, some would even cut out the bastard title and paste it to the inside of the cover or to the spine, in order to help identify the book on a shelf. That risk and practice are long behind us, but like an appendix, the bastard title remains.

So do all manner of other peculiarities of form, including notations of editions on the verso (the flip side) of the full title page and the running headers all throughout that rename the book you are already reading. And yet removing any one of these features would, if just in a small way, erode the bookiness of a book.

One site of that erosion, which may help explain ebook reticence, can be found in self-published books. For people predisposed to sneer at the practice, a lack of editing or the absence of publisher endorsement and review might justify self-published works’ second-class status. That matter is debatable. More clear is the consequence of disintermediation: Nobody takes a self-published manuscript and lays it out for printing in a manner that conforms with received standards. And so you often end up with a perfect-bound Word doc instead of a book. That odd feeling of impropriety isn’t necessarily a statement about the trustworthiness of the writer or their ideas, but a sense of dissonance at the book as an object. It’s an eerie gestalt, a foreboding feeling of unbookiness.

A particular reader’s receptivity to ebooks, then, depends on the degree to which these objects conform to, or at least fail to flout, one’s idea of bookiness. But if you look back at the list of features that underlie that idea, ebooks embrace surprisingly few of them.

An ebook doesn’t have pages, for one. The Kindle-type book does have text, and that text might still be organized into sections and chapters and the like. But the basic unit of text in an ebook does not correspond with a page, because the text can be made to reflow at different sizes and in various fonts, as the user prefers. That’s why Amazon invented “locations” to track progress and orientation in a book. You’d think the matter displayed on an iPad screen would feel more familiar—it’s just pictures of actual pages—but oddly it often feels less like leaves of paper than its e-ink brethren does. The weird way you tap or push a whole image of a page to the side—it’s the uncanny valley of page turning, not a simulation or replacement of it.

The iPad’s larger screen also scales down PDF pages to fit, making the results smaller than they would be in print. It also displays simulated print margins inside the bezel margin of the device itself, a kind of mise en abyme that still can’t actually be used for the things margins are used for, such as notes or dog-ears. Ebooks of the Kindle or iPad sort don’t have facing pages either, eradicating the spatial immersion of print books. Random access, the ur-feature of the codex, isn’t possible, and search, bookmarking, and digital-annotation features can somehow make people with a predilection for skimming back and forth feel less oriented than they might in print. For those readers, ideas are attached to the physical memory of the book’s width and depth—a specific notion residing at the top of a recto halfway in, for example, like a friend lives around the block and halfway down.

Some aspects of bookiness do translate directly to ebooks, and particularly to the Kindle. The Kindle is highly portable and easily handheld. It’s small, about the size of a trade book—a format that Apple and other tablet makers more or less abandoned in favor of ever larger screens. The Kindle is also extremely light, making it easy to hold for long periods (something that can’t be said of any iPad). Before computerized books, nobody ever needed to specify that books are appealing because they don’t require electricity, but that’s an obvious corollary of portability; e-ink requires infrequent charging.

Putting all of this back together: Ebook devices are extremely compatible with an idea of bookiness that values holding and carrying a potentially large number of books at once; that prefers direct flow from start to finish over random access; that reads for the meaning and force of the words as text first, if not primarily; and that isn’t concerned with the use of books as stores of reader-added information or as memory palaces. Some of the reading that corresponds particularly well with this conception of bookiness includes fiction in general and genre fiction—such as mysteries, sci-fi, young-adult fiction, and romance—in particular.

As it happens, these are exactly the kinds of books that have thrived on Amazon’s Kindle platform. The Association of American Publishers doesn’t track sales by genre, but Kristen McLean, a books-industry analyst for the NPD Group, confirmed that some categories of literary fiction sell more ebooks than print books. In the year ending this May, for example, 58 percent of romance-fiction titles and 60 percent of mystery and detective-fiction titles were purchased in ebook format. An independent publisher analysis came to the same conclusion. And a quick comparison of Amazon’s overall best-seller rankings as I write this compared with its Kindle rankings helps drive the point home.

The top 10 overall best sellers include a political-nonfiction title (Mark R. Levin’s American Marxism), three nonfiction self-help books (James Clear’s Atomic Habits, Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps Score, and Wendy Suzuki’s Good Anxiety), two novels (Colleen Hoover’s It Ends With Us and Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo), and four children’s books, three of which are board books (Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Ann Whitford Paul’s If Animals Kissed Goodnight, and Alice Schertle’s Little Blue Truck’s Halloween). The week’s Kindle best sellers are all novels—Hoover’s and Reid’s among them, along with genre fiction in sci-fi, romance, and mystery. Dune is No. 11, and the first Harry Potter book clocks in at No. 12.

