On a Murphy’s Laws calendar I once had, I found Weinberg’s Second Law, which goes “If builders built buildings the way programmers write programs, then the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization.”

What about if programmers made e-books?

The Toronto Review of Books has an interview with Chris Stevens, the co-creator of the Alice in Wonderland iPad app that has gotten a lot of positive attention. The discussion of the development of the app out of a public domain title is interesting in its own right, but in part of this interview, Stevens speaks out about what he sees as a succession of “lacklustre iPad titles” coming from apathetic publishers.

What’s happening at the moment is that most publishers are handing their major titles over to app developers who are ruining these titles with rushed, unprofessional layout and design. There is this weird situation where programmers are suddenly being given free reign to design books. We watch as publishers like Random House outsource the design of cherished titles to programmers who—despite their excellence at programming—are not designers. The complete lack of care and attention paid to the production of digital books is genuinely mystifying.

Of course, he’s by and large talking about e-book apps, rather than the standard words-on-screen e-reader formats that people consume on their Kindles or Nooks (or Kindle or Nook iPad apps), but there have also been people who complain that slavish attempts to reproduce a print book on a screen rather than adapting it to make use of all the potential of the new medium are themselves a disservice to the material.

Still, words-on-screen e-books will probably be with us for a good long time, and it’s hard to see what a programmer could do to mess those up.

(Found via Slashdot.)


  1. What a lot of nonsense. I have worked with programmers and they consistently tend to do what they are asked to do. Blaming them is a cop out.

    This stinks to high heaven of passing the book syndrome.

    The Publishers and Editors are responsible for the product; for guiding the programmers and for the design and content of their products.

    If they fail to give guidance, fail to apply control, fail to make decisions, fail to supervise, fail to draw up quality specifications, and fail to hold back sub standard products – then this is a total failure by the Publishers and Editors.

    Blaming the programmers is unbelievably lame.

  2. As opposed to publishers still not understanding how to design and format straight text ebooks? For example, I found ebooks by traditional publishers without logical TOC, formatted as if a typewriter was all they got (ALL CAPS, underlined text), with missing characters replaced by question marks, with hyphenated words in mid line, and more.

  3. We usually think of books coming about as the result of editors and assistant editors working with what authors have wrought. If the author is still alive, they are usually consulted. Even where images are introduced, such as with the cover, all of the folks involved understand both the story and the proposed imagry well enough to participate in the discussions that lead to decisions.
    Does this level of involvement and responsibility extend to the programmer? That is the important question raised here. Doing what they are told to do may not be sufficient if the editor/director doesn’t possess mastery of both the story and the technology.
    Perhaps authors should expand the scope of their interest from just the words to sounds, images (both static and moving) and interactivity of all sorts.
    We are being pushed into a new definition of what is is to write.

  4. The problem isn’t hard to diagnosis. There’s still no equivalent of PDF and InDesign/QuarkExpress for ebooks. It’s like the Wild West. There are no effective tools to create an ebook that looks good when any complexity at all is involved.. None.

    Digital publishing is not like paper. Neither ePub nor mobi give those who do layout and formatting much ability to control how an ebook looks on one device, much less on dozens of devices. Mobi won’t even let someone right indent and throughout the industry there’s this silly idea that readers are begging for the opportunity to choose their own font. I’ve read thousands of print books in my lifetime, and the desire to do that has never occurred to me. I want someone else to do it and do it right. I no more want to choose the font than I want to write the plot.

    Compounding the problem, almost everyone who knows layout doesn’t want to code and everyone who knows how to code isn’t interested in layout. There’s no application like InDesign to bridge the gap and there’s no intelligent way to drive layout when the page size can vary over a ten-to-one ratio. The industry still hasn’t figured that it needs to design smart layout standards and tools that adapt to look well on any sized display. Until we have that, ebooks won’t measure up to even the first generation of printed books.

    Then there’s Amazon and Apple. Amazon wants to crush the life out of the rest of book industry, so it doesn’t want to see any standards develop. Standards would make competition with it easier.

    Apple is no better. It thinks glitzy, costly-to-produce interactive books are the wave of the future simply because they look good on iPads and because it thinks everyone else has a mental age and attention span of a teenager. (To see that illustrated, check out their ads.) That’s nonsense. Interactivity costs far too much to even do badly. To do it well costs a fortune.

    And no, we’re not “being pushed into a new definition of what it is to write.” I lived through this same silliness about interactive, multi-media in the late 1980s when I did some contract work for Microsoft. All that was as easily done with CD-ROMs as it is with iPads, but the market died. The costs of production were too high and the market was too small. People who want that sort of entertainment turn or their TV or watch a movie.

    Creating sounds, images and things that bleep when you click on them are fine for little kids, who standards are low and whose attention spans are measured in seconds. But for adults, you’ve got to not look cheesy and quality takes enormous amounts of time and money. A one-minute video that’s merely tolerable can take a team of experts a day and thousands of dollars to create. Very, very few writers have the time or money for that.

    And with YouTube entertainment already available, no one is going to buy an ebook just because you’ve added a couple of minutes in which your kids fake a sword fight in your backyard that in your fantasy novel takes place between giants on a mountain top. And creating a realistic looking fight between real made-up actors on location will cost the sorts of budgets only blockbuster movies can afford.

    No, books need to stay words that stimulate our imaginations. What we need are the tools to make those ebooks look at least half as good on screen as printed books.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of Untangling Tolkien

  5. Given that EPUB 3 and HTML 5 are on a convergent course, it might be useful to look into some of the tools available to web developers and consider how eBooks would benefit from similar tools. There are several applications such as Rapidweaver (http://www.realmacsoftware.com/rapidweaver/overview/) that enable web developers to concentrate more of their time and energy on the content without writing any HTML code at all and without sacrificing good design.
    Why can’t we have tools like this for eBooks? Apple’s Pages application made a good start in this direction. Perhaps they will do more. Perhaps others will see an opportunity here.
    I think that the time may be ripe for it.


    Publisher’s note: The above Rapidweaver link won’t work. Try this instead: http://wiht.link/rapidweaver-primer – DR

  6. “…books need to stay words that stimulate our imaginations.”

    This statement doesn’t really square with your comments about right-indenting and “this silly idea that readers are begging for the opportunity to choose their own font”. If it’s all about the words then why do you care so much about how the words look?

    I haven’t seen a single bit of formatting in any ebook yet that couldn’t have been accomplished with HTML 1.0.

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