AWhen my friend Greg Seaton brought up a problem he saw with the way reference material such as maps are presented in e-books, I encouraged him to write his opinions up for TeleRead—and here they are. —C.M.

As someone who reads a lot of fiction books, and enjoys a good fantasy novel every now and again, I feel there is a great deal to be said about J.R.R Tolkien. Lord of the Rings has had a lasting effect on the genre. Best known, of course are the fantasy races other authors have used again and again.

However, one of the other effects has been the ubiquitous use of reference material. Fantasy, especially epic fantasy, loves its reference material the way a research paper loves its citations (of reference material). I won’t say it’s difficult to find a fantasy novel that doesn’t have reference material, but it does seem to be something that many authors do, given the chance.

I have been rereading the Wheel of Time series by the late Robert Jordan in anticipation of the release of the fourteenth and final book of the series, A Memory of the Light, which is due out sometime early 2013. When I originally began reading the series, I got the books, one by one, out of the local libraries, and read them. This time around, I’ve been buying them from for Kindle on my iPad.

And that’s where I found myself running into problems with the reference material. For those who don’t know, the Wheel of Time series is a complicated series, set in a well developed universe. Part of that development is the use of extensive resources like a map of the “Westlands”, as well as an extensive glossary of terms and characters at the end. Of course, those familiar with Lord of the Rings know this pales next to Tolkien’s reams of reference, but it is still pretty significant.

Given how important reference material is to this sort of fiction, I find myself somewhat unimpressed by the way that the material is handled in Kindle—which is to say it’s handled poorly.

Firstly, I’m not particularly happy with how the maps themselves are presented within the book. Keeping in mind that in a paper book the maps were double paged, for some reason the maps have also been double paged—except that as an ebook, holding it vertically rather then horizontally, I’m only going to see one page at a time.

BCAt the top of this post is a picture of the hard cover edition of The Gathering Storm’s map. Left is the picture, from a landscape and portrait mode iPad, of the maps included in The Eye of the World, the first book of the series. (Click each image for a close-up view.)

EIt’s somewhat more embarrassing in The Dragon Reborn, in which the map manages to be split between two pages.

Now, that’s one part of a problem, but here’s the other—it’s rather difficult to access these reference materials. In a paper book, it’s really just a matter of remembering where, in general, the map or other resource is located, typically at the front or back of the book, then flipping through the pages in that area until you find what you’re after. Now, in my ebook version—it’s a bit different. And difficult.

FAs you can see, Kindle has a ‘Go To’ menu, but as you can also see, it doesn’t actually helpfully point you to what you might be looking for—if you want to look at the maps, you need to either go to the table of contents, and select maps. Bookmark or otherwise note the map and then use the Go To, then jump to it, or remember the page number of the page.

GDon’t be fooled by the “book extras” tab either; in theory it ought to be really helpful or useful, in practice it’s not. This appears to be because Amazon wants us to use a wiki-style system to add the terms, to the glossary, say, ourselves, and while some parts are fairly well detailed, such as the short bio for Rand al’Thor, it’s less so for some of the other characters. Or Places. Or—

And you’ll note that there’s no maps all in there either.

JIAnd this isn’t a problem exclusive to the Wheel of Time series either. Here’s a map from Brandon Sanderson’s second Mistborn novel that has the same problems, and a screen capture from the Warrior Cats series by Erin Hunter, where the map problem is, if possible, even worse (The problem isn’t exclusive to just one publisher).

So what’s my point? It seems to me that publishers ought to be doing a mu

ch better job with the publication of ebooks, and how they represent and provide access to reference material. Keep in mind that, until I started writing this article, I never realized Mistborn had maps of any sort, because rather then starting me at the cover, ebooks start me at the first page of actual text—a nice feature, but it’s only really highlighting the problem with the serial presentation of information, a style of presentation that, it seems, does not need to exist in ebooks.

In some ways, I think we’re looking at ebooks all wrong. We keep looking at them as if they’re books but they’re not. Publishers ought to stop thinking as if ebooks are books, and start thinking of them as stories, and considering how the author intended the reference material to be of use to the text. I don’t really buy into the whole notion of ‘interactive’ ebooks or whatever you want to call them, because most of the ideas, of putting some sort of strange multimedia spin on the book format, really isn’t necessary. But It seems to me it’s also not necessary to stay within the confines of a book’s format either.


  1. I wondered whether there was a market for a ‘deluxe’ edition of ebooks like this that would come on a CD-Rom packaged like a DVD or music CD, thus allowing for the reference material to be published as a separate paper booklet or even as separate files (high-quality PDFs?) – material which could perhaps then be omitted from cheaper ‘text only’ versions of the ebook. It’s good to see illustrative screen shots in the article.

  2. I wonder how much of this a publisher actually has control over. It seems to me they are likely limited by what the e-reader or e-reading app and the book format can support and thinking outside the box likely would involve hardware/software design decisions.

    I do know what the author is talking about, though. I frequently have to refer to the maps in the Game of Thrones series and the Kindle maps are just not usable to me (although I didn’t have a problem bookmarking them and then using the bookmark to access them). It is just the visibility/readability that was difficult. That series does provide a link to the maps online that can be printed out and that is what I ended up doing.

  3. I realized much the same thing with I read the Jules Verne classic, The Mysterious Island, as an ebook. To follow the tale, you really need the maps that are in the printed version but not in the ebook version I had.

