Don’t get me wrong — I love my Sony 505 and read on it every day for at least a couple of hours. But what I read on it are novels, fiction that goes in one brain cell and out the other, rarely making a lasting impression. (There are a few exceptions, such as Shayne Parkinson’s Promises to Keep quartet [see On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept] which I keep thinking about and wondering why no major traditional publisher has scooped her up, in contrast to Ruth Francisco’s Amsterdam 2012, which I have yet to review because it was such a disappointment, yet the storyline is intriguing and one I think about, but I keep wondering where to begin a fair review).

No, the problem is with the mainstay of my reading — nonfiction, particularly history and biography. I keep trying to read nonfiction biography and history in ebook form and I inevitably stop and return to the pbook version. This shouldn’t be; there is nothing inherently wrong with the ebook experience — or there shouldn’t be — to make reading of nonfiction so difficult for me. Yet, it is.

I have been trying to analyze why and have yet to come up with a satisfactory answer. Surely part of the problem is the way ebooks handle images, which is poorly. I admit that I don’t really care about studying the fake maps that some novels include for “informational” purposes. I’m not really looking to delve into the deep psychoses of the characters or the lands; I’m looking for easy entertainment after a day of reading and correcting manuscript. But in nonfiction books, I really do care about the maps and photos. I don’t want to commit them to memory, but they often provide an insight to the history being related. When told that an army marched 60 miles, I find it hard to imagine how long and hard a march that must have been 2000 years ago and a map helps. When describing a sarcophagus, a photograph helps. And these are weak points of ebooks — the ability to show such images clearly and in a readable form. The problems lie in how the ebook file was created and in the fact that I am trying to view the image on a 6-inch grayscale screen (although I’m not sure that a 6-inch color screen would be much improvement).

Perhaps another problem I have is that most histories and many biographies are riddled with footnotes (or endnotes) and references. (For my view of the use of these notes, see Footnotes, Endnotes, & References: Uses & Abuses.) I know that some readers, if not most, simply bypass these annoyances, but I admit I’m one who reads everything in a book, including the copyright page. I find myself compelled to check the notes and references — the notes because authors too often have some of the most valuable information tucked away in them, and the references because they often lead to other books I need to buy. (My to-be-purchased [TBP] list is probably as long as, perhaps even longer than, my to-be-read [TBR] list; usually what holds me back from buying a book on my TBP list is the cost. These books tend to be out of print and if I am going to buy an out-of-print book, I want to buy it as a first edition, first printing, in near fine or better condition — not a cheap undertaking in many cases.) Sadly, too many ebooks come with broken links to the notes and references because publishers and/or the converters of the books do a lackadaisical job of activating the links.

Consequently, I am always in a struggle when it comes to buying ebooks. I have little hesitation with fiction, it being difficult for publishers and converters to do a horrendous job (although far from impossible as many ebookers can attest) and because so much fiction can be bought so very inexpensively, but I hesitate, and hesitate, and hesitate when it comes to nonfiction. With one exception, For the Thrill of It by Simon Baatz, the story of the Leopold and Loeb murder trial and Clarence Darrow’s brilliant defense, which focused not on guilt or innocence but on the death penalty, my nonfiction purchases have been unsatisfactory and have resulted in my purchasing the pbook version. Some examples are Bruce Watson’s Sacco and Vanzetti and Taylor Branch’s trilogy about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement, Pillar of Fire, Parting the Waters, and At Canaan’s Edge. (If you haven’t read these books by Baatz, Watson, and Branch, put them on your list. It is better to read them as ebooks than not to read them at all.)

I keep trying, however, to read nonfiction in ebook form. I have purchased and tried reading in ebook form several books but nearly always gave way to finishing reading in the pbook form. Perhaps it is the ease of accessing the notes and images, perhaps it is easier to contemplate passages, reread them for deeper meaning or better understanding, perhaps it is just me. I’m not certain about the ”why” but I am certain that authors, publishers, and converters have to spend more time and effort thinking about ebook design and how an ebook is read (or, in the case of nonfiction, how it should be read) by the reader. At the current juncture of development, ebooks are ideal for fiction, less so for nonfiction, but there is no reason why the ebook form shouldn’t be/can’t be ideal for any type of book.

