Ebooks undoubtedly mimic the pages of print, transforming them from unavoidable fixtures of the medium to a optional tactic to control the structure and pacing of reading.
Digital text is structured prose, just like print text, but it gains a new, important, feature: links. In the words of hypertext toolmaker, Mark Bernstein: ‘the most important new punctuation mark since the comma’.
Digital text gives a writer the freedom to be less textual if they wish, adding video clips, audio, and assorted interactive elements into the mix.
Digital text exists and is produced within a completely different context from print and, as we shall see, the changes it introduces bring with them their own distinct set of problems.
Here is one problem that will not, despite how much we wish to, go away:
We, the authors of this text, have no substantive idea how you are reading it. You might be flicking between the simulated pages of an electronic remediation of the original text assembled and bound for print publication, you might be reading that primary, intentionally designed, bound and printed physical book, these words might appear from a print-on-demand service, each page freshly produced for you the moment your credit card was accepted, or several years hence, you could be browsing the text we are writing on a device hitherto unseen, it might come to you through the droning of the computer’s simulated voice, or as disjointed fragments quoted somewhere on a blog, a twitterfeed or projected into empty air by the next-but-one incarnation of the e-reader.
Modern text, mashed around through fluid digital media, simply cannot remain a fixed object. If you want to, you can choose to make it a fixed object, but then you obscure its specific advantages. Within a digital environment if you want the text to adapt itself to computers, mobile phones, tablets, screen readers, websites, and that one guy who everybody knows who still prints out everything he reads, you have to let it be and let go of all the expectations that have been bred through the last few hundred years of the printed page. Something that manifests as a passion for craft, awareness of the art, a steadfast belief in the power of the medium in print, becomes obsessive-compulsive control freakery in digital.
Digital typography ranges from the wispy but detailed beauty of the new iPad’s retina display to the chunky ‘wet newspaper’ grey smear of an older Kindle’s eink. The effect of a static user interface affordance changes from context to context. Pagination does completely different things to a text when its produced on a small mobile phone screen instead of a large tablet. Links signify different behaviour in an ereader like the Kindle than they do on a website in a browser. It’s all a bit slippery and wet and hard to grasp.
What makes this even harder is that you can’t lock the text down even if you wanted to (and you shouldn’t if you could); the reader expects a degree of control, not just over the presentation, but also how the text is used. They expect to be able to copy and paste passages into their blog or Facebook so they can talk about them with their friends. They anticipate the ability to tweet sentences without retyping them manually. They demand to be able to highlight and comment on the text itself, their notes being searchable, re-flowable, pieces of digital texts themselves, existing on the border of another.
They expect reading and writing to be two sides of the same coin, more intermingled and intertwined than they ever were in print. Their reading bleeds out into their blogs, forums, essays, Facebook updates through easy quoting and extensive links, creating direct connections between the original text and the new meta-contextual satellite texts. Research tools, like Evernote, that collect text and writing, are also writing tools. Digital reading and digital writing haven’t just locked hands—they’ve done the deed, married and have a brood of misbehaving little brats.
Text starts out as one thing and becomes several others.
That, in a nutshell, is one of the principal problems facing authors in a converged age—the degree of slippage between the intended form of the text, and the control the reader is afforded over that form, has only increased year on year. As new platforms emerge and bring with them associated publishing standards, complex reflows of typography and layout, the relationship between physical and digital looks ever more unsustainable.
The mistake many make is to assume that digital text is somehow married to print, that, since the former won’t displace the latter, they will exist in a continuing symbiosis. But print is the ex in this relationship, not the soulmate. Demands are made of digital text by its readers and by its context that it will find hard to accommodate if it remains bound to print. You can’t expect all ebooks to be remediations of a print text any more than you can expect all films to be adaptations of plays. The new thing has to go off and do its new things, making its mistakes, stumbling and learning to walk all by itself.