A few weeks ago I proofed the “galleys” — the old term still has to apply, I guess — for the e-book edition of Mortality Bridge. I received them in epub format from the publisher and used Calibre to convert it to MobiPocket for my Kindle (which my friend Scott gave me some time back). I was startled at the limitations of this brave new form.
Let me back up a second to say that I’m no analog era holdover being dragged kicking and screaming into the digital age. I have quite the digital presence, thank you very much. In addition to traditional writing classes and readings & suchlike, I give a decent amount of talks about digital media and intellectual property, mostly to writers over 40 or 50 who are nervous about all this new stuff. (It’s a totally unnecessary speech to anyone under 35.)
I’m not someone who loves books just because they’re books. I do love them as objects of art: the whole art-directed package can be quite beautiful as well as practical and convenient. But if the printed book were not practical as a device, it would not have lasted so long, and the truth is that it has retained essentially the same form for about 600 years because, until the advent of digital media, it was hard to even conceive how to improve on it.
Enter e-readers. E-books have been around a good 10 to 15 years longer than e-readers, but they mostly existed for use on personal computers and not on handheld devices, and it turns out most people don’t like reading novels at their PC. Quelle surprise. When the advent of portable e-readers (spurred by Amazon’s Kindle) liberated the medium from the desktop, the deluge of releases soon followed. This last year saw paperback sales taking a back seat to e-book sales for the first time.
If you regard the printed book as a device, it’s silly to insist on holding onto it when a superior device comes along. Or even an equivalent device that is much more portable. (Think you’re loyal to your printed library? Wait till next time you move to a new house and realize you could have transported all your books by putting your e-reader in your pocket.)
After dealing with the galleys of Mortality Bridge, I have to say that this superior device isn’t yet here.
Typeface changes -- you can't do this on an e-reader
For one thing, E-readers can’t change font. If I want to display a handwritten font for a note, or something that looks like an SMS text, or want to go from Times Roman to Helvetica (for a Q & A, for example), or switch to Courier to go to screenplay format for some effect or other — tough shit. I can have italics and boldface. Mortality Bridge is full of handwritten notes, SMS fonts, Helvetica road signs, small-capped dialogue with nonhuman creatures. Too bad, baby.
You can't keep space breaks together on an e-reader
You can’t control space breaks on an e-reader, only hard page breaks. This is because the software formats the text on the fly for the screen size and to accommodate the text size the reader has chosen (more on that later). So you end up with the ugliness of orphans that end sections (words that sit there by themselves on a page before a hard break). Or breaks that occur at the bottom of the screen and resume at the top of the next screen, with the reader unaware there was a break unless you either put in three askterisks or cap the first few words in the next section.No big deal, right? But Mortality Bridge has several sections that break mid-line and resume after a break to indicate an amnesiac interval. When one of those breaks at the bottom of a screen and resumes at the top, it’s just confusing. And the publisher has no control over how this occurs.
Specific alignment/placement -- you can't do this on an e-reader
Spacing is another issue. If you play any typographic games, you’re mostly S O L. One section in Mortality Bridge was laboriously worked on to right-align under a partricular word to heighten a dramatic effect. The typesetters at Subterranean were wonderful in working with me to achieve this. Now comes e-book time: sorry, no way. The best you can do is indent the lines.
In-line graphics -- you can't do this on an e-reader
In-text graphics are another issue. Mortality Bridge has a few — arrows on road signs, down buttons on an elevator. That’s a big no-can-do on your e-book, good buddy.
Line breaks can’t be controlled. Mortality Bridge opens with a poem by Mark Strand. Poets work very hard on line breaks. E-books don’t give a shit if you want to keep certain blocks of text together and they won’t let you control the size of the text for the epigraph. Not only can you not change the size within the text, but the reader can change the size to anything he wants anyhow. The best you can do is force a line break and indent the remainder to indicate its original intent as part of the original line. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s not satisfactory, either.
Line breaks -- you can't guarantee the line won't break in an e-reader, and you can't control the font size to keep things together
Part 2 tomorrow.