(P.S. Some worthwhile nonfiction books I have bought in both ebook and pbook form are the following: On the Laps of Gods: The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice That Remade a Nation by Robert Whitaker; From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America by Christopher Finan, The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God by Jonathan Kirsch; The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker; A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign by Edward J. Larson; The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature by Steven Pinker; The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox by Stephen Budiansky; and The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher by Debby Applegate. I recommend each of these books whether you read them in ebook or pbook form.)

Via An American Editor blog.


  1. First of all, if I recall correctly, you are an Anti-Amazon Kindle person. That may be part of the problem. here’s why-

    1) Utilizing maps, etc in a non-fiction book is not difficult if you bookmark the page and can get back to it quickly. Easily done with the Kindle, NOT so with the nook or the Sony.

    2) Linked footnotes is a hit or miss situation in ebooks. If you bought it as a Kindle book, and the footnotes didn’t link, you could cancel the sale within a week and get a full refund. NOT so with Sony of B & N.

    Are you seeing a pattern here? Your aversion to Amazon is your problem- especially when the Kindle is a better product than the nook or Sony readers, and Amazon customer service is excellent, and infinitely better than the others.

    Think about it.

  2. I’m looking forward to the K3 and seeing how the sharper contrast helps maps and images, but my experience has been that the K2 was a big improvement in this area over the K1.

    As for footnotes, it’s true that especially early on, books just didn’t have them or they were broken, but I’m finding more often these days, the footnotes are there and the links work. With working links, it’s easier for me to follow the footnotes on ebooks than on pbooks, because I just click on the link, read the note, and hit the back button to return to the text. Again, the K2 was a substantial improvement over the K1 in user interface.

    I have no experience with the Sony ereaders, so I don’t know how they handle footnotes.

  3. @Richard Askenase —

    When footnotes work, I have had no problem with my Sony in accessing them. The problem has been that too often the footnotes don’t work.

    I don’t know whether Sony would give me a refund or not; I’ve never asked because the person who shares my account with me prefers to ignore footnotes so the books are getting read, just not by me.

    You misconstrue the maps problem. It is not in accessing them but in being able to read them. My neighbor’s Kindle doesn’t do any better job on that count than my Sony. It is a problem of screen size and e-ink capabilities.

    And perhaps you are right that Amazon is, as they used to say, the “bee’s knees” when it comes to ebooks and perhaps you are happy to have an ebook world with only one ebook seller, but I’m not. I’m perfectly happy buying my nonfiction in hardcover, which I will pass down to my grandchildren (who will look in awe at these ancient artifacts and wonder how valuable they are on the antiques market), rather than help make Amazon the only survivor in the ebook business. Perhaops I might feel differently if Jeff Bezos weren’t a clone of Steve Jobs, but he is and I don’t. Someday I may be forced to concede, but I don’t expect that to occur for a long time to come, and hopefully never.

  4. Rich is not alone in having non-fiction e-book reading difficulties. In a study I undertook some time ago I interviewed academics about their reading. The study suggests that academics seldom read a scholarly book (or article)from beginning to end, but rather in parts and certainly out of order, using hands and fingers flicking back and forth, underlining and annotating. No e-readers (neither applications or devices) seems as yet to have developed features to serve this kind of discontinuous and active reading.

    Reading of non-fiction, however, is of many kinds; the highly multi-modal kind of reading (with a combination of text, photos, drawings, maps etc.) being common, especially in magazines, textbooks and all kind of special subject book (cooking, traveling, gardening, insects, bicycles etc.)) Neither for multi-modal reading are dedicated e-paper reading devices especially useful, the iPad probably being the best.

    Nevertheless, reading of non-fiction books for pleasure (and not for study or research) is not very dissimilar to reading novels, provided that the books are not too heavily illustrated or footnoted. This kind of reading should, in principle be comparable to reading of fiction.

