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 in shape of a "loose" reflowable website with an index on the sidebar.

One way or the other, pagination is required if you want your readers to able to walk through your book to completion. Flaunt about having read it.

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 pick a style of pagination that fits the work. Readers of J K Rowling, for example, love reading Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban on paper, so they get bifoliate pagination automatically. The expressiveness of the atomic form is just too good, and these are ordinary folks after all—the mass market—who care more about reading about what happens to Harry Potter than the promises of tech emanating from some dinky little corner of web.

Readers of Sarah Drasner's book on SVG Animation, however, one'd think will prefer an e-book?

Her book is about technology after all, about web, and tech is known to advance faster than a physical book could be doled out. So is pagination set forth on a PDF or an ePub or even HTML with a possibility for reflow able to fulfil the perception held by developers?

Not true in this case either. Most, if not all, developers pick a physical copy instead.

This isn't surprising though, because most people—whether they are developer or not—find physical books are better to read and learn from 2 than anything else on market. As messiahs of tech it is better to admit that the digital alternatives are unable to equal or exceed the experience that we've collectively come to expect of books. At least that's how my personal experience has been over the years, and the market seems to agree.

We can safely conclude that between the dead tree and the 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.

But a winner is yet to emerge in digital realm.

The Container influences the content

If code is poetry, we can consider that more poetry has been written with the advent of web than before it. Except in case of code the intended reader is ultimately a machine. The only other time poetry dominated the scene was when physical scrolls were in vogue.

Data indicates that more epic poetry was written before the codex form of physical book took over (with Gutenberg press), be it with narration of Exploits by Gilgamesh or the story of the Mahabharatha or Ramayana 5 with over hundred thousand verses designed to help the reader "listen in" attentively. The construct of poetry, its visual cues (accessibility), the ragged right or ragged left edges or both, dominated literature all around the world due to the influence that physical scrolls exerted right up to the Middle ages when Chaucer was writing the famed Canterbury Tales.

How many major epic poems have been written since the Gutenberg press?

The reader must note here that this essay aims to hightlight what appear to be at least anecdotally true. Estimating downfall of poetical prose or epic poetry 6 or the significance of physical scroll, its influence on scanning direction and on grammar, puntucation and layout requires a more thorough and in-depth research which is completely out of scope for the purpose of this essay.

Unsurprisingly, with modern day books (the codex form) 7 the prose and punctuation drifted away from old poetical constructs and an alternative style of writing was born without the infleunce of oral narratives. Even the layout and process of indexing changed and what appeared into existence was leafy pagination that continues to appeal and sell to this day.

I suspect that scrolling also affects the attention span 8, 9 and without poetical discourse or headlines with poetic justice it is hard for the newsy web to grab attention. Does the missing right ragged edge on this essay, for example, turn you off? To summarize: I'd never read Wuthering Heights or Harry Potter in form of a scroll but at the same time cutting up a blog (like this essay) and paginating it in form of a turnable book doesn't automatically make it more accessible.

One would have to rewrite the body of work, rearrange it part by part to suit the intended container.

The controls, the feel

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 page turns are as critical to a book as play, stop or track controls are for a video subresource on an HTML page.

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.

The tyranny of 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 difficulties when reading longform. But that's not the only problem about it. Reflow makes it even worse. Reflow is bad for books, but we'll delve into why is that on a separate essay. With physical scrolls reflow wasn't ever an issue and really long stories could easily be cut up into separate volumes.

But online, on mobile especially, scrolling deep is virtually 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. While it's easy to be lifted away from the middle of a book simply by touching (or accidentally) the bezel on top. Good luck trying to get back to the point where you were lifted from now!

We noticed this accessibility issue even on blogposts that were long and reported it to the W3C.

In my opinion, even if we figured out longform on mobile (with momentum infinity scrolling or say 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 formats due to the requirement of reflow. Reflow must be relinquished if we want books to ever succeed in digital realm.

We must remember that readers expect a finished product with solid feel when they are buying a book. 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) and the space that they take up.

Not conflating the definitions

Let's step aside and look at the definition 10 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 solutions are perfidous files masquerading as ebooks, they cannot meet the strong unyielding formatting needs of a book, and as a consumer product they can't compete with the dead-tree medium indefinitely—not without conflating the definition. This is especially true among people who have a high bar for experience or have a taste for great products.

Unsurprisingly, consumers make this choice very clear 11, 12 and the success of physical books despite everything else on market is ample proof.

Join us on subreddit to discuss any of the ideas discussed here with us.

First principles thinking—a litmus test

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?

In fact other than portability, there isn't a single quality or behavior that's shared between files and books. 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 we 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.

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 own data with 700 readers 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 to!, it downloads itself.

    Once a Superbook is opened on your browser it will automatically install itself and continue to work offline i.e. without Internet connectivity. This process is seamless and automatic. 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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