Frequently Raised Concerns
A monologue followed by some dialogue on pagination.[Draft]
Pagination et al.
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—paging—which could be discreet pages like in a physical book or chapters 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 groove through your book comfortably and read up until the very end. Then flaunt about having read it.
In general most writers (or book makers) rely on how their readership perceives a book and then choose a container to suit that perception. By doing so, the maker automatically picks a style of pagination that fits their body of work. Readers of J K Rowling, for example, love reading Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban on paperbacks, so they get bifoliate pagination of the bound form. The expressiveness of physical paper is just too good and Harry Potter is a mass market product after all. Ordinary folks care more about Harry Potter than the promises of tech emanating from a dinky little corner on the west coast.
Readers of Sarah Drasner's book on SVG Animations however, we might be compelled to think, will prefer an e-book? Her fans are developers and tech evangelists who yap about digital coolness all day—about open web!—and it is also clear that technology advances faster than a physical book could be doled out, so her book doesn't even make sense in atomic form, but does PDF or DOC file with faux pagination or an ePub file or an HTML page with reflow-able content fulfil the perception of books held by the developer community?
Nope. Not true in her case either. Most, if not all, developers buy a physical copy instead.
This isn't surprising behavior though because consumers have often admitted both in private and even online that physical books are way better 2 to hold on to and read from than anything else on market. If trends are to be believed, then at a very low-level between the physical and digital mediums we can safely assume that the physical books are winning. Digital form(s), for there are many, are unable to equal or exceed the product experience that we have collectively come to expect of books. At least that's how my personal opinion has formed over the years and the market data seems to agree.
Which brings us to the first question: why hasn't the mass market switched?
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-sided pagination that eventually replaced the mighty scroll about a thousand years later, ultimately morphing into a full blown "consumer books" industry with distribution networks after circa 1,500 A.D. following the invention of the Gutenberg Printing Press 4 .
In essence, between a modern day physical book and the physical scroll from back in the day we have had a clear winner emerge in past.
But a winner is yet to emerge in the digital realm, and in particular on web.
Credit: Joon Mo Kang, New York Times, 2011
Container influenceth content
If code is poetry we can make a conjecture about the web in its current form: That more poetry has been written with the advent of web than ever before. The only other time poetry dominated the scene like this was when the physical scrolls were in vogue. Publishing records and the literature of the Renaissance period tell us that poetry peaked before the Gutenberg press. 'Exploits by Gilgamesh' or the epics like 'The Mahabharatha' or the 'Ramayana' 5 with over a hundred thousand verses designed to help the reader "listen in" attentively right up until the Middle ages when Chaucer was writing his famed Canterbury Tales are all but a proof of the correlation between poetical construct and the physical scroll. How poetry, its ragged flow of sentences and its visual presentation lend itself to and manifest as the scroll, a container of choice to represent the conversation of the day.
How many major epic poems have been written since the Gutenberg press?
Please note that this essay hightlights what appear to be at least anecdotally true. Estimating the downfall of poetical prose 6 or the significance of physical scroll, its influence on scanning direction, re-traceability and on grammar, punctuation and layout requires a more thorough and in-depth research which is completely out of scope for the purpose of this essay.
With modern day books i.e. the codex form 7 the prose and punctuation drifted away from older poetical construct and an alternative style of writing and formatting was born without as much infleunce of the oral narrative. The layout mechanics changed and what appeared into existence was the leafy pagination that continues to appeal and sell to this day. Codex also altered the premise of accessibility. For example, does the missing ragged right edge on this essay turn you off? Or will you prefer to read this essay unjustified on a book-like paginated form? I suspect that for justification this essay itself will have to be rewritten and adapted according to what works on the codex.
In conclusion, I'd never read Wuthering Heights or Harry Potter like a scroll. For those books I need the leafy pagination of the paperbacks. And cutting up a long blog (like this essay) and paginating it in form of a turnable book wouldn't automatically make it great to read or even accessible. Connected words are only as much "consumer ready" as the container carrying them. Therefore, altering the container would imply rewriting the entire body of work, rearranging it part-by-part manually, until the desired quality of literature is achieved.
In other words if web were to switch from scroll to page turns tomorrow, it sure is not going to be straightforward.
The other influence of scrolling is that it lowers the attention 8, 9 span. For that reason alone scroll appears to be unsustainable, not without using newsy headlines offering poetic justice of some sort to grab attention.
