Frequently Raised Concerns
A long monologue followed by some dialogue on pagination.[Draft]
Pagination et al.
One of the inescapable fact 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 discrete pages like in a physical book or chapters on a PDF or something in-between such as in the shape of a "loose" reflowable website. One way or the other, pagination is a must if you want readers to be able to groove through your book comfortably and read it up until the very end. Then brag about having read it!
Generally, most writers (or 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 up a style of pagination that fits the body of work. Readers of J K Rowling, for example, love reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in paperbacks, so they get bifoliate pagination of the bound form. The expressiveness of the physical canvas is just too good and Harry Potter is a mass market product after all, whose fans care about Harry Potter more than anything else.
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 inclined to assume will prefer an e-book? Her book is about bleeding edge of technology, and is not a mass market product by any measure and her fans (readers) are developers and tech evangelists who yap about digital coolness all day—about open web!
Nope. Not true in her case either.
Most developers buy a physical copy instead. These are Sarah’s own words:
I learn better with print, especially for technical material
Sarah's comments aren't surprising 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 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 the 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
The container influenceth the content
If code is poetry then 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 the 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 highlights what appears to be at least anecdotally true. Estimating the downfall of poetical prose 6 or its correlation with physical scrolls, the 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 study.
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 influence of the oral narrative. The layout mechanics changed and what emerged was the leafy pagination that continues to appeal and sell to this day.
Codex altered the concept of accessibility itself. 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.
To summarize, while I'd never read Wuthering Heights or Harry Potter like a scroll, for those books I need the leafy pagination of a paperback, but at the same time cutting up a long blogpost (like this essay) and paginating it in form of a turnable book wouldn't automatically make it great read or even accessible. Connected words, sentences and paragraphs are only as much "consumer ready" as the container carrying them is. Switching from one type of container to another (dead-tree ⇋ digital) would entail 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 paradigm to page turns tomorrow, it sure is not going to be an easy task.
There is grammar to change as well.
Another influence that scrolling animation has had on us is that our attention span 8, 9 has been shrinking for a while. For this reason alone scroll appears to be unsustainable in the long run, and web wouldn't survive or pay for itself without using newsy headlines that offer poetic justice. Here's what Slate had to say about what our experience with scrolls on the web is about in 2013:
"Schwartz’s data shows that readers can’t stay focused. The more I type, the more of you tune out. And it’s not just me. It’s not just Slate. It’s everywhere online. When people land on a story, they very rarely make it all the way down the page."
These are matters of attention economy, as some would put it, and we have now determined a model where the codex handles the attention span better, and we'll analyze how that works out next:
It is no surprise that people love lying down on a couch to read a book. The whole situation is naturally distraction-free and relaxing. That's how I read books for leisure, for example. But there are many other situations too in which people like to pick up and read a book: like when you're in a library. Or with a teacher in a classroom or while traveling on a plane or a train or by a river or on the beach. There are countless situations. A physical book works fine in nearly all places as long as it is not heavy to lug around and there aren't too many to carry.
With a physical book, the experience of turning a page to progress through a story gradually makes for a memorable 2 read. In fact to turn the page feels so nice that we even have a song go by its name to view story of our lives metaphorically. Going beyond experience page turns also happen to be the control of a book—it offers a candid control of the product. 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 compel the reader to stop and focus on the story before proceeding (transitioning) to the next page, shearing away our instinct to 'click and surf' capriciously. The eyes can rest while we process the text, take it all in. We thus begin a "memory palace building" exercise as soon as the book is opened.
For what its worth, page turns appear critical for experiencing books in a way similar to how play and stop buttons are for the video tag. 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 sensibilities 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 even 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 are at as a society. It doesn't pass the Occam's razor. Codex form on the other hand with ordinary page turns does the job simply. It aligns best with the intent of longform traversal like reading a book. If anything success of physical books despite every other industry buckling under the pressure of web is an ample indication of the missing piece. Sure page turns slow 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 helps me focus and read attentively without dragging my eyes for speed. Now, let's take a look at another issue of scroll depth over smartphone next.
Inaccessibility hiding in plain sight.
Here's a website (they call it a book) on Essentials of Image Optimizations by Addy Osmani.
Excellent write-up but it takes about ~90 (+/- 5) scroll actions using a mousewheel to reach the bottom of the essay while also maintaining the reading direction i.e. making sure I "saw" all of the content (am emulating experience of committing to and reading the book for real here) sequentially. The same website takes close to ~194 swipes to scroll down to the bottom on an iPhone X Safari and ~244 swipes on the Android Galaxy Express 3 while also ensuring that all of the content was seen by me. I don't know about others, but I'd never scroll deeper than seven times for even the best blogpost of this decade on my mobile. A maximum of ten swipes if it's really interesting content or an important one.
Scrolling 200 swipes down (really deep) on a mobile is an impossible feat. Expecting people to do it is rather inhumane. I'd buy a physical book instead. Besides the fact that it is nigh impossible to reach the end of a book by Addy Osmani this way simply because of the massive number of scroll-actions required to do so, it is also easy to be lifted off from the middle of the book by simply (or by accident) touching the bezel on top. Good luck trying to get back to the point in the book where you were lifted away from!
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 really 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."
From the definition of the most common form of modern book above (the codex volume) we can easily see that existing e-book solutions address only a part of what makes a book a book—portability, which no doubt is better solved with software, but they miss on the 'composition' and 'fan open for reading' part because, well, it has been traditionally difficult to implement and meet the specification as is without hurting accessibility.
Now that is about to change, as you'll soon see with Superbooks— our proposal.
What is a Superbook?
In software (or computer science) terms:
"Superbook means superclass of an object like book."
Going by the definition of a Superbook we can extract a technical re-definition of a book from its original definition as follows:
"Book is an ordered stack of nicely formatted pages."
…where stack in the definition above is a standard linear data structure (AST) that serves as a collection of pages over which mutative operations such as push, pop and peek could be carried out with the order of elements remaining sequential.
First principles thinking
In the physical world books and files are two separate class of products.
Files belong to the enterprise usecase whereas books belong to the consumer. Files represent bureaucracies whereas books represent what our children want (or the child within us that wants to listen to a story), and therefore product qualities and attributes are radically different. Books are about creativity, about counter-culturism and about overthrowing rotten ideals on our society. Files are more or less about encoding them.
As compared to how physical books are completely unrelated to physical files that we use in offices, in the world of software files get passed around as e-books regularly. Despite the fact that most file formats and related software has been developed keeping in mind the enterprise usecase first.
Which brings us to the second most important question: Why should an e-book book be a file at all?
Other than portability there dosn't seem to be a single quality or behavior that is shared between a book and a digital file. 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.
Applying first principles thinking here 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 treats a book like a first class citizen of web?
In other words, do existing e-book solutions which are essentially pestiferous files masquerading as e-books meet the definition of a book? Nope, it does not! Files are not a consumer product 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 most common form of modern book itself.
Unsurprisingly, the markets have made their 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 file form don't stand a chance all by themselves. We need something new, something ground-up! that is truer to the idea of books than files could ever be. This is especially true for consumers who have a high bar for experience and are about to pay for something that they really want.
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 fine on any device. See the current level of support. The book reader 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 at 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.
Our hope with Bubblin is to try and solve the following:
(A.) 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?
(B.) 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 the file that was downloaded and open it to read as opposed to, again, simply read on web?
- Give my rights to the book away or can I sell to make a profit and a living without having to?
- 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. I hope that some of you will find this project interesting and help us take books on web natively. Help us 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)