The Design and Construction of eBooks, by Steve Thomas

A Digression

eBooks vs. Print

The Romance of Books

You would think that by now, the “ebook vs. print” debate would be over. Not with a win to one side or the other, but in a draw, with everybody recognising that there are merits in both formats. It’s not difficult to find pro and con lists on the Web (my personal favourite is that you can’t throw an ebook across the room in disgust!) so I won’t replicate them here. But it is worth exploring some differences.

The first of these derives from what I’ll call the Romance of Books, which boils down to the tangible nature of print books. People love (or claim to love) the feel of books, the smell of books, the sight of a wall of shelves filled with books. And all of these things may be true*. But none of this has anything to do with the content of the book, so it’s irrelevant to the discussion. The book as art object, yes, I get that, but mostly there could be 200 blank pages between the oh-so-beautiful leather bound and hand tooled covers, and the attraction would still be there. (Granted, there are some books created to be art, such as the output of the Kelmscott press. But these are the exception.)

* Anyone who claims to love the smell of old leather bindings should be informed about the pure finders of old London, who earned a living collecting dog faeces for the tanners to use in making the leather for books.


In an age of near-ubiquitous network access, availability is one area in which ebooks have an overwhelming advantage. To someone who has spent many hours in bookshops hunting fruitlessly for a copy of a wanted book, the ability to simply locate and download to your ereader in minutes is like a miracle. Unless you live next door to a large bookshop, the closest you can get in the print world is ordering online; but you still have to wait days or weeks for delivery.

One pleasure that’s lost with ebooks is that of browsing in bookshops, something I still enjoy often. But that has more to do with the Romance of books than with their content.


It’s difficult now to imagine, but when William Collins introduced the Pocket Classics series, ca. 1906, it must have seemed revolutionary. Before then, most books would have been large, with solid, expensive bindings, the sort of thing available only to the rich or through libraries. The Pocket Classics, and then the Everyman series and later Penguin paperbacks, put the world of books within reach of, well, Everyman. Moreover, books for the first time became portable. They could easily fit into a coat pocket, and could be read one-handed while commuting.

The ebook responds to this demand for “read anywhere” convenience, and extends it to the point where one can carry a device with a whole library of books that still fits into a coat pocket.


Another issue that frequently appears in these discussions is permanence. And yes, acid paper aside, print is certainly durable, with books printed 500 years ago still readable today. Against that we have the intangible nature of the digital book: dropped your ereader and didn’t have backup? Too bad, goodbye library! Also, a book purchased is yours to keep, for ever, while an ebook may turn out to have been merely “rented” from Amazon if they decide to withdraw the title1, or that you’ve transgressed one of their rules.2

1 Amazon Erases Orwell Books From Kindle, New York Times, July 17, 2009.

2 Amazon wipes customer’s Kindle and deletes account with no explanation, The Guardian, 22 October 2012.

On the other hand, a print library can be destroyed by fire or flood or vermin, while a collection of Amazon ebooks can be magically resurrected when your broken Kindle is replaced. Also, leaving aside questions of licensing (DRM) for the moment, any digital file, including ebooks, can be copied and recopied without loss, and stored in multiple places. With distributed web storage, there is now no reason to fear the loss of a collection. Files can always be recovered if there are copies.


Once I’ve created an ebook, as a single HTML file, that file can be easily adapted by conversion to other formats: I can split it into chapters for a multi-file ebook for the web; I can convert it into an ePub format for compliant ereader devices such as the Kobo, iPad and Nook; I can convert the same file into the proprietary Kindle format. Three different versions, all from the same file.

If I have a Penguin edition of David Copperfield, that’s all it will ever be. I cannot use it to produce a braille, audio or large print version. It is what it is: not very adaptable.


There are obvious environmental arguments against print: the destruction of trees to make paper; the energy needed to transport books from printer to bookstore; and the costs of storage. By comparison, ebooks are clean and efficient: no materials are used to create them; they weigh nothing, and require no trucks or stores to make them available.

The truth is more complex: the environmental costs for ebooks are hidden -- electricty is required to transmit them and to present them on a screen; and the power costs of huge data centers such as Amazon’s is a subject of some concern. And on the plus side for print, it amounts to significant carbon sequestration over long periods.


No contest here: a print book, used with care, will still wear out, sooner or later, according to the quality of the paper and binding. Whereas an ebook can be read, copied, and distributed infinitely without loss.


Usability and readability issues will be explored in depth in the next chapter. Suffice to say here that while the design of print books has been refined over 500 years, and may therefore be expected to have reached a state of near perfection, that perfection also means that the format is now an obstacle to expanding functionality.

In contrast, the ebook format is giving us opportunities to extend the idea of the book in ways that are not possible with print. Two obvious examples are search, where the reader is now able to find specific parts of a work using a keyword search; and copy/paste, where the user can easily select portions of a text to copy into other documents. But we can also extend an ebook with the addition of multimedia and reference links. For example, an essay from Virginia Woolf is enhanced with the addition of an audio recording of her reading the essay; Cook’s Journal is enhanced with links from the text to Google Maps.

Size matters . . . only in print.

Working with ebooks, I realised that much of existing publishing practice was a direct response to the problems of print: large works needed to be bound as multiple volumes; small works (short stories, essays, etc.) needed to be bound with other items to make the exercise worthwhile. With an ebook, it doesn’t matter what size the work is, it can still be produced as an ebook: seven pages, or 7,000 pages, it’s the same result: a digital file.

That’s why, with the ebooks collection, I’ve been “unbundling” some collected editions into their component parts. E.g. the essays of George Orwell, which range far and wide over many topics, and included extracts from some of his novels. Some of his essays, e.g. Politics and the English Language, stand well on their own, in fact deserve to stand on their own. But at a mere eleven pages, you’ll never see an edition in print.

As for larger works, spread over several print volumes, that usually makes no sense in the ebook world. E.g. Richard Burton’s translation of The Thousand Nights and a Night, originally 16 volumes, including six supplements, is now a single ebook. In the original, stories spanned two separate volumes, so clearly the volumes were simply an artefact of printing.

Other artefacts of print include:

We’re only just beginning to discover ways in which ebooks can liberate us from the restrictions and limitations of print.

* To see how notes can be handled in ebooks, have a look at the Thousand Nights and a Night).

Last updated Tuesday, January 26, 2016 at 23:27