Codex does this better, and we'll discuss that next.
Control is everything
People love lying down on a couch with a book to read. It's relaxing and the whole situation is naturally distraction-free. That's about how I read books for leisure. But there are many other reading situations too: like when you're in the library. Or with a teacher in the classroom or while traveling or simply on the beach. A physical book works fine in nearly all scenarios as long as it is not heavy to lug around and there aren't too many to carry.
The experience of turning the page to progress through a story gradually makes for a memorable 2 reading experience. In fact to turn the page is such a nice experience that we even have a song go by its name to view story of life metaphorically. But more than that page turns are a control of a book. It's that important leverage which adds to the experience of reading longform over a longer period of time. An experience that a scroll could never provide.
Page turns normalize the pace of reading and sort of compel a reader to stop and focus on the story. Shears away the intent to surf capriciously. We begin a "memory palace building" exercise as soon as the book is opened. FWIW, page turns appear critical for books in a way similar to how play and stop buttons are for a video. Personally, I used to like UI/UX of iBooks when the iPad was announced by Steve Jobs in early 2010. Now, the experience of Apple Books is more like a powerpoint presentation: slide left or right, go fast, fast, fast and forget even faster. It's unbearable to my sensibilitities of a book.
Tyranny of the scroll.
Don't get me wrong I love the scroll, but just not for books. Scrolling is an impossible paradigm for books. It doesn't align well with the intent of traversing longform where the pursuit is to chew on every sentence until the very end. For example, no one wants to read Harry Potter like a scroll. But that's not the only problem about scrolling on a digital canvas. Reflow makes it worse. Reflow is in fact so bad for books that we'll get to talking about it on a separate post later on. With physical scrolls at least reflow was never an issue and the really long works could easily be cut-up into separate volumes. Pagination.
Here's an example of the classic pagination on Google Search results page:
Numerical pagination on Google search results page is a great example of what paginated scrolling means and does to our attention span. It aligns well with the intent to quickly bring the best result to the top (which is great!) but misses the intent of traversing the whole list (longform) to completion. And that's probably one of the main reasons why web has an industry for SEO and but not for books. We digress here somewhat, but scrolling is not imperative for web anymore. I mean why would scrolling be the only way to consume content on, say, the iPad? I could turn the pages instead—iPad is not pointer driven!
Try the book Pride and Prejudice on your iPad Safari, for example.
In my opinion, the amount of time and money spent to figure out smooth asynchronous scrolling, parallax scrolling, infinite scrolling, momentum scrolling and whatnot is a complete waste of engineering effort on an airplane that's never going to be viable—speed scrolling doesn't solve the problem we're at as a society today, it doesn't pass the Occam's razor. Codex form with ordinary page turns on the other hand does the job simply. It aligns best with the intent of longform traversal such as reading books. Sure it slows me down a bit but that's a good thing. When it comes to books, I'd prefer being on a Boeing 747 than an Aérospatiale Concorde. It helps me stay relaxed on the content and increase my attention span.
Let's take a look at another issue of scroll depth over smartphone next.
Inaccessibility hiding in plain sight.
Here's a website (book or manuscript?) on Essentials of Image Optimizations by Addy Osmani.
Excellent write-up but it takes about ~90 (+/- 5) scroll actions using the mousewheel to reach the bottom while also maintaining the reading direction i.e. making sure I "saw" all of the content sequentially. Was emulating experience of committing to and reading a real book here. The same website took a close to ~194 swipes to scroll down to the bottom on an iPhone 10 Safari and ~244 swipes on the Android Galaxy Express 3 while also ensuring that all of the content was seen. I don't know about others but I'd never scroll deeper than seven times for even a blogpost on my mobile. A maximum of ten may be if it's a really interesting read or an important one.
Scrolling down with 200 swipes (really deep) on mobile is an impossible feat. Expecting people to is inhuman. I'd buy a physical book instead. Besides the fact that it is nigh impossible to reach the end of a book simply because of the massive number of scroll-actions required to do so it is also easy to be lifted off the book from the middle by simply touching (or accidentally) the bezel on top. Good luck trying to get back to the point where you were lifted from now! We reported this accessibility issue for content of medium to long length sitting between desktops and mobile to the W3C.
