Ebooks Are Horrible: A Consideration

By Joshua Ellis , written on January 24, 2012

From The News Desk

Following hot on the heels of Apple's unveiling of its new iBooks Author tool, online magazine/publisher/whatever-the-hell-you-call-it The Atavist has just announced its own ebook authoring system, to be released this spring.

And it's exciting, because you can put text and video and audio and graphics and interactive stuff in it!

Uh huh.

At this point, I think the ebook platform to actual ebook user ratio is reaching 1:1 parity… if by "ebook platforms" you mean "incompatible file formats and the proprietary apps that love them". It seems like every week somebody invents a new one that won’t work with any of the others. Hell, at some point last night in my sleep I'm pretty sure I developed an ebook file format and reader that was only compatible with my cat.

But the sad reality is that none of these platforms bring any value at all to the end user. They’re dark pattern business development voodoo masquerading as innovation, with only one real goal behind all the silly marketingspeke bullshit: to lock you into a single content delivery system. Even the platform itself doesn’t really matter in the long run; Amazon doesn’t care if you’re reading ebooks on a Kindle or with the Kindle app on an iPad, so long as you’re buying those books from them and only them.

Ebooks, in general, are a pointless solution to an imaginary problem. After all, it’s not as though the human race was sitting around for the past five hundred years waiting for Apple to give us a way to embed clips of Kenneth Branagh and his goofy pageboy haircut into the text of the “St. Crispin’s Day” speech in Henry V.

And even if we had, God help us, we’ve had a perfectly viable format and mechanism for doing it for twenty years, called the World Wide Web. I mean, when Apple trumpeted all the features of iBook Author this week, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. Why, you can add video to your ebook! Interactive quizzes! Social networking! However did they imagine such futuristic functionality?

In addition to my meteoric career as a technology pundit, I’m also an experienced Web designer and developer, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that there is very, very little one can do with any given ebook format that cannot be done with HTML5 and CSS3, which are, after all, very good at presenting rich media and handling interactivity. (In point of fact, HTML lies at the heart of most ebook formats; it’s just surrounded by lots of ridiculous extra stuff.)

Not that interactivity is always, or even usually, a good idea. Look: books and magazines are not apps. This is the basic mistake that people who come from the software industry make again and again, because apps are the hammer with which they beat down every nail.

Books and magazines are information, raw data, literally a stream of words and pictures set in some more or less comprehensible order. The app is no more than the tool that allows you to access these streams. Once a book has become a whole interactive experience with bits where you can look at the characters in three dimensions and access their fake Twitter accounts, it’s not a book anymore. It’s an app.

Touch Press’s iPad app for exploring T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is lovely and engaging, but it’s not The Waste Land, any more than Bjork’s Biophilia app is Bjork’s Biophilia album. There’s nothing wrong with that -- and a lot that’s right and exciting and challenging -- but it’s still a fundamental difference that I think too many people misunderstand.

Nor is there is no value for you, the reader, in inextricably tying any media you buy, be it a book or an issue of a magazine or a music album, to a specific platform or app. It’s a trick that only benefits whoever owns that platform or app.

Think of it this way: imagine if you bought a hardback book on the understanding that you could read it only as long as you lived in your current house. When after a year or two or ten you pack up your bookshelves in a moving van and go elsewhere, you discover that all of your books are suddenly blank and empty. When you complain to the bookstore -- if it’s even still around -- you’re told that this is just how things work now, and that you’ll simply have to buy all of those books again, and that if you don’t understand why you’re just a doddering old fool and part of the Old Way and soon to be swept into the dustbin of history.

That may sound absurd, but I think it’s a perfectly apt analogy for the current situation.

Books are not apps; we do not expect, nor should we, to upgrade them every time we decide to exchange one rapidly obsolescing tool for another, the way we do with apps. Call me old-fashioned, but when I buy a book, I expect to keep it until I throw it away or sell it, or until I die. I expect to be able to give my Neil Gaiman books to my children.

The real problem with using open formats and open delivery systems to create and sell ebooks isn’t functionality or delivery system or even piracy or digital rights management. The problem, with this model is that Apple or Amazon don’t make money off of every single transaction…and this is obviously a terrible calamity that must be prevented at all costs.

So the nerds at Cupertino and Seattle invent yet another goofy new ebook format that brings absolutely nothing to the rich media table and won’t play with anybody else’s toys…and try to convince you that it’s better than an open system. After all, why would you simply read something like A Brief History Of Time, when you could have animations of Stephen Hawking doing pirouettes around an animated GIF of the Milky Way while a fucking Skrillex remix of “Rocket Man” bumps away in the background?

I mean, Christ, how did people ever even muster the sheer will to open books before iBooks 2.0 came along? How did they not die of boredom?

This is a business model based on contempt for its consumers, one that will blow away like Lindsey Lohan’s acting career the moment anybody comes up with something better. And someone will, probably sooner rather than later. Someone’s always building the Next Big Thing.

To be fair, I don’t doubt that the folks at The Atavist have their hearts in the right place. After all, unlike their competitors, their publishing tool will export to pretty much any widely-used ebook format (including, ironically, HTML). But I think they’re missing the point. We don’t need another ebook platform. What we really need now, in this era of self-publishing and self-promotion, are people who excel at finding good content and helping to bring it to the audience it deserves in a way that most benefits both the creator and the consumer; people who do the things that Old Media was always really good at and New Media still sucks at, like weeding out the horrible shit and editing and presentation.

That’s something the Atavist already has a reputation for doing, and I wish they’d stick to it… and maybe start helping to build that Next Big Thing.

Joshua Ellis is lead developer at Not Safe For Work Corporation and founder of, a geolocational microblogging service. His personal blog is right here, or follow him on Twitter here.