My point is not to bag on genre fiction, for which I hold no grudges (apart from the usual envy that all nonfiction authors feel toward it). Rather, literary-fiction readers’ common understanding of bookiness corresponds well with the experience of reading that genre on the particular kind of ebook readers that technology companies (and really it’s Amazon I’m talking about) have created. This might also explain why the great fears that the publishing industry had about ebooks never came to pass (ebook sales as a percentage of total book sales have mostly declined since 2014, according to the American Association of Publishers, totaling about 11 percent of book sales). Ebooks never took over the book market; instead, they took over a large part of it and then sales tapered off. People who enjoy books that are compatible with what books currently feel like on ebook readers buy both the hardware and the content.

They also don’t mind paying the high prices for digital books—some of which exceed the cost of print titles now. For those readers, who amount to the most active ebook fanatics, ebooks never promised cheaper reading on account of the reduced publisher and retailer overhead from printing, shipping, and warehousing. (Those costs reduced over the same time that ebooks were on the rise anyway, meaning that the print-book readers who prefer a codex in hardback or paperback form never suffered from the erosion of that part of the market—indeed, nonfiction books are doing well.) It’s also no accident that three-quarters of children’s books on the Amazon top-10 list are board books, a format impossible to reproduce digitally, for a readership whom you’d never want to let near electronics anyway.

I guess I have my answer, then: I hate ebooks because I don’t read much genre fiction, but I read a lot of scholarly and trade nonfiction. I also buy a lot of books on art, architecture, and design, whose subjects work best—or feel most bookish—when they are large-format, open-spread, and richly illustrated. As a somewhat haughty book person, I also can’t quite wrap my spleen around every book looking and feeling the same, like they do on an ebook reader. For me, bookiness partly entails the uniqueness of each volume—its cover, shape, typography, and layout.

If your idea of bookiness is like mine, then you might wonder why ebook readers haven’t evolved. But the truth is, they have—just deeper into their existing niche. Amazon hired leading typographers to design typefaces for Kindle legibility. The company made its readers smaller and lighter. It eliminated the interface chaff, such as the original chiclet keyboard, that stood in the way of some readers (but that might have helped others).

What the ebook market hasn’t done is expand. That’s harder to do than it seems. Building a larger market for ebook reading wouldn’t just mean winning over haters like me. That doesn’t even make sense, because I’m just not interested in reading more of the books that are most compatible with current ebook hardware and software. Instead, it would entail a whole new digital interpretation of books. Maybe entirely new lines of devices, similar to the attempt Amazon made with the Kindle DX, but successful. The possibilities are obvious, yet nobody has bothered to pursue them: Ebook readers can’t show a two-page spread—there are smartphones that fold for some reason, but no ebook that does, following the model that the Roman wax tablets set two millennia ago. Bookmarking and highlighting remain the only counterparts to dog-earing and marginalia. Skimming through pages, the foremost feature of the codex, remains impossible in digital books.

Why? Amazon would stand to benefit from the hardware sales, book sales, and incremental platform lock-in that more diverse ebook experiences could provide. An Amazon rep told me that the company focused on making the device “disappear in our customer’s hands.” It doesn’t seem to have considered the idea that an ebook design makes implicit claims about what a book is and should be. “We’ve been thoughtful,” Amazon continued, “about adding only features and experiences that preserve and enhance the reading experience.” The question of whose experience doesn’t seem to come up.

The most likely alternative would come from Apple, but it seems to have abandoned books on tablet as a niche segment of the much larger laptop-replacement industry. Upstarts or established players such as Google and Microsoft could get in the mix, but there’s no reason to believe that tech companies large or small are literary-minded enough to understand the distinctive sensations of bookiness, let alone to culture its multiple varieties. Worse, it’s possible that addressing those predilections beyond literary and genre fiction might fragment the market into segments too small to justify the hefty cost of developing, manufacturing, and marketing specialized devices.

The good news is, it doesn’t matter. If you like ebooks, great. Enjoy your dim, gray screen in peace. If you hate them, don’t worry about it. Who says everything must involve a computer? Maybe it’s better, even, to protect the print-book market by building a firewall against ebooks’ expansion beyond their rule over genre fiction. Just give up and read normal books, like humankind has done for 2,000 years.

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