In my opinion, even if we somehow figured out love between scrolling and longform (with desktop style pagination or hashed links, say), a physical book would still beat the electronic avatar hands down with its firm layout, solid control, strong formatting, beautiful typography, illustrations and a tactile warmth that isn't possible to achieve with traditional e-book formats due to the requirement of reflow. Reflow must be relinquished if we want books to transmogrify successfully into the digital realm forever.
Consumers expect a finished product with a great feel when they are about to spend money on it. The bar is high. Existing e-book solutions fail at that miserably on every aspect and that is why dead-tree is thriving despite being dead. Despite being expensive (and to the trees) and despite the space that they take up in our ever shrinking homes.
Not conflating the definition
I'm often told that if the content is of a book then it is a book. I disagree. What is a manuscript then? What about the final-cut? Let's take a look at the original definition 10 of a 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."
The definition of a Superbook that we've extracted from above:
"Book is an ordered stack of nicely formatted pages."
Since existing e-book solutions are essentially pestiferous files masquerading as books, they cannot meet the strong unyielding character of a real book. Files are not a consumer product (whereas books are) to begin with and therefore solutions based off of files cannot compete with the dead-tree medium indefinitely—not without conflating the definition of the book itself. Unsurprisingly, the markets have made this choice very clear 11, 12 and the success of physical books despite everything else having moved online—like music away from audio cassettes or videos away from CDs—shows that e-books in their existing form don't stand a chance all by themselves.
We need something new, something better and truer to the idea of books than files ever could be. This is especially true for consumers who have a high bar for experience and follow books tastefully.
Applying first principles thinking
As mentioned before books are not files. Files belong to bureaucracy whereas books belong to children or the child within us. Books are about creativity, about counterculturism and about overthrowing rotten ideals in our society. Files are about encoding those rotten ideals and forcing them on us.
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 shared between books and digital files. Do people want to own an "XML" of Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban? I don't think so. Not unless they were writing a parser utility like developers usually do, which is a very specific use-case.
First principles thinking helps us arrive at two core issues:
Can an enterprise-y file (like PDF or any other format) equal or exceed the experience of an atomic book?
> Almost never.
Can a yet-to-exist software avatar of a physical book exceed the physical form in potential?
> May be.
Is there a web standard or a library that does books on web like a first class citizen?
Meet Bubblin Superbooks
Bubblin is new take on bringing true-to-life books online. It is both iPad-first and offline-first, but should work just about anywhere. The reader on Bubblin emulates bifoliate pagination of a real book responsively with optimized page turns at a buttery 60 FPS. We expect to improve this with our next release of Bookiza alongwith Houdini & Waapi alternatives to near native level of performance on web.
Do star us on Github and bookmark us as your next generation publisher, if you will.
We at Bubblin think that online books and their diaspora has not even been invented yet. Our current reality of downloadable files that is tied to some piece of hardware is a lazy shortchange in place of a real online book that is yet to happen. Proprietary enterprise software, business style documents, word processors and a slew of incompatible formats in the wild isn't something that a true book lover will ever espouse.
Hope is to solve the following:
As a reader, do I
- Have to worry about a file or a format?
- Be faced with compatibility issues or older editions?
- Need to reach out for file or an artifact somewhere on the disk?
- Worry about disk space for my books?
- Manage a library myself?
As a writer, do I have to
- Live in a hope that someone will download my work of months (or even years) as opposed to view it online?
- Navigate to that file and open it to read as opposed to, again, simply read on web?
- Can I sell to make a profit or a living without having to give away the rights to my book?
- How collaborative and easy is the writing tool for books on web?
These are some of the motivations and questions behind our startup Bubblin Superbooks, and of course we don't have answers to all of them yet. We hope that some of you will find this project interesting and help us take books on web like a first class citizen. Bring reading to everyone and not just those who own a Kindle or an iPhone.
Join us on news.bubblin to discuss any of the ideas laid out here.
Question & Answers
-  Pagination
-  VisuoSpatial memories
-  Physical scroll book
-  Gutenberg Printing Press
-  Epic Poetry and Poetical Prose
-  Decline of Epic Poetry —The John Hopkins University Press (1982)
-  The Codex
-  The dying art of poetry
-  Why you won't finish this article?
-  Definition of a book
-  Young adult readers prefer printed to ebooks (2013)
-  Ebook sales continue to fall (2017)