Second-Class Formatting?

Yes, once again I'm going to talk about my Amazon Kindle. No, this is not a case of me going on how great it is, how much I love it, ad nauseum. You've probably had enough of that as it is. Instead, I want to share an insight on the nature of e-books that I didn't notice until I began using the Kindle so much.

What have I noticed? I've noticed that, despite many of the e-books I'm reading coming from professional print sources, some of them have distinct formatting errors on the Kindle. I'd say easily two thirds of the books I've read on the Kindle have noticeable formatting problems, some of them quite distinct and incredibly annoying, such as unclear graphics, oddly placed titles, mashed words, and more.

It's as if Kindle books get a kind of "second-class" formatting.

Somehow, I don't think I'm alone in experiencing odd, strange, and outright painful formatting problems on books I'm reading on the Kindle. I'm quite sure other people are experiencing this as well; all those people on my daily trains reading Kindles doubtlessly are experiencing questionably–formatted books too.

So unless I'm the unluckiest reader in Amazon–land, everyone is experiencing formatting problems with their Kindle books now and then. So why aren't we complaining?

The insight I had, one relevant to all of us pro-geeks in media and technology, is that we will tolerate certain problems in technology because all the advantages. In the case of the cheap and easy to use Kindle, the occasional formatting problem in a professional work seems like nothing compared to the convenience and ease-of-use.

Or, in short as we all know from our desktop computers, our first–generation smartphones, and more we will tolerate a lot of stupid as long as there are more benefits outweighing the stupid. Face it, we professional geeks have put up with a lot of technological stupid over the decades; when, of course we weren't busy creating it because “it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

(Hey, we can admit our mistakes!)

So I suspect right now in the e-book revolution we're actually tolerating formatting issues, translation issues, and other problems that would plague any relatively new technology. Were getting a lot of benefit, and a few odd looking sentences or strange cases of spacing are going to really diminish the value of what were experiencing for the most part. Were getting tons of books on one simple device; were living the science fiction dream, we can put up with the occasional oddities.

However, I don't think this is going to last forever.

As people use these devices more and more, as they compare various e-readers and e-book technologies, as they compare publishers and authors, they're going to start noticing what works and what doesn't. They're going to notice who takes care with formatting and who doesn't. They're going to start putting this in their reviews, in their recommendations, and in the case of reviewers and writers, in their public writings.

Right now are tolerating a few flaws in our e-books; were getting so much other benefits from them. But I know people come and we like things to get better and better. This improvement of e-book formatting is going to be an important area of change in the future, especially as everyone looks for ways to displace Amazon, and Amazon looks for ways to smack everyone else down.

(Hey, I look forward the fight, because we'll probably all benefit)

For us pro-geeks? A few things to keep in mind for careers in our media production:

  1. Formatting can really be an issue in books – as anyone whose read a badly formatted book can tell you.  This is a great opportunity for those of us as writers to stand out – make sure our e-books are bloody well formatted.
  2. For those of us working in marketing, advertising, etc. we can make good formatting and innovative formatting that our clients use a marketing and advertising advantage.  Show off how your clients don't use "second-class" formatting.
  3. For those of us in programming working on e-readers and media devices, we can remember these imperfections – and fix them.
  4. For those of us who love these gizmos, we should remember that they will be improving – so we'll be replacing them, shopping for them, and needing to know which one to get for our e-fix.
  5. For fans who use e-books and e-docs for things like fanfic, convention schedules, etc. being aware of bad and confusing formatting issues will help us avoid them.  It may even be good career practice.

We're tolerating a lot of e-book formatting weirdness right now; it won't always be the same in the future.   Just remember how much crazy we tolerated in desktop computing (read: Windows) and then the slick Apple Ecosystem walked in and began kicking ass and taking names.

Steven Savage