The Web is old enough that history can repeat itself. What’s happening now with E-books parallels what happened with Web sites in the early Aughties.

Then vs. now

  • Back then, multinational consulting startups like Razorfish and MarchFirst saw the real Web, made up of text and graphics, and tried to make it like television by shoving Flash down our throats. Most of us were using analogue modems at the time and browsers crashed every day.

    Today, publishers see the book, even more solidly constituted of text with occasional graphics, and try to make it like television by shoving “multimedia” down our throats in the guise of “enhanced” E-books. Most of us are using E-readers that can’t even display a photograph adequately, let alone a video.

    Nobody wanted Flash Web sites (a sentiment in resurgence today) and nobody wants enhanced electronic books.

  • Back then, the consultants pushing Flash were the same ones so incompetent at the basic underpinning of the Web, namely HTML, that everything surrounding the Flash content barely worked.

    Today, the consultants pushing enhanced E-books cannot turn out a valid, semantic ePub document (XHTML 1.1 in a highly specific zip container with a set of table-of-contents and index files).

  • In hindsight, there was a reason why early Web sites sucked. We only barely began to know what we were doing. The concept of Web standards was just coming into being. It took a few years to establish fundamentals like separation of content, style, and behaviour. This was no excuse for misreading the Web as a kind of TV station, but it offers an explanation.

    E-book developers have no excuse. Except in Canada, there are no professional developers who churn out Web sites with “FONT tags” and IE6-era presentational markup. (Your in-house sinecurist who couldn’t get a job on the open market is not a “professional developer.”) Outside Canada, everybody who claims to know anything about the Web knows the fundamentals, even if their ability to deliver varies.

    None of this knowledge has spread to E-book developers. Apart from two artisanal shops I know of, exactly nobody knows how to create a real ePub. There is no coding ability in the field of E-books. (It’s much worse than Web developers’ skill level circa 2001.)

  • Razorfish and MarchFirst learned the hard way that consulting doesn’t scale. Those two artisanal shops are learning the same thing. But scale is a crushing issue given that tens of thousands of books have to be converted or created each year just in U.S. English.


  • Then as now, executives use Windows all day, not the Web or E-books. Who hired Razorfish? Who gives the order to OCR thousands of backlist titles in India and pass them off as E-books? Executives in their late 40s who don’t actually use the medium they manage. (Many wear bifocals, which make reading from any screen uncomfortable.)

    • In the early 2000s, managers didn’t use, let alone know or understand, the Web.

    • Today, they don’t use, know, or understand E-books.

    Executives refused and refuse to learn the rudimentary technical facts necessary to understand what a Web site or E-book is. (Fundamentally the same thing, as it turns out.)

    Working in Windows all day is, as I keep saying, a crucial factor. Lest you think “publishing” is a Macintosh bastion, note that only graphic designers use Macs in that field, with many book designers and nearly all front-office staff using Windows.

    • These systems cannot be said to be ugly anymore; Windows Vista and 7 may not be your personal taste, but they were thoroughly graphic-designed. But they are still user-hostile, they still train users to be afraid of their computers, and, via their default settings, they teach people the wrong way to do things: A “document” uses Times “New Roman” at “12” (really 14) point across a 6½″ measure with full justification and blank lines between paragraphs. (How do I put in page numbers again?)

      In a specific crippling detail, Microsoft Word perpetuates the notion that you write a document then “format” it, which fatally misrepresents what happens with the Web and with ePub books. Not a single one of the latter contains “formatting.” (Kindle E-books are also HTML and there is likewise no such thing as “Kindle formatting.”)

    • Windows systems have phenomenal Unicode support, but not one user in a million knows how to type an opening single quotation mark or a capital C with cedilla. You need a whole flowchart and a half-dozen keystrokes to manage that. (Then what do you do with the next “special” character? What if you’ve got a whole page of them, then 300 pages after that?)

    • Using Windows all day teaches you that not only can computers not be trusted, which you kind of suspected all along, they cannot be understood. Of course you aren’t going to bother taking eight minutes out of your life to learn what structured markup is. (That’s how long it takes me to teach Windows-using executives – or blind teenagers – the basics.)

  • Related: Defaults are harmful. I have one example here and it remains make-or-break. If you don’t understand why full justification must never be turned on by default on any computer device, you aren’t qualified to call bingo at the old folks’ home, let alone manage electronic books.

  • There is no culture of quality. At a conference I no longer talk about because people who initially claimed to love my presentation relentlessly attacked me later, I spent 45 minutes talking to Michael Tamblyn of Kobo (né Shortcovers). What we discussed isn’t for publication, but the fact we had a discussion is, and I can assure you they were well aware of my Shortcovers challenge. I surmise they have simply thrown up their hands at the task of producing legitimately coded (i.e., real) E-books. It is no coincidence that Kobo was founded in and is headquartered in Toronto, a city with three known qualified Web developers, the rest of them having long since left for Vancouver or been picked off by the Americans.

    I realize I have been fighting my entire life, even from childhood, against people who don’t give a shit. Apart from two artisanal developers, I see nobody who does. Hence I scoffed when I read that Random House will use agent Andrew Wylie’s “files,” but will begin “making changes… to have them soon mirror our… E-book standards.” What “standards”? These people think Track Changes in Word is mission-critical high tech.

  • Tools let us down. There is no such thing as an automated process for producing or converting E-books that gets you even 80% of the way toward correct semantics. How much further you could ever get is open to dispute because a human being must decide, at one point or another, what’s a paragraph and what’s an H2, but let me tell you one thing right now: Not every single thing in your E-book is a DIV, as the Apple Pages export-to-ePub function claims.

    I posited the solution to this problem months ago – write everything in HTML. The fact that few authors will be able to do that remains unchanged. What also remains unchanged is the publishing industry’s refusal to hire and train editors who can mark up manuscripts properly.

    It gets worse: iBooks on iOS has access to a high-quality HTML-rendering engine but provably cannot lay out an E-book properly.

What happened in the early Aughties?

I diligently wrote the NUblog (for an audience of dozens) decrying the rank stupidity of management, executives, and Web consultancies, all of whom have made out famously from the Web. I was right all along, of course, but this is hardly news or the sort of thing that helps me at all.

The question is: Can publishing executives count on failing upward the way Web executives did? Is the fact that last decade’s Web executives failed to kill off the Web proof positive that today’s publishing executives won’t kill off publishing?

Clippy thinks you’re formatting an E-book. Would you like help?

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2010.08.31 15:17. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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None. I quit.

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