A couple of weeks ago marketing guru Seth Godin observed that you can tell what an organization values by where they put their best people. Given the current state of academic ebooks, I suspect that most publishers are using unpaid work-study students. I don’t know much about the economics of academic publishing, but this strikes me as a very shortsighted strategy. The market for print editions of academic books is probably both small and almost static—primarily university libraries. But there is a ton of growth potential in e-publishing, not just from academics like me who are too impatient to wait for the library to get a copy of the book we want to read (or for the library to open in the morning), but also from thousands of interested laypeople who would be willing to put the effort into an advanced text if it were convenient and affordable.
In the rest of this post I am going to give a tour of some of the mistakes and annoyances I’ve found in my collection of ebooks. To be fair, some of the books I’ve purchased are pretty good, but for the most part this is a representative sample. I should also note that none of what I say is a slight against the authors of these books. I enjoyed all of them and I think they should be outraged at the poor job their publishers have done in presenting their work to the world.
Heather Douglas - Science, Policy, and the Value-Free Ideal
The first problem is extremely common—almost ubiquitous—in ebooks. There is no link for the citation. In print books it’s pretty easy to flip to the back and quickly find a reference, but on a Kindle it takes quite a bit of effort. It is very possible to make this text link to the associated bibliography entry. The second mistake is less common, but very telling. Kindle ebooks have re-flowable text—how much text is on a page depends on the size of your reading device. This out-of-place hyphen is proof that the text was sloppily cut-and-pasted from the print format, with basically no further corrections.
N. Emrah Aydinonat - The Invisible Hand in Economics
Not only does this book have the same problem with citations as Douglas’s, but it seems the text was copied from an un-copyedited draft. Words were missing every few pages, throughout the entire book, with no apparent pattern. Maybe something went wrong in copying the text, but it’s a virtual certainty that nobody read it before uploading it to Amazon.
Paul Edwards - A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming
Unlinked endnotes are almost as common as unlinked in-text citations.
Oreskes & Conway - Merchants of Doubt
Merchants of Doubt actually has its endnotes linked…
…but no table of contents! This is the one feature that nearly every Kindle book gets right, but somehow the publishers managed to link every footnote but miss this basic feature.
Whitcomb & Goldman - Social Epistemology: Essential Readings
Social Epistemology managed to link its endnotes, but not its in-text citations.
Mary Morgan - The World in the Model
To find an example of a book that is actually done right, I had to leave the Kindle ecosystem.
Not only does The World in the Model have a working table of contents, it has a mini table of contents at the beginning of each chapter with links to each section. In-text references to other chapters and sections are also linked.
In-text citations jump you to their bibliography entries, and footnotes also link properly.
The only downside of Adobe eBooks is that they are based on the zombie-like pdf format. Pdf documents are not re-flowable like Kindle books are, and I suspect converting this book into the Kindle format will destroy all the links (I haven’t tried yet—you have to circumvent the DRM). This makes reading them on handheld e-readers a real pain, though on tablets it works fine. They are also structured so that the page is the fundamental unit of the document: each document contains pages, and each page contains text. The most annoying consequence of this is that you can’t highlight text across pages. Finally, the Adobe Digital Editions reader (the Mac version at least) isn’t all that user-friendly. For instance, when you click a link there is no back button, so you have to bookmark your page, then click the link, then click back on the bookmark to go back to where you were.
All of these problems should be easy to fix if only publishers would devote a small amount of resources to putting out quality products, and fixing them would make these books much easier to read. Please, publishers, get your acts together!