Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Start Saying Goodbye to eBook Pagination

Book pages may be the most unfortunate things ever invented by the reading-industrial complex. No one knows the who or how of their invention. The Egyptians and the Chinese didn't need pages because they sensibly wrote in vertical lines. It must have been the Greeks who invented and refined the page.
Egyptian scroll held in the UNE Antiquities Museum
In my imagination, some scribes invented the page in a dark and damp scriptorium after arguing about landscape versus portrait on their medieval iScrolls. They didn't worry about user experience. The debate must have been ergonomics versus cognitive load. Opening the scroll side-to-side allowed the monk to rest comfortably when the scribing got boring, and the addition brainwork of figuring out how to start a new column was probably a great relief from monotony. That and drop-caps. The codex probably came about when the scribes ran out of white-out.
Scroll of the Book of EstherSevilleSpain
Technical debt from this bad decision lingers. Consider the the horrors engendered by pagination:
  • We have to break pages in the middle of sentences?!?!?!? Those exasperating friends of yours who stop their sentences in mid-air due to lack of interest or memory probably work as professional paginators. 
  • When our pagination leaves just one line of a paragraph at the top of a page, you have what's known as a widow. Pagination is sexist as well as exasperating.
  • Don't you hate it when a wide table is printed sideways? Any engineer can see this is a kludgy result of choosing the wrong paper size.
To be fair, having pages is sometimes advantageous.
  • You can put numbers on the pages. This allows an entire class of students to turn to the same page. It also allows textbook companies to force students to buy the most recent edition of their exorbitantly priced textbooks. The ease of shifting page numbers spares the textbook company of the huge expense of making actual revisions to the text.
  • Pages have corners, convenient for folding.
  • You can tell often-read pages in a book by looking for finger-grease accumulation on the page-edges. I really hope that stuff is just finger-grease.
  • You can rip out important pages. Because you can't keep a library book forever.
  • Without pages in books, how would you press flowers?
  • With some careful bending, you can make a cute heart shape.
Definition of love by Billy Rowlinson, on Flickr; CC-BY 

While putting toes in the water of our ebook future, we still cling to pages like Linus and his blankie. At first, this was useful. Users who had never seen an ebook could guess how they worked. Early e-ink based e-reading devices had great contrast and readability but slow refresh rates. "Turning" a page was giant hack that turned a technical liability of slow refresh into a whizzy dissolve feature. Apple's iBooks app for the iPad appeared at the zenith of skeuomorphic UI design fashion and its too-cute page-turn animation is probably why the DOJ took Apple to court. (Anti-trust?? give me a break!)

But seriously, automated pagination is hard. I remember my first adventures with TEΧ, in the late '80s, half my time was spent wrestling with unfortunate, inexplicable pagination and equation bounding boxes. (Other half spent being mesmerized at seeing my own words in typeset glory.)

The thing that started me on this rant is the recent publication of the draft EPUB 3.1 specification, which has nothing wrong with it but makes me sad anyway. It's sad because the vast majority of ebook lovers will never be able to take advantage of all the good things in it. And it's not just because of Amazon and its Kindle propriety. It's the tug of war between the page-oriented past of books and the web-oriented future of ebooks. EPUB's role is to leverage web standards while preserving the publishing industry's investment in print-compatible text. Mission accomplished, as much as you can expect.

What has not been part of EPUB's mission is to leverage the web's amazingly rapid innovation in user interfaces. EPUB is essentially a website packaged into a compressed archive. But over the last eight years, innovations in "responsive" web reading UI, driven by the need of websites to work on both desktop and mobile devices, have been magical. Tap, scroll and swipe are now universally understood and websites that don't work that way seem buggy or weird. Websites adjust to your screen size and orientation. They're pretty easy to implement, because of javascript/css frameworks such as Bootstrap and Foundation. They're perfect for ebooks, except... the affordances provided by these responsive design frameworks conflict with the built-in affordances of ebook readers (such as pagination). The result has been that, from the UI point of view,  EPUBs are zipped up turn-of-the-century websites with added pagination.

Which is what makes me sad. Responsive, touch-based web designs, not container-paginated EPUBs, are the future of ebooks. The first step (which Apple took two years ago) is to stop resisting the scroll, and start saying goodbye to pagination.