How print page numbers could solve digital problems

Is this the answer?

Is this the answer?

Yesterday Amazon announced that it is bringing “real page numbers” to Kindle books, corresponding directly to a book’s print edition. My initial reaction was one of dismay – another example of crow-barring into ebooks a print convention that makes no sense on screen1. But the more I thought about the idea, the more I realised it not only had merit, but could also be the surprising yet obvious key to the problem of notes and citations discussed in my last two posts2, and being addressed by the Open Bookmarks project.

The beauty of the page

Fixed page numbers make no sense in reflowable text. And yet, there is a beautiful simplicity to them that is only partly due to the familiarity built up over years of print.

Referencing by page number works for 2 reasons:

1) Consistency: if you and I have the same edition, my page 42 is the same as yours and I can find the passage you quote fairly quickly.

2) I can find it quickly because a) the pages are numbered sequentially, so I can make an instant estimate of where to open the book, and know which way to flick the pages from there to find the desired page; and b) the page is generally of a manageable size, and contains few enough words that I can scan quickly for the passage I’m looking for.

Although these features arose directly from the physical constraints of books, their utility does not diminish when the text becomes digital.

Pagination solves two key problems:

1) Compatibility. Imagine a book group or classroom where some people are reading paperbacks, others Kindle editions and others iBooks. Page references could work across all three.

2) Positioning. One of the questions raised by Open Bookmarks is how to format a universal position indicator for an ebook. Formatting discrepancies between platforms make word or paragraph counts unreliable. A combination of text string and percentage of progress through the text looks like a good solution, but text string plus page number would do that job equally well. It would also have the considerable added benefit of being compatible between digital and physical; not only could you use a citation taken from an ebook and look it up in the print edition, I could use a written citation to look up the same passage in the ebook simply by keying in the page number. The system would support automated linking, but would not be wholly reliant on it to work.

Shortcut to concensus

Page numbering is easily implementable by different ereading platforms3 and publishers without recourse to a working committee. A new common standard for ebook citations would be more complicated to engineer, would require technical and political accord between Amazon and Apple (and every other ereading platform) – and would make no sense to readers of a print edition.

Transposing pagination to the screen presents options unavailable in print but compatible with print: what if it were possible to map more than one pagination scheme – hardback and paperback for example – to a single ebook, and allow the reader to choose depending on which edition her friends are reading? Or imagine a Project Gutenberg ebook of Wuthering Heights that offered the pagination of several editions past and present – a boon for scholars dealing with a range of secondary sources that each cite a different edition.4

When is a page not a page?

Pagination is not without its challenges. There is of course a dissonance between the experience of pagination in print and on screen that readers will have to get used to. Moving from one screen page to the next will not always cause the page number to change, or it may change in increments of more than one, depending on the device being used and the type size. However, I don’t think this will prove insurmountably baffling, and there are numerous options for visual cues to keep the reader comfortably oriented.

What about ebooks with no print edition? Could we see the artificial allocation of ‘page’ numbers to books that have never been typeset onto actual pages? How would that work? Actually typesetting as a book just to discover page numbers would be ludicrous, so how about an agreed standard – a new page begins every 300 words?5 If artificial pagination is implemented, what happens if the publisher subsequently decides to issue a print version? The ebook pagination could be updated to match that of the print edition, but what then happens to citations made with the original scheme? Again, the ability to embed more than one pagination scheme in an ebook could be the answer.

Amazon says its move is a response to the demands of readers. Could it be that, in eschewing the trappings of print and trying to figure out solutions exclusively for ebooks, we have overlooked the obvious, common-sense solution that has been under our noses the whole time?

  1. The utility-defying page edge metaphor in iBooks for example []
  2. Some Notes on Notes Part One & Part Two []
  3. Assuming, that is, that Amazon hasn’t found some ingenious way to patent electronic use a centuries-old print convention. []
  4. How would this affect classics publishers like Penguin, who often enjoy the status of edition of choice for set texts in classrooms? Could they claim copy protection on pagination? []
  5. Electronic word counters are notoriously inconsistent – for this to work, it would have to be a calculation made by the publisher, with particular words being identified as the first (or last) on a given ‘page’ – that way, the artificial pagination could be consistent across different file formats an ereading platforms. Also, by defining the page breaks at publisher level, a rigid common standard for per-page word count would not be strictly necessary, though it would make the system more intuitive for readers to use. []

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