November 29, 2010

Why print books beat ebooks for travel guides


The Kindle version of the Lonely Planet guide to Germany show with the 844-page print version.

“It sounded like a better, lighter way to pack for a trip to Germany: a Kindle with a Lonely Planet travel guide in lieu of an 844-page brick of a book,” says Anick Jesdanun. “Yet to my surprise, the 10-day visit to Munich, Dresden and Berlin turned into a lesson about the pitfalls of cramming an old medium – the book – into a new one – the electronic reading device.”

Jesdanun, the Associated Press technology writer, no less, goes on to explain in an AP report that the Kindle should have been a superior experience that would simultaneously “lighten my backpack” — after all, she could buy multiple guides, even individual chapters from giant guides like Lonely Planet’s, she could add highlights, type notes, and throw in all the novels she wanted to read along the way. And the ebook version of the Lonely Planet guide was even cheaper than the print version.

And yet in the end, says Jesdanun, “I ditched the Kindle and carried the book around.”

Why? “There were two main reasons for this: the screen technology and the way the book was converted for e-reading.”

For example,

Consider the Lonely Planet’s 2.2-mile, 16-stop walking tour of Dresden, which takes me by the major churches, markets and other sights rebuilt following the Allied bombings of the city in the waning days of World War II. The narrative gave me bare-bones descriptions of each sight. To learn more, I had to flip to a different section in the book and sometimes consult the index to find the right page. To navigate the route, I had to flip to a map and follow a black line marking my route.

Holding the paper version, I simply kept my thumb on one page and a finger on another to flip back and forth between the narrative and the deeper descriptions. The map was either on the same page or just one page away.

With the Kindle, I had to hit “next page” and “prev page” repeatedly, and the pages took their sweet time to turn, because the “electronic ink” technology of the screen doesn’t respond as fast as a computer screen. Out of frustration, I flicked a switch to turn the device off instead.

E-ink also means scrolling and zooming doesn’t work well. The Lonely Planet’s solution was to break maps into four, so that you could get a closer look at each quadrant on the full screen. The idea is good in principle, but clunky in practice. I found I had to flip back and forth too many times because the legends telling me what sight each number corresponds to ended up on the wrong quadrant ….

Jesdanun notes that, after all, “printed books have a head start of several centuries” and part of her problem was that she was “dealing with first-generation e-book technology at best.” (And not even the newest available editions of the book in question: “the Kindle edition I bought in August was based on the 2007 version of the guidebook, not the 2010 edition that just came out four months earlier.”)

Nonetheless, she says for her next trip, “I’ll stick with the tried and true: I’ll just carry the book.”

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives