Frequently Raised Concerns

An essay and a few question & anwsers.


One of the inescapable things about books is the need to paginate 1 content.

Longform is inaccessible by virtue of being, well,—long—so the content must be cut up into smaller units, which could be discreet pages like in a physical book or chapters like on a PDF or something "in between" and in shape of a loose website.

One way or the other, pagination is required if you want your readers to able to enjoy your book comfortably. Flaunt.

Most of the times writers (or book makers) rely on how their readers perceive a book, and then choose a container to suit that perception. In doing so, they automatically opt for a pagination style for their book. Readers of J K Rowling, for example, love reading Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban on paper so they get bifoliate pagination automatically. Expressiveness of the atomic form is simply too good, and they are ordinary consumers afterall who don't bother about promises of tech as much as developers do.

Readers of Sarah Drasner's book on SVG Animation would, however, one'd think prefer an e-book? It's about technology afterall, and tech is known to advance faster than a physical book could be doled out. So does pagination set forth on a PDF or an ePub with a possibility for reflow of content fulfil the perception held by hackers?

Not true in this case either.

Most, if not all, developers pick a physical copy instead.

This may not come as too big of a surprise though, because people find it is easier to learn 2 from a physical book more than its digital counterpart. In other words digital is unable to equal or exceed the experience that we've collectively come to expect from books. At least that's how my experience has been over the years with books personally. And the data seems to agree.

We can safely conclude that between the atomic canvas and electronic form, the former appears to be winning.

A brief history of the book.

Books used to be physical scrolls 3 back in the day.

In fact scrolls were the first form of large record keeping texts used in Egyptian and other Eastern or Eastern Mediterranean cultures until the bound book with parchment pages was invented by the Romans near first century AD. With the bound book came the practice of foliation and dual side pagination that replaced the mighty scroll about a thousand years later, ultimately morphing into a full blown "consumer books" industry around circa 1500 following the invention of the Gutenberg Printing Press 4 .

In essence, between modern day physical books and the physical scroll we have had a clear winner emerge in the past. A winner is yet to emerge in digital realm.

The first principle

Physical books are not files. Files belong to bureaucracy. Books belong to children (or the child within us). Books are about creativity, about counterculturism and about overthrowing rotten ideals of our society. Files are about encoding those rotten ideals and forcing them on society.

So why should an e-book book be a file at all?

Do people want to own an "XML" of Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban? I don't think so. Not unless they were all writing a parser utility like developers do, which is a very specific usecase. First principles thinking helps us arrive at two core issues at hand:

  1. Can an enterprise-y file (like PDF or any other format) equal or exceed the experience of an atomic book?

    > Almost never.

  2. Can a yet-to-exist software avatar of a physical book exceed the physical form in potential?

    > May be.

We at Bubblin feel that online books and their diaspora has not even been invented yet. Our current reality of downloadable files is a lazy shortchange in place of a real online book that is yet to happen. Miserable enterprise-y software like business style word processors and complex proprietary formats in the name of portability is not what book lovers stand for.

Why should a reader worry about the format? What is compatibility issue or that file artifact on the disk? As a reader I don't care.

As a writer should I just hope that someone will click to download my work of months (or even years), navigate to that file and open it to read as opposed to simply read on web? I love reading blogs for sure.

These are some of the motivations and questions behind Bubblin Superbooks, and of course we don't have answers to all of them yet. We just hope that some of you will find this project interesting and feel that books should be accessible to anyone and everyone out there with a device that connects to the Internet. And not just those who can afford a Kindle or an iPhone.

The control

People love holding a book in their hands, lie down on a couch and read. It's relaxing and the experience is distraction free. That's about how I read books. It's leisure reading mostly, but there are countless other situations too: like reading in a library or in a park or with a teacher in the classroom or while traveling. A physical book works just fine in all these scenarios and it works really well. The experience of gradually progressing through a story by turning the pages over makes for a memorable 2 read. It is an essential control of the book.

Turn the page is so nice that we even have a song go by its name for life metaphorically.

At Bubblin we think page turns are an important aspect of a book, a quality that only adds to the experience of reading. It helps the reader normalize their pace, compels focus by driving away attention from the intent to surf capriciously, and in process builds a "memory palace" along the way. We think think page turn is as critical to a book as play, stop or track controls are for a video subresource.

Personally, I used to like UI/UX of iBooks when iPad was announced by Steve Jobs in early 2010. Now the experience on iPads is more like a powerpoint presentation: fast, fast, fast and less like a book.

Tyranny of the scroll. Or reflow?

Don't get us wrong we love the scroll on web. But just not for books.

Scrolling poses an enormous number of challenges on longform. But that's not the only problem about it. On mobile scrolling deep is impossible. It is nigh impossible to reach the end of a book simply because of the massive number of scroll-actions required to get there. And it's easy to be lifted away from the middle of a book simply by touching (or accidentally) the bezel on top. It's super annoying.

Good luck trying to get back to the point where you were lifted from now! We noticed this accessibility issue on blogposts that were long and reported it to the W3C.

IOO, even if we figured out longform on mobile (with momentum infinity scrolling or desktop style pagination), a physical book would still beat the electronic avatar hands down with its strong layout, tight formatting, beautiful typography and a tactile warmth that is not possible to achieve with traditional file formats due to the requirement of reflow.

Remember, readers (the market) expect a finished product with solid feel when they are buying one. Existing e-book solutions fail against atomic offerings quite miserably on every front and that is why dead-tree is thriving despite the cost (and the trees). Or it is deliberate and designed that way, we don't know.

Let's step aside and look at the definition 5 of book first:

"A book is a series of pages assembled for easy portability and reading, as well as the composition contained in it. The book's most common modern form is that of a codex volume consisting of rectangular paper pages bound on one side, with a heavier cover and spine, so that it can fan open for reading."

Also, the definition of a Superbook derived from the definition above using first principles:

"Book is a collection of nicely formatted pages."

Since existing e-book formats cannot meet the strong formatting needs of a book, as a consumer product they can't compete with the dead-tree medium indefinitely. Especially among those who have a high bar for experience or have a taste for great products. Aesthetics matter.

Unsurprisingly, consumers make this choice very clear 6, 7 and the behavior has been reflected in the past few years. Join us on subreddit to discuss any of the ideas discussed here with us.

Question & Answers

  1. Isn't expecting writers to know basic web development (HTML) a huge ask? Accepted.

    It is, and that's a good thing.

    The biggest hurdle here is not just that writers are accustomed to using word processors and file systems for distribution of their work but also the fact that web itself lacks support for books natively. We don't have an HTML tag for books like we do it for videos, for example.

    Book, which is a consumer product, is currently treated like an enterprise-y file that a reader must download, navigate to and open before reading. This has to change. Books aren't files, so why should its electronic form be? We want introduce a standard way of reading books on web first that follows from first principle thinking and then one of our core strategies would be to build tooling for storytellers to be able to do that.

    Make it easy for people to consume longform online, directly.

    Take a look at Bookiza Abelone – a free and open source book reification framework written in node.

  2. Isn't page turn animation a skeuomorphism? Invalid

    Not at all.

    Page turns are basic controls of a book and emulating that control doesn't automatically mean skeuomorphism. Not anymore than the skeuomorphism of the scroll itself.

    The Superbook container doesn't pick skeuomorphic elements of a physical book, like a leather bound spine or hard over-the-top cover. We focus on scaling the actual content instead using flat design principles with an algorithm to acquire maximum symmetrical (aspect-ratio remaining constant) real estate in the visible region of the viewport. To sum it up, we have followed a path of minimalism for Superbooks, and are leaving all other decisions like layout, accessibility features and presentation with authors.

    Our data shows that page turns are critical to success of books online. It separates a digital book from say a powerpoint presentation or a slidedeck. That said, page turning animation can easily be turned off or adjusted for speed from the Settings panel of your Bubblin Account.

  3. Why page turn animation and why not do just a scroll? Accepted.

    Web is generally bad at longform. To mitigate some of the issues of longform we need pagination. And if paginating, then why not do it in a way that normal readers already love? IOO, ability to turn the page represents a critical control of a book, just like play/stop buttons are for online videos.

    Here are some of the advantages:

    1. It paces you down and helps with visuospatial memorization ("memory palace" building),
    2. Let's you focus on content at hand instead of wondering where you're on the container,
    3. Better accessibility than a long infinite scroll or a lifeless file outside of web,
    4. Separates the notion of book from other digital products like a powerpoint presentation or image carousel.

    That said, there are certain accessibility issues and edge case scenarios where the Superbook container falls short of being great. We'll be addressing those issues on the go.