    For more on the subject, see my article in First Monday on digital reading spaces:

  5. I see no reason why non-fiction cannot be formatted perfectly acceptably for eDevices. It’s all about formatting, indexing, contents listing, images and diagrams…

    It would seem that the Sony 505 is one to avoid 🙂

  6. “When footnotes work, I have had no problem with my Sony in accessing them. The problem has been that too often the footnotes don’t work.”

    This is like using the Ford Pinto to support an argument that automobiles are a failed technology and inferior to the horse-and-buggy.

  7. I too have the same problem with non-fiction ebooks. I think it’s more my mind set than the fault of my reader. With non-fiction, I need to think more and frequently refer back to previous pages. I find it easier to flip back through actual pages than to “turn” the pages on my Kindle. Plus I need the physical act of dragging my highlighter over the text to help cement the idea in my mind. While I know that I can do that on my Kindle, the effect just isn’t the same. Like you, I gobble up fiction books on my Kindle, but for non-fiction epepecially if it is related to info I may be using in the classroom, I prefer paper. I do think that this is more a comment of my age. I think younger people who grew up with most of the technology that we are currently using probably don’t have this problem.

  8. I haven’t had a problem reading non-fiction on my Kindle, but the non-fiction I’ve been reading does not have a lot of footnotes, diagrams, etc.

    I find that I don’t like reading anything that is non-linear like newspapers or magazines. I also prefer print books for any type of “how to” materials.

  9. Some time back, Elsevier was actually leaving images out of the articles they were publishing in electronic form for universities. For professional/scientific materials in such areas as.. GEOLOGY.

    Needless to say, there was considerable agitation about this on the part of the users, since the articles were *pointless* without the accompanying graphical information.

    Trade publishers are far newer at this kind of thing than Elsevier. But for it to change, we need to agitate — not just reject the technology. Rich, your interesting post counts as ‘agitating’. We should all be doing the same thing. The e-book should not be a lesser work than the print version (in cases where the print version is the original). Period.

    Amazon has been listening pretty hard to people who read. So in many e-books which contain images, the capability to zoom in is an added feature. Hate to say it, but depending on the condition of one’s eyes, that could be *better* than print. Have to see this new ‘Pearl’ display.

    Amazon should wise up about library lending, and get serious about negotiating e-book licensing for in-copyright titles in languages other than English. If they do these things, I will probably be their customer for life.

  10. I’ve been reading ebooks for a long, long time, my fiction I only buy in ebook. The article made me think why I’ve never brought a non fiction ebooks. There are some books, mainly on cookery, art & design, gardening, that I still buy only paper.

    Books where the layout and design matters still work best in paper (or PDF but I dislike adobe after losing books to their restrictive drm but that’s another story) . Admittedly I can only judge on the few samples I gotten from iBooks but things like the great illustrations, interesting layout, wonderful photography just aren’t there. I’ve had bad experiences with things like maps and family trees being appalling in fiction books in other formats, either split over pages or just small images which I have to fiddle around with, which puts me off trying non-fic.
    I read magazines on my iPad. And the PDFs read very well. Ok I can’t change the font size but I can pinch to zoom and still get the benefit of great illustrations and layout. But the way epub and kindle show books with the illustrations just plonked in the middle of the page is not going to get me to hand over £25+ for a book when I’m not getting a copy of the lavishly illustrated paper book. Or even a version made especially as an ebook.

    At the moment publishers seen to be content with just feeding the manuscript through a mill and churning out lackluster versions. It would be great if they invested some time into producing well designed ebooks. Yet they seen to quite content with charging the same amount of money for a product which doesn’t have the same overheads ie paper printing costs and which they obiviously haven’t spent the same time adapting to the ebook format as they did with the print format.

    Don’t get me wrong I want to change to non fic ebooks, I really do. I’m not one of those people who can’t change because well they don’t just “smell” the same. I don’t want all sing and dancing ebooks with extras like video and social networking, just a nice book with footnotes that work and pretty pictures.
    But at the moment non-fiction ebooks don’t do it for me just yet.

