Yesterday I mentioned a couple of stories of how people had become new Kindle users. But today on TechCrunch, Sarah Lacy posts an article about why the Kindle is losing her. While there are a number of possible reasons one might think paper books are better than e-books (including aroma), Lacy’s reason comes down to simple annoyance at a lack of page numbers. In particular, she found herself at a loss for how to cite books she read on Kindle in her academic papers.

The Kindle does have “locations.” The logic seems to be that because the Kindle allows you to change the font size, you can’t have page numbers because there are a different number of words on your Kindle pages. I guess some brainiac didn’t think there’d be any reason to add a feature that correlates those “locations” to the actual page numbers. Newsflash Amazon: You can’t force the academic world to change pages to locations in footnotes and assignments. You want that market? You have to design for it.

I wonder which “actual page numbers” she means? Depending on the size of the book and the font, there can be lots of different “page numbers” for a book in print, depending on whether the work is a paperback, trade paperback, hardcover, etc.

In the follow-up discussion of the article, some readers point out that the Chicago Manual of Style offers a guide to citing e-books:

If a book is available in more than one format, cite the version you consulted. For books consulted online, list a URL; include an access date only if one is required by your publisher or discipline. If no fixed page numbers are available, you can include a section title or a chapter or other number.

And it includes an example of a “Kindle edition”. A “location” number would seem to be a perfect example of an “other” number. In fact, it might even be more useful than a page number, because the “location” would be about the same no matter which device you read a Kindle e-book on, whereas a page number only applies to one specific version of the printed book.

There are MLA and APA guidelines to citing e-books, too, though neither of them expressly mentions (that I can find) what to do about a book that has no page numbering. But I imagine “location number” would suffice in those cases too, especially with some explanation to the professor of the nature of the source.

It really does seem a bit odd that neither of these citation guides addresses the page-numbering matter. Lacy does have a point, though perhaps not the one she meant to make: the academic world does need to come to terms with how to do citation of e-books without page numbering, because e-books are only going to get more popular from here.


  1. The days of the page number for citation are numbered.

    The page number used to be the best way to cite a work: it gave the oppurtunity for anyone with access to the book an easy way of looking up whatever you were saying. That’s no longer going to be the case. If I reference a book and that book is in Kindle, it’s going to take me 2 seconds to find out whether or not you faithfully represented the original text. Kindle format is more dubious because not everyone can get it – especially academic programs – who can usually gain access to rare texts and such.

  2. The academic world should adapt itself to new realities, not the other way around. They should allow locations for Kindle titles and those “equivalent” page numbers in Adobe DE.

    If you are not paraphrasing, you could use the search function in an ebook to find a citation. You can’t do that with a pbook.

    Let’s not complicate things unnecessarily.

  3. In all my research from years-past, I never, ever, relied on specific page numbers for reference, so I’m a bit puzzled why this is an issue. You usually perform a “direct quotation” or simply refer to the book itself in a footnote. If a direct page reference is used, then a direct quotation would be in order to eliminate formatting differences. Books are not always printed and re-printed in exact page order, depending on size of type, book size and other factors.

  4. Here we go: (book) (part) (chapter) (section) (paragraph) (sentence) (word) (letter) . A positioning scheme that is absolutely exact and works for any “version”.

    Sorry for double posting. I used angle brackets before and they got removed.

  5. Actually, the APA offers this guidance on citing passages on the Kindle:

    The MLA guidance that seems to apply to Kindle citations derives from the fact that an ebook is, first and foremost, an electronic file. I have summarized the different approaches to this issue here:

    And I agree, the days of page numbers are numbered…

  6. Personally I am always quite amused by the reasons .. oops .. excuses people give for abandoning some technology and going back to old fashioned ways. In my own personal experience the real reason is never the one proffered, and I suspect it’s isn’t here either. But I guess it gave her something to write about.

  7. I’m afraid many of these responses are just beside the point when it comes to citing in academic articles. The central issue for a scholar is not, how can another reader of the Kindle edition find your citation. It’s: how can a reader of the paper version find your citation. I often buy Kindle books, but I need my citations to be instantly accessible to any reader of the standard paper edition, who obviously cannot do a text search. It will be years and probably decades before scholars are all using e-editions and before those e-editions meet the editorial standards required to become the standard editions. Also, even if we were all using e-editions, anyone who says “Just do a text search” when you are looking up a reference does not do large amounts of text heavy research. Searches are a pain. I am often checking dozens of citations per day, and a page number citation takes me an instant to find. And anyone who says they never cite page numbers when they quote in their articles, I can only ask: which journals are you publishing in? It is true that works get published in many editions. That is why journals are very strict about demanding that references be keyed to standard editions — scholars know you can’t just grab a cheap paperback copy if you’re going to write an article on, say, Austin or Dickens, you have to have the single version (or in some cases one of the two or three) that all scholars have. For serious journals, references HAVE to contain page numbers, and numbers from those standard editions, or the article will be rejected out of hand. The Chicago Style Manual is telling you how to cite electronic and on-line texts if you plan to do so. It is not saying that that citation will meet the standards demanded by academic journals and publishers. It won’t.

