Academic Ebook Conversion Sucks

No, really.  It does.  Ain’t no other way to say it.

Part of this, as seen in this lovely little Gruniad article, is because ebooks are essentially different editions of the same book.  Just as paperback books don’t follow hardback pagination, ebooks, being their own strange format, won’t follow any print pagination.  Of course, one could insert “go to print page X” calls in the search/browse functions—which definitely has some president in print.  Most editions of classic philosophy texts will make reference to the page numbers of The Standard Edition of that work or authorial corpus; Plato, Aristotle, and Kant all have standard pagination references seen in the margins of any edition of any of their texts, while most editions of Hobbes’ Leviathan will make reference to the first edition of the work—and, if you’re talking about Pascal’s Pensées, you can usually find a table in the back that will help convert between fragment numbers.

So yes, you’d think it’d be easy.  A pair of brackets, an extra number, you’re in business.

Except, well, ebooks are weird.  Talk to anybody responsible for their press’s attempts at ebook conversion, and you’ll be treated to the horror stories.  Every ebook manufacturer has their own standards and formatting; even within that manufacturer’s product line, the standards may differ.  Plus, for many texts, the assumption is that you have a print edition somewhere, even if it’s in Germany, that everyone is referencing at once.  I’m pretty sure that demand for developing a “German Academy pagination recognition feature” isn’t exactly at the top of any ebook manufacturer’s priority list.  Sure, it might make some Kant scholars absolutely ecstatic, but there are, at most, only a few thousand of those—not exactly a big market!

The other problem is pictures.  Granted, this is more of a problem for textbooks than standard-issue humanities monographs, but it’s still an issue.  Electronic ink readers (you know, like most every black-and-white screened e-reader on the market) are terrible at displaying pictures.  Color photos?  Forget it.  Sure, the technology might catch up here in a few years, but, by that time, electronic editions will have been released, then publishers will have to put out another edition to take advantage of the new technology, by which time the state of the art will have changed again . . .

Students complain about new editions of textbooks cutting off their used book habit enough as it is.  Do we really need built-in obsolesce affecting our books?

The last problem (well, for this post) is rights.  Every time a picture, chart, quote, or other bit of copyrighted material is used in a book, the copyright holder has to give permission for its use, and receives a cut of the book’s sales.  Most of the time, separate permissions, and even separate payment schemes, are negotiated for each format.  Got an old book, one that nobody bothered negotiating electronic rights for?  Your intern gets to hunt down the rights holder, contact them, and send out an amendment to their original contract—which wouldn’t be so bad if the rights holder, their next-of-kin, and everyone who might know who the rights pass on to weren’t dead.  Sure, if you’re in that situation, your chances of being sued are pretty slim, but it’s always best to be on the right side of the law, especially when there’s a nonzero chance that a Big Publishing House with lawyers on retainer owns the rights now.*  What do you do in such a situation—put in a “key photograph or figure on which the author’s argument hinges cannot be reproduced here” notice?  Use a rather unwieldy text description of the figure?  Have an intern draw up a new example, or go to the local art museum and paint a copy of the art work in discussion?  Even that last one runs into legal challenges and problems if the work is still under copyright; after all, you’re making a copy you don’t have the rights to, no?  Even if you try to launder your way out of it, you’re still stuck.

This is one of the reasons I’m still on the fence about the whole ebook thing in academic publishing at the moment.  Until the technology and the law catch up with what we need them to do, the problems for both our readers and ourselves are too @#$% thorny to stake a press’s future on.

*Yes, I realize there are a few photos of art I’ve used that, despite my best efforts, might still be under copyright.  For the most part, I’m hoping that the pedantic nature of most of those posts means I can claim fair-use due to educational intent and lack of financial gain; however, I’m also betting on my low profile meaning I’ll never have to make that argument in court.  Judging by the number of people who find Ye Olde Humble Blogge via a Google image search relating to Yves Klein, though, I’m really hoping my argument is sound.

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