  11. I have a 505, but I’ve been severely tempted to get an Ipad specifically for non-fiction. Especially reference materials I can use in my writing, so I know I can quickly refer to them and have them available in an easily browsable form. I can read non-fiction on the ereader, but not the kind, necessarily, with a lot of tables or diagrams or whatnot.

    I think if you were to ask enough people you might find this to be the case more often than not. Give it a little time, and I think most people will own both types of machines for different reading purposes.

  12. Magazines, journals, fiction and non-fiction books can all be well displayed on the screen. I think that magazines are displayed best on the screen and non-fiction books much less well. One aspect that hasn’t been mentioned is that non-fiction works relate to other such works and those relations must be kept in mind. Magazines probably relate to previous issues in only minor ways.

    So why would such cross work relations be different on paper or screen? Well paper books augment the conceptual relations between works physically while the electronic reading device can not present this background of physical shelf array or quick cross reference.

  13. I just read fiction on my 505, and made the jump to the Kindle DX a month ago just for the reasons you described.

    Although I find it very good in displaying PDF books, I second the problems you describe:
    current technology – even Amazon large-display technology – is still unable to catch on the p-book experience.
    I’ll keep near to me my paper books for the immediate future…

  14. Something like 95% of my Kindle content is non-fiction, and I even buy in Kindle format, books I already own and enjoy in hard copy.

    Why? Because the e-copies are always with me and I can read them anywhere I happen to be, when I am in the mood for that.

    As for flipping, normally one would know what they are flipping back for, and in my case I just search on a key word or phrase and that gives me the first instance, with context around it, as a part of 5 or 6 rows of other search-results, shown in the order they appear in the book. They’re hyperlinked, so I can jump to the the one I wanted, to look at again.

    My favorite new KBook is “Photography: An Illustrated History (Oxford Illustrated Histories).” The publisher formatted the images very well for the Kindle. I view that in both the DX and 6″ formats. The DX is better for that but it’s also very good on the Kindle 6.

    Less acceptable are books with images that were prepared carefully for the first Kindle, which was not only small but managed only 4 shades of gray.
    Pixelation occurs with zoom-ins when the image resolution is low.
    However, with books using inferior images I can just return it for a refund within 7 days.

    I’m not sure what the problems are with reading non-fiction but it must have a lot to do with expectations. It could also be that we have more distractions with even a dedicated e-reader than we do with the paper book.

    For me, the fragmentary style of reading non-fiction makes it even more likely to be a plus for me on the Kindle. Nevertheless, a beautiful hard copy with ultimate resolution in good illustrations can’t be beat. But I like that both are available to me and I take advantage of the always-there availability of the digital version.

    Highlighting. People ask why I do that so much, and I explain that the act of highlighting a passage (which we can modify when doing it digitally, something you can’t do with hardcopies) helps me burn in a better memory or awareness of it. And I like to be able to look for my annotations so I can share thoughts about those with friends.

    I don’t see why yellow-fatlining is any better than watching the gray highlighting over the span of whatever is important to one, unless color is an important factor (could be!) and we’ve been trained to feel that THIS ‘is’ highlighting.

    Gray is … gray. Maybe yellow just stimulates our psyches more.

  15. I am a recent e-reader owner. And I love it for fiction. I have started reading some nonfiction as well. But I agree some nonfiction are better enjoyed in print form. I bought the updated nook which does have bookmarking features.
    I have found fewer nonfiction titles available for my ereader. I get many title from the public library’s website, which uses Overdrive to provide eBooks. (BTW you cannot read on Amazon’s Kindle or the iPad.) So I am also anti-Kindle and anit-iPad.

  16. I love my Sony as well but you are right about the graphics. Authors and publishers are going to have to become aware of the limitations of graphics on ebook readers. I think publishers should provide pictures separately with a reference in the book then you could view them individually either on the ebook or on your computer.

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