The stillborn creature

To say that my cousin was tired was an understatement. Her fatigue drained energy like water flowing into a sinkhole. But she was happy. It was done. Her art book was done.

She had spent most of the evening with the printer, navigating problems, overseeing the process, making sure everything went well.

It had, this time. An earlier print run had been ruined due to a mistake made by the printer.

The eventual book itself was gorgeous. The design was intricate and detailed but left enough conceptual space over for her art to be represented properly. The paper had been chosen for its texture and colour representation. The typesetting and layout was the result of many months of work.

Aesthetically and intellectually, the book was a proper representation of my cousin’s art—where she stood as an artist and portions of her journey there.

The design of the book was indivisible from its substance—form and content inseparable. Together they delivered. Apart they failed. The design was a major part of the book’s meaning.

Even if we disregard the contribution the book’s materiality and substance made to its aesthetics, no ebook format today comes close to having the capabilities necessary to deliver that book’s meaning because none of them are capable of delivering design.

An art ebook is a stillborn creature, devoid of meaning, with no greater substance than a facebook update and all the aesthetic nuance of a document hammered out in Word for Windows 1.0.

The expressive object

Print design is a rich medium that delivers expressive objects. The scope of design in print is not limited to the cover and the typesetting of the text. Print can vary page sizes, deliver full-bleed backgrounds, give the designer whatever margins they want, and have a vast vocabulary of texture and physical aesthetics to draw on.

Ebooks are incapable of representing anything close to print’s range of design or expressiveness. Which wouldn’t be so bad if ebooks had a foundation of design capabilities unique to themselves to draw on. They don’t. Ebooks can’t even compete with websites.

In ebooks, art and design is forced to adopt the aesthetics and subtlety of a direct marketing email.

On the web, sites have the freedom to use full-bleed backgrounds, use whatever limited typographic capabilities the web offers, have complete control over margins, padding, and colours, and can use features specific to interactive media to create an expressive media artefact. Every major ereader platform overrides all of these features to some extent. Some of them block publisher stylesheets completely by default, even though the ereader-provided stylesheet can’t possibly cover the complexity an EPUB document is capable of.

A teenager theming their tumblr has access to more expressive design capabilities, more freedom in deciding on a layout, and more typographic tools than any ebook designer no matter what platform.

This isn’t going to change with EPUB3. Both Apple and Kobo have begun to roll out EPUB3 support. They continue to override styles in ebooks to such an extent as to make it impossible for a large part of the publishing industry’s existing catalogue to migrate to ebooks without major compromises.

The ongoing tragedy

For anybody who appreciates the contribution design makes towards a book’s meaning, the ebook transition is nothing short of an ongoing tragedy.

Books like “City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age” and “The Creative Habit” are transformed, from meaningful holistic objects that successfully convey a vital aesthetic dimension of their subject matter, to horrid, mangled, pieces of lightly decorated plain text. Even worse, publishers have the gall to charge full price for these tortured abominations.

We need to face the possibility that a large part of the publishing industry simple cannot be shifted from print to ebooks without compromises that utterly destroy the books in question.

The common substance

The designer exuded energy, full of ready smiles and nods, and explained the process of transforming the artist’s work into an art book with a passion most people reserve for their firstborn or a really cherished pet.

We were there to talk about how to recreate her work in digital.

We weren’t there to adapt the book or remediate it into digital but to try and figure out how to accomplish the same goals in digital as they had aimed address print.

Because that’s the distinction the publishing industry and ereader vendors don’t get: adaptation versus recreation. Only a fool will just adapt a complex book from print to being an ebook. You need to look at your goals. What is the point of a book on creativity that fully represents the aesthetic dimension of the creative habit? What is the purpose of a book about cities that doesn’t compromise on the visual representation of those cities? What is an art book for?

When you focus on the ends and how to achieve those ends with the means you have at hand, you end up making a completely different object.

In this case, the artist and the designer wanted to make an app or a website, something that fully represented the artist’s multimedia body of work, using the means available.

Given that ebooks only offer a crippled subset of the means available in digital – outdone even by a lowly website – they weren’t even an option.

Ebooks can’t be an option because a substantial portion of the books published today simply cannot be delivered as ebooks without horrifying aesthetic compromises.

Publishers will continue to deliver badly adapted and overpriced books, crippled by the limited capabilities offered by ereader vendors. In the meantime, software companies, web developers, and designers are slowly building apps and websites that serve the same ends—fulfil the same purpose for a reader.

Their products, apps and websites, are more expressive, more useful and, judging by the prices publishers are setting, considerably cheaper.

Because of the short-sightedness of the publishers and ereader vendors, a large part of what now belongs to the publishing industry risks being taken over by app and web developers.

Not overnight, of course, but the animal is wounded, its new offspring is stillborn, and the hungry beasts are circling.


(With thanks to Tom Abba for his input.)