  8. For law judgements, nearly all of the various law reports now include line numbers or inline “section numbers”. I think the law profession is probably running a few years ahead of this, since many judgements and quite a few journals have been online only for quite a few years now.
    But yes, for non academic texts it’s a live question – I’ve been citing the Kindle location numbers so far, and no-one has objected yet.

  9. As an indexer, I rely on page numbers to do my job. Once all texts are electronic then index entries can be linked directly to the relevant text, but while we go through this awkward transitional period we need some way of tying chunks like ‘pages’ to numbered locations/

    But why not use paragraph numbering, as legal texts do? A discreet number in the margin of the printed work and an optional number display for the electronic version would do the job nicely.

  10. My issue is that I bought the kindle for graduate school. I bought my first book for class, then today was told that I need to read pages 1-30. How am I suppose to know what page 30 is when there are no page numbers? Then what happens in class when we are discussing a specific page and I can’t turn to that page because there are no page numbers? Frustrating to think that I won’t be able to use it for school.

  11. N. McArthur, I’m afraid you and your fellow scholars should just grit your teeth and get used to the 21st century. The options of searching for content are so much more broad with digital documents that printed tomes pale in comparison; it amazes me that every scholar on the planet isn’t itching to get in on that, even if it means learning a few new tricks to do it.

    You don’t still hand-write your books… you don’t still read them by candlelight. The book was perfectly capable technology, but digital documents are better. Instead of lamenting how the old system doesn’t work on the new technology, start thinking about how to make the new system work better than the old one.

  12. I love technology. We buy printed books (they are, at this point, more of a lasting and secure investment) for school, and yet we also purchase the electronic versions for when we are on the go, and their search function is remarkably helpful, however I will no longer be automatically be buying the electronic version because it is too much of a hassle to try to find your place going back and forth. Until the electronic publications become more user friendly (like simply siting chapter and paragraph) we will hold off on electronic book purchases for school. Yes, people need to adapt to new technology – I love new tech — but you can’t ignore the needs (or, frankly, the comfort) of your academic or even average users or we would still be be interfacing with computers in machine language. Better, more universal, more user-friendly citation systems mean more users, which means more profit to the electronic publishers. With all of our technology including a better citation-system in an e-book should be very, very easy.

  13. I am currently having this problem. Some Kindle eBooks DO have page numbers, but the file of Treasure Island I got does not. I’ve put off my MLA citation of quotes because I don’t know how to, and I’m not sure my teacher does either.

  14. As a university instructor, I’m getting used to the fact that the papers I grade will likely use e-book and paper-book referencing. Where I struggle, however, is with my in-class work. Frequently, class discussion relies on the group addressing a specific portion of text — close reading it — and trying to direct students who are using e-readers to the right bit of text is not only difficult, it’s very time-consuming during lecture.

    I see no reason why the software couldn’t be developed in such a way that an ISBN number could be entered into the e-reader that would paginate according to the corresponding ISBN. That would address the whole “hard back?” “trade paperback” “mass paperback?” issue.

  15. Michele:
    I see no reason why the software couldn’t be developed in such a way that an ISBN number could be entered into the e-reader that would paginate according to the corresponding ISBN. That would address the whole “hard back?” “trade paperback” “mass paperback?” issue.

    The reason why this isn’t possible is because as the publishing industry says “if it ain’t automatic, it ain’t happenin”. Or they would do if they spoke on such affairs. They don’t even care about spell-checking, much less going through and comparing the versions for each edition ever printed and inserting pagination information between the correct points for 300 pages in every text. Not to mention the fact that reprints are often times done out of house and they may not have all editions available to them.

  16. It’s about time the academic crowd realised that digital is here and paper is on the way out. References should adopt digital references and drop the out of date paper page ‘number’.

    I also don’t get this disabled attitude to finding a place in a book. I am reading a so called ‘300’ pager on my Kindle Touch at the moment. Twice I lost place for technical reason but I knew I was at 61%. This meant that I knew where I was within a couple of pages. NO sweat… relax and adapt.

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