Why e-texts are a long way off

For at least five years academics have been discussing how to incorporate digital textbooks into their courses; a growing number of universities have even experimented with requiring incoming freshmen to purchase iPads to facilitate this process. So here’s my recent experience as I venture out into the wild woolly interface between print and digital text.

I’m teaching an upper-level (undergraduate, always undergraduate) course on Reformation Europe this semester. I’m using the same text I used last time, Andrew Pettegree’s Europe in the Sixteenth Century (2002), supplemented with various primary sources. I received a free instructor’s copy of the paperback last time I taught it, and this time I thought I’d try to get an e-text version so I could annotate it on my iPad and use it in class. I also hoped to mark up the first chapter and post it for my students on Blackboard, so they could see how to read a textbook – the kinds of questions to ask, how to identify key points, etc.

Silly me.

If you’ve been following digital texts for a while, you know that one long-standing complaint from academics is the format of the e-books. Because these e-books are intended for e-readers (initially devices like the Kindle, Kobo…) and designed for reading popular fiction, the formatting of the original page layouts isn’t deemed important. The result is that these e-reader books in essence replicate the experience of reading text on a webpage – you just keep scrolling and more text appears. There are no real pages per se (since the more flexible continuous text format allows you to change the font size, among other things), although the e-readers can mimic the appearance of a page. Usually a bar or percentage indicates how far through the text you currently are; more recently, fancy versions replicate the ‘feel’ of pages (even extending to the ability to see the page curling as you ‘turn’ it), but those ‘pages’ are ad hoc creations, i.e. the page breaks are not necessarily the same as those found in the print edition. In other words, most e-texts are not available in PDF format, a format which retains the exact shape and format of the printed page – the font, the margins, the page breaks, etc. I’ve used PDFs a lot in my classes over the years; only recently have I started OCRing the pages. E-books are a whole other beast.

So I thought I would branch out: I tried to acquire a digital copy of my textbook. First I checked on Amazon and noticed that there was a Kindle version of the book available. Being a cheapskate, I then checked with the publisher rep to see if I could get a free copy of that. The rep informed me that no Kindle version was available, nor an e-text version. A bit confused that the rep couldn’t see that Amazon had a Kindle version available, I decided to just take the plunge and buy the Kindle version. I should’ve listened to that little voice in my head.

Downloaded lickety split. But the first thing I noticed was that, as predicted, the pages indeed did not correspond to the pages in the printed version. For some reason I’ve had PDFs on my mind so much lately (I wonder why?) that I forgot all those warnings. So right off the bat, I was a bit disappointed. I can still use the e-version, especially for text mining purposes and full-text searching, but I can’t refer to any page numbers, which really limits its use in class.

A bit more surprising, I quickly noticed that the Kindle version was in fact a poorly-OCRed version of the original. To give an example from the Illustrations page:

Illustrations (kind of)

Note that we’re on “page” 9.3 of 834, which has nothing to do with the actual print pages. And this also means that the page numbers referenced are useless.

Rather bizarre, until you look at a few pages where the text wasn’t fully OCRed:

That's the best you could do?

Seriously? That’s the best you could do?

So I’m left with the question of whether this Kindle edition was:

  • a cheap version thrown out there by the publisher (with plausible deniability?), or
  • an e-text Kindleized by Amazon (with or without the permission of the publisher).

Neither possibility fills me with confidence about the fate of e-textbooks, if this is their idea of quality control.

The gist of the matter: e-texts will never take off until publishers figure out a way to control the quality of the digital books they’re selling (or allowing others to sell), and, more narrowly, indicate page breaks (and other scholarly apparatus such as footnotes) in their e-versions. It could be as simple as putting the page number in brackets [34] within the text, but even that is extra work which somebody would have to do and get paid for. So far my impression is that publishers tend to just throw their existing print content out in an e-format with as little modification as possible. I already have to warn my students that many of the ‘books’ available on Amazon are cheaply printed copies of out-of-copyright works freely-available on Google Books. Now this. Doesn’t bode well for the adoption of e-texts, I’d say.

