An American Editor

February 25, 2015

Changing Formats: From Scroll to Codex to eBooks

Changing Formats: From Scroll to Codex to eBooks

by Jack Lyon

Electronic reading devices abound. There’s the Kindle, the Nook, the Kobo, and many, many more. Electronic formats abound. There’s EPUB, Plucker, Mobi, and many, many more. But for thousands of years, there was only one way to read a book: by unrolling a scroll.

Scrolls offered some big advantages over their predecessors, stone columns and clay tablets. They were easy to make, easy to write on, and didn’t weigh much. They were also compact, holding a lot of text in a relatively small space. But they had one big disadvantage: they could only be accessed sequentially. In other words, if you wanted to read the 77th column of text on a scroll, the only way to get there was to “scroll” through the first 76 columns. Remember the good old days of cassette tape players? If you wanted to hear “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” you had to fast-forward through “Come Together” and “Something.” Are we there yet? Oops, went too far. Press “Rewind” and try again. Scrolls were like that.

But around the end of the 1st century C.E., someone developed a new technology—the codex.

The codex was a collection of pages bound together in a book—like the printed books we read today. It offered one big advantage over the scroll: random access. In other words, if you wanted to read page 77, you could just turn to page 77. And you could do that while keeping your finger between pages 34 and 35. And you could put a scrap of papyrus between pages 34 and 35 to mark your place without having to leave your finger behind. Remember the good old days of vinyl records? If you wanted to hear “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” you could just pick up the tone arm and move it to the third track on the record, bypassing “Come Together” and “Something” altogether. The codex was like that, and it was a wonderful invention.

Not only that, but the codex eventually became a work of art. Over the years, the scribes of the Middle Ages worked out all the techniques needed to compose beautiful pages, and they went on to illuminate those pages with gorgeous decoration.

When Gutenberg printed his famous two-volume Bible in 1455, he modeled his pages after those of the scribes, and his text is a masterpiece of fine typography, including such features as hanging punctuation, optical alignment, and font expansion (type variation)—features that have become available on the computer only in the past few years.

Yet we typically see none of those features on an electronic reading device. There’s no (or very little) random access. There’s no beautiful typography or page design. There aren’t even any pages. Instead, the text “reflows” to accommodate various screen sizes and readers.

But a page is the basic unit of book design. It’s functional. It can be beautiful. And, not least in importance, it’s fixed in place, allowing us to remember that the passage we loved so much was about halfway through the book at the bottom of the page. This “positional memory” is important not just in reading but in editing as well.

All of that is lost on an electronic reader. One solution would be some kind of software that can replicate a printed page with all the beauties of traditional typography. Is there such a thing? Well, yes. It was invented by Adobe in the early 1990s and is known as Portable Document Format—that’s right: PDF.

Nearly all electronic readers support PDF, so the problem doesn’t lie with technology but with publishers looking for an easy way out—a single file that can be read on a screen of any size. That’s what EPUB is all about.

But is it really that difficult to turn a book into PDFs of various sizes? Most electronic readers have screens of 5, 6, 7.1, or 9.7 inches, which isn’t really that many sizes to deal with. Adjust the pages in InDesign, and off you go.

Doing that, of course, would mean extra work for publishers, who are always watching that bottom line, and for online retailers, who would have to offer the PDFs in those various sizes. And that means most publishers have turned to EPUB as their format of choice.

I read a lot of books in EPUB format, on my Android phone and tablet, and on my computer. And I’m sorry to say that many publishers seem to have abandoned any attempt at controlling the quality of electronic books. Block quotations are indistinguishable from body text; poetry is a mess; text is usually justified but with no attempt at hyphenation, resulting in widely spaced lines. And any attempt at beautiful typography? Forget it. In short, the experience of reading ebooks is far less satisfying than it could be. In most cases, I attribute this to sheer laziness on the part of publishers, who continue to crank out junk when the means to excellence lie readily at hand. For example, EPUB relies on CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), which can accomplish absolute miracles.

Fortunately, some people still care about readability and fine typography, and they are working to ensure that ebooks are as functional and beautiful as possible:

What about you? Do you publish books in electronic form? If so, what do you to make sure that your books are readable and beautiful?

Someday, in the distant future, someone who has read nothing but ebooks is going to stumble into an ancient library and open an honest-to-goodness book. Will that experience be an illumination, a revelation of what we have lost? Or will the reader say, “Wow, this is just as beautiful as my ebooks!”?

What do you think?

Jack Lyon ( owns and operates the Editorium, which provides macros and information to help editors and publishers do mundane tasks quickly and efficiently. He is the author of Microsoft Word for Publishing Professionals and of Macro Cookbook for Microsoft Word. Both books will help you learn more about macros and how to use them.



  1. Thanks, Rich!

    Looks great!




    Comment by editorjack — February 25, 2015 @ 10:34 am | Reply

    • Jack, as always, a great article. Any chance that it is hinting at an up and coming Editorium program? BTW I love Editors Toolkit and BookMaker, and could not live without your Scripture Indexer Program.


      Comment by (The Rev.) Wayne C. Paul — February 25, 2015 @ 12:24 pm | Reply

  2. Thank you for this article. I especially like your progression through history. It’s like we have peaked and are going down the other side of writing evolution–but there is a solution with the PDF to preserve the pages and artistic merits of a book. “Positional memory” and design are important to me, and a PDF would offer those as well as the ability to search easily for words and phrases.


    Comment by Eva Blaskovic (@BlaskovicWriter) — February 25, 2015 @ 12:19 pm | Reply

  3. I read mostly novels, and I have seen a lot of improvement in ebook formatting since the first Kindle came out– mostly because conversions got better. I now read almost entirely on an ereader. There are many reasons– not running out of shelf space for all my books, instant downloads, a library in my purse. But one of the main reasons is I can make the font bigger. Anyone who clings to PDF as an ebook format is trying to hitch a team of beautiful horses to an automobile because they love horses, but it’s not going to work. Reading a PDF on an ereader takes away one of the main benefits of the new technology because making the font bigger makes the page bigger and very hard to read. Even using the PDF that was used to print the book to create an ebook can introduce problems, as when hyphens added to prevent loose lines end up in the middle of words (like this: hypehn-ation).

    I think as the technology improves, publishers will move to systems that allow them to store their data (books ARE data) in a neutral format, like SGML or XML, and then output whatever format is needed– PDF for printing, or epub or other ebook formats.

    And by the way, ebooks do have their own kind of random access. You can jump chapters, or search for words or phrases. It will only get better.

    Maybe someday the KDP and CreateSpace platforms will merge and support creating books from XML data. Right now, as a self-published author, I end up with one MS Word file to create the PDF for the print version and another MS Word document to create the ebook, which has slightly different elements and a different order. This is a royal pain! But I’m not complaining, because the changes brought by ereaders and new technology allow me to connect with readers.


    Comment by Carmen Webster Buxton — February 26, 2015 @ 3:41 am | Reply

    • I really like this horses analogy. Horses are indeed beautiful, but in the days when they were used for transportation, that’s what they were: a means of transportation. And when better means of transportation came along, people who argued about the relative beauty of horses versus the homeliness of cars were missing the point and were rightly ignored.

      Books can be beautiful, but for most of them, they are first and foremost a means to an end: getting the author’s text across to the reader. There are too many practical advantages to reflowable text for the potential beauty of a fixed-layout page to be a realistic or sensible argument against it.


      Comment by Karl — February 26, 2015 @ 12:53 pm | Reply

  4. I enjoyed this article. Thank you. On the topic of readability, it reminded me of another good article I read recently, from the Washington Post: “Why digital natives prefer reading in print.” Maybe we’ll never completely lose real books.


    Comment by Ranee Boyd Tomlin — February 28, 2015 @ 9:57 pm | Reply

  5. Reblogged this on The eBook Evangelist and commented:
    This is a lovely piece on changing formats!


    Comment by Glinda Harrison — March 26, 2015 @ 7:57 pm | Reply

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