  4. Page turn is annoying after sometime? Resolved.

    Page turning animation can easily be turned off or adjusted for speed from the Settings panel of your Bubblin Account. That said, doing so will adversely affect your ability to form visuospatial memories that have stronger recall pointers—ala, retention.

  5. Hasn't this been tried with FLASH fifteen years ago? Resolved

    Probably.

    We don't use flash and have not tried implementing the Superbook container using it.

    In general, if this has been tried before, even just a few years ago, it's likely that such a project would have met with a stiff opposition simply because of the fact that web was a "desktop only" paradigm then. This is no longer the case with web today (2018). Over 90% people consume web on mobile or tablets and on touch surfaces like those, page turns feel far more native and accessible than they ever did on a desktop browser. Desktops are pointer-driven.

    Also, let's not forget that Macromedia flash itself was a game changer back in the day. It gave us Youtube and Vimeo, and even porn websites so that we don't have to hold on to files on the disk. We even have a video tag today in the standard because of it!

    Flash may have failed to deliver on promise of books (pagination with page turns) in the past but that doesn't mean its impact on web or results were any less spectacular.

  6. …but isn't web about just being good with the scroll? Resolved

    That is correct. But just not with books.

    With more than 15 years behind us on web and as web developers, we are super confident about using the scroll for everything that we create or consume. Be it blogs or daily news articles or an interesting subreddit or a bunch of colorful comments on a Youtube video.

    Our gut feeling is that as long as the body of text is not large (of books), the scroll does a splendid job to list the items at hand. But with books, the scroll should step aside and let the native control of books take over: and that is discreet pagination with page turns.

  7. If the content is book, it is a book… Wontfix

    We respectfully disagree. It could even be a manuscript no?

    IOO, the container, the packaging, strong formatting and the behavior is all too important as well. Having just the content without a firm layout or the controls of a book is akin to having a thousand pounds of Egyptian cotton that couldn't equal a mattress to sleep on.

  8. What happens when the text reflows? Resolved

    It doesn't reflow at all. That is key!

    Superbooks use what is called a strong layouts that effectively scales content responsively without triggering a reflow. Hint: use viewport units, flexbox and css grids.

  9. Is this yet another e-book format? Resolved

    No, it isn't. There is no format between you and the book.

    We think it is a travesty for people to (still) worry about files or format when all they want is to read a simple book. With Bubblin we remove all that friction between your book and the readers in a way similar to how Youtube does it for videos.

  10. How does it compare with epub? Accepted

    The comparison is not one-to-one.

    Epub is a open standard with an ecosystem and container softwares of its own (E.g. Calibre) that live outside of web. People have to download an artifact first, navigate to that file and then open it with another piece of installed software to begin reading. Superbooks on the other hand live on web and they can be read or shared with anyone, just like blogs.

    So both epubs and Superbooks are similar in that both use standard HTML, CSS and JavaScript, but with former the reader is the browser itself. And therefore, there is no need for the readers to leave the web at any time. A detailed note comparing the two ecosystems could only be written after some more progress.

  11. How does it compare with a PDF? Accepted

    PDFs and pretty much any other container format out there is a "business file", and therefore, the comparison with books is a bit flawed. Books aren't files.

    That said, we know in absence of a first class container for books on web, a lot e-books have been created and exist in form of PDFs. There are many advantages of Superbooks over PDF but a detailed comparison is possible only after additional progress.

  12. Doesn't this make a book inaccessible? Accepted

    Not as much as a file does. With downloadable files we are effectively sending people away from web. And doing so avoids the burden of solving web accessibility issues for books and leaves it on readers to find appropriate solutions elsewhere by not solving them.

  13. What do you use? Resolved

    Good ol' HTML. Superbook is basically a single page app (SPA) with usual markup i.e. HTML, CSS and JavaScript paginated in form of an atomic book. It's a collection (stack) of ordered formatted webpages. You're gonna love it!

  14. How do I download the book? Resolved

    You don't have !, it downloads itself.

    Once a book is opened on your browser it will automatically download itself, install and work offline even without an Internet connection. It's seamless. For those inclined about tech under the hood we use Service Workers to provide this offline-first experience.

  15. How can I add it on my Paperwhite? Wontfix

    Our intent is to separate e-books from hardware and set them free, make books a first class citizen of web. We support a huge number of devices and operating systems and browsers out there that previously didn't have an option of displaying a book. Here's more info on our current level of support.

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