But I think there are probably two bigger problems here that complicate the matter:

  1. The publishing world is having a heck of a time figuring out what its general response to digital publishing (and the threat of digital piracy) should be. This makes them hesitant to embrace digital books fully. Not surprisingly, they’ve picked the lowest-hanging fruit first: works of fiction that don’t necessarily require format fidelity. Works just fine, unless you happen to be reading that work of fiction for a literature course.
  2. The breathless manifestos of digital boosters insist on portraying a black-and-white struggle between print and digital, insisting that digital books require eliminating all vestiges of the print world in order to revolutionize knowledge. Unfortunately they ignore the needs of academics in the process, particularly the ability to precisely reference specific points within a text.

Perhaps in the future everything will be born digital and, combined with the ability to do a full-text search for quotations, we won’t need to include page numbers in our citations. But for now, I’d suggest publishers follow the normal course of technological development: start a new technology by making it mimic older, more mature technology (incunabula replicating the look of manuscripts, TV shows reproducing the format of radio shows…). Include hyperlinked Tables of Contents and Indexes, and thrown in a hyperlinked word cloud as well. All the other bells and whistles (animated graphics, audio and video…) are great (and add a lot more cost), but the first job is to replicate what a printed text already does, before you start adding whiz-bang features. And can a brother get a spell check?

Thoughts? Suggestions on how to incorporate e-textbooks into courses?

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5 responses to “Why e-texts are a long way off”

  1. Gene Hughson says :

    From a technical standpoint, the references are easy: you just need a system that is display-independent. Chapter + paragraph number would do it for the eReader end. The tricky parts would be getting the vendors to incorporate it into their readers and coming up with an easy way to translate from print to digital.

    That’s interesting about the poor quality of the Kindle version of the textbook…I wouldn’t think Amazon would risk putting out a pirate version, so I’d imagine it’s a trial balloon by the publisher. It’s a shame, because putting out a poor quality trial isn’t going to give you a good idea of how well something might sell.

    Speaking of sales, I wonder what the numbers for textbooks are vis a vis other types of books. That would have an effect on how readily vendors would add features designed for academic use.

    • Nate says :

      The question on referencing would then lead inevitably to a need to establish a standard on how to cite it, since the e-version and print version will not match. I suppose it could be as simple as annotating that it is the e-version and noting the chapter + paragraph number. I ran into the same issue trying to cite a book I only had as a Kindle version, and my personal solution was to go find it in another format, sadly.

      • jostwald says :

        That’s one main reason why I haven’t bought e-books for my own specialty. I bought an e-copy of Gruber’s book on Books and British Officers last year (tellingly, just now I couldn’t remember the exact title so I glanced at my shelf to read it off the spine – lotta ingrained practices gonna need to be changed). Unfortunately all the interesting tables at the end were so tiny that they are practically unreadable.
        Publishers are going to need to dedicate resources to the conversion for it to work, but most probably don’t have the money or desire to do so at this point. The only thing I hear from the textbook reps at school are which Western Civ textbook I’ll be using. And their academic audience isn’t likely to push for it either, particularly if academia still dismisses digital works as non-scholarly.

  2. MishaBurnett says :

    I would agree that it’s more likely the publisher than Amazon who is responsible for a poor quality OCR of an existing book. I would also agree that internal links could be done on a section level just as they are done on a chapter level for the table of contents on a well formatted e-book.

    There would be a lot of advantages to e-textbooks both to the instructor and to the students–starting with not having to face the choice between lugging a half dozen weighty tomes or running back to your dorm between classes.

    I can see a lot of resistance from the textbook publishers, however, who are used to an absurd markup–I mean, honestly, is there any other market that will support 75$ trade paperbacks?

    The only thing that I can see that would pressure educational publishers into offering e-book versions of their textbooks is for instructors to seek out texts that are available as e-books.

    • jostwald says :

      Which probably means it won’t happen soon, given the variety of incompatible e-book formats out there (PDF, epub, mobi, iPad/Android apps/websites that could have been ebooks…).

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