    Some of the problem lies in distraction. Those who ought to be adding useful features like convenient links to maps and character descriptions, are all aflutter over impractical and costly features such as adding video and audio. They seem clueless about just how expensive even a third-rate video would be to produce.

    Compounding the problem, with the current ebook formats, those who layout ebooks have almost no ability to help readers by doing the layout right. In the case of accompanying maps, it’d be great if the person doing layout could, for instance, have a small M icon appear on screen for all the pages between two points in the text. That M would link to the map needed to understand what’s happening at this point in the story.

    The other distraction is all the gushing about ‘choosing your own font and font size.’ I’ve been reading for almost sixty years, and I’ve never had the slightest interest in playing with fonts in the books I read. That’s something I expect the publisher to do and do well. But on result of this silly geeky pushing of all the ‘control’ onto readers is that authors and publishers can’t integrate much ‘look and feel’ into their tales. A dark Gothic novel needs a dark font. A happy sit-com needs one that’s lighter.

    Thanks for the article. Sadly, I’ve concluded that those who’re currently driving the ebook market, mostly executives at Amazon and Apple as well as the big publishers, are so clueless that the only way to deal with them is to criticize and criticize.

    Apple’s iBooks Author, for instance, could have been a marvelous tool. Instead, Apple consulted only with high-school textbook developers at the major publishers and created a tool that’s only good for the bloated, pointless-picture-infected textbooks they create. And they created a ‘for us only’ format when the real need are good editors for epub. Apple promised to go with an industry-standard format to attract publishers and now they’re playing the same proprietary game as Amazon.

    It reminds of all the madness around browsers and non-standard HTML during the mid-90s.

  4. Wouldn’t it be a useful exercise to attempt addressing these issues with standard and unfettered (w/ DRM) ePub version 3, ePub fixed layout and *.ibooks in a “shoot out” style competition? We’re beginning to see some clever things being done outside of Amazon. The Kindle is something of a straw man in this discussion.

  5. I’ve been noticing the same thing with travel books – Overdrive offers quite a few for library collections, and for the Adobe Digital Editions/Nook, Sony, etc combination, it’s pretty pathetic. I hear it’s also similar for Kindle and even iPad, but my personal experience is with a Nook.

    EPUB format cuts images off at the bottom when viewed in ADE on a computer (although the complete image can be seen on the Nook) so maps and the beautiful travel photos are compromised. And on both the Nook and the ADE, the lack of ‘zoomability’ means that most of the maps are way too small to be readable.

    PDF format works better in the ADE window on your computer monitor, although the resolution is still too poor for maps to be of much use. And if you transfer the file to the Nook, the text blocks are chopped up and distributed seemingly at random – inserted commentary in a separate ‘box’ gets spliced in next to restaurant reviews, and so forth.

    According to the guidance given for format/device compatibility, both EPUB and PDF books are compatible with ADE and Nook/Sony/Kobo etc. However, the practical experience leads me to believe that the publishers of those lovely, shiny travel guides to Barcelona, Las Vegas and beyond are in no danger of having customers load up a vacation’s worth of ebooks on their e-reader instead of packing a stack of travel guidebooks.

    And that’s probably just what they want.

  6. I don’t really think it’s the E-Readers as much as the lack of effort to make the adjustments to the original material for the readers. The conversions are usually made directly from the original; when they need to be manually corrected for the readers. It’s because the publishers don’t want to take the time or use the resources to make a conversion the way they should.

  7. One of the problems with the native format of the Kindle, Mobipocket, has a 63kb limit for images. Presumably the new Kindle format that’s apparently loosely based on ePub3 will not have this issue, but anything that is first constructed for Mobipocket and then converted to ePub or other formats, will only have low-resolution images available.

  8. Interesting. I got the information on the 63kb image size from a page at, Amazon must not be updating the mobipocket website. In looking at the Amazon Kindle Publishing Guidelines, they say the KF8 format supports 256KB images, and the earlier formats support 128KB images. For a detailed illustration/map, even 256KB may be low resolution for for a reader app that supports zooming and panning. My guess is that when maps are created for ebooks, they scan an image and create a JPG instead of generating their maps as SVG graphics. If so, it just turns into blocky images if one zooms in.

  9. I agree with some comments here. Forget the Kindle, for a moment. eBook and Kindle are not the same thing. But, the market share of Kindle does effect our thinking.

    ePub 3.0 should make this better and Amazon is realizing its ancient Mobi format is out of step with ePub. Publishers are limited in their bandwidth of making a general purpose eBook, versus one specifically for Kindle, B&N, and Apple, which account for about 95% of the market.

    PDF’s are not the route as they are bloated and not handled all that well as books by the three retailers I mention.

    When the devices and the software on them embrace epub 3.0 I believe you will see publishers taking advantage of ability to have resizeable images and dynamic changes based on the device (color/bw/resolution/size).

    It is not that we think of these only in “book” form, but that we fall back to the lowest common denominator that captures most of the market. Even if both B&N and Apple would agree to full implementation of ePub 3.0 you would see some interesting things happen, but for now the market is factured with Kindle = 60% + of the market, B&N about 20-25% and Apple the 5-8%.

    We think of all of our new books as eBooks first, THEN print, so this philosophy alone should help.

    I think the next year will be exiciting.

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail