Despite being an avid reader, I’ve been a latecomer to the Kindle. A year ago I tried a Kindle DX but gave it up for various reasons.
Amazon’s recent announcement of a Kindle beta test with public libraries rekindled my interest (so to speak), so I decided to try again — with the Kindle app for iPad.
Here’s my initial take on borrowing an ebook from the King County Library. It’s convenient, but not without issues for people who love the way books are designed…
A Match Made in Heaven?
My first attempt to borrow a Kindle format book from the public library went nowhere: it was too early — the local library had not yet updated its systems for Kindle. On a second attempt a few days ago, I found the “entry point” in KCLS’ online catalog, and identified a handful of books to borrow for use on the iPad/Kindle. But I’d have to wait; none were available that day.
Today I received an email announcing that my first ebook was available for download, but I’d have to act fast: it would expire within 4 days.
I clicked on the link, discovered that the web page had kept my library card and password credentials from the prior session, and I authorized the “digital book loan” (a process that took several steps).
The lending process takes you to Amazon’s website, where Amazon links the library’s ebook to the authorized Kindle reader (or your “cloud reader”). I imagine that this is part of the behind-the-scenes infrastructure that enforces the DRM policy purchased by KCLS — the limits on how many copies of this ebook may be in circulation at the same time.
So far the process worked smoothly (with a fast broadband connection).
The only glitch occurred with the Kindle app on the iPad — and it was probably just a timing issue with synchronization. That said, the first couple of attempts to download the library’s ebook to the iPad yielded no result.
So I went back to Amazon to ensure the ebook showed up in my authorized Kindle repository, and that this book was properly linked to my iPad. I was pleased to see a clear indication that this was a library copy, versus one that I have purchased…
On my next attempt to download the library’s ebook to the iPad/Kindle, the process was quick and easy.
When the library’s online system is working quickly (which is not always the case), I’d say this whole process would take 5 minutes or less.
Much faster than getting in the car, and driving to and from the nearest library branch.
Which leaves me with my remaining reservation about the current state-of-the-art for books on Kindle (or ePub formats): the lack of typographic sophistication. The current standards may be fine for pulp fiction, but they are a real disappointment for bibliophiles who prefer higher quality “trade fiction” and books with an intrinsic design sensibility.
For the book I borrowed, The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett, the loss of typographic styling makes it difficult in places to comprehend the author’s intent — or even to differentiate literary embellishments from the flow of the narrative.
The Loss of Fidelity Detracts from the Story
To illustrate what I mean, here is a cropped photo of the first page of The Game of Kings, as rendered by the Kindle app on my iPad 2. Except for the chapter head, all the text is styled the same. There’s no additional white space as you would see in the print version.
The Kindle Version (via iPad)
Although it’s not obvious in the photo above, The Game of Kings begins with a poetry excerpt that precedes the first line of narrative. Unfortunately, there’s nothing in the typographic treatment or page layout to signal that this block of text functions differently from the main body of the story.
To make matters worse the poem uses archaic language — and the combination could be off-putting as a first impression.
The Print Version
By way of comparison here is what this page looks like in the print version that’s currently in circulation:
With this layout it’s easy for the reader to understand that the poem sets the theme for the chapter as a whole. It’s clearly set apart from the first line of the narrative.
The loss of typographic and page layout fidelity in the Kindle version is a huge issue for books written by Dorothy Dunnett, an author who liberally embellishes her stories with poems and literary allusions in multiple languages.
Early Days — Or a Battle for Control?
I understand that the digital publishing workflow is still in embryonic state, that it’s difficult for publishers to adapt the print versions to Kindle and ePub format without loss of fidelity.
Among other constraints Apple and Amazon seriously limit the number of typefaces available, a huge obstacle to any designer who wants to preserve artistic intent across all versions and renditions of the book. For the technically adept, there are workarounds with embedded fonts for authors and publishers aiming at Apple’s iBook format, but not for publishers going to Kindle. (At present I suspect we’ll see embedded fonts primarily from the self-publishing community…)
I look forward to the day when ebooks are full-fledged alternatives, with additional convenience benefits, rather than artistic compromises that trade off design intent for ease of adaptation. Leaving you with so much less of the original expression of the author’s intent. And a disappointing reading experience.
I hope we won’t have to wait another 10 years before ebooks achieve typographic and design layout fidelity.