A Plea for Book Publishers to Include Page Numbers in Digital Formats

Besides the major inconvenience of Digital Rights Management (DRM), the other big problem with digital editions of books these days is that there is no standardized pagination for citations.

Thankfully, there is a very simple solution to this problem, if only publishers would adopt it: insert page numbers into digital editions to match the print editions. That is what I’ve done with my own book, Values of Harry Potter. Inserting page numbers in every new book would be a trivially easy thing to do, and it would allow buyers of digital copies to use and reference the same citation schemes as the buyers of the old-technology ink-on-paper copies.

December 1 Update: I’m amazed by how much confusion this seemingly simple idea has generated. Therefore, I’m adding two images to illustrate what I’m talking about. I took a screen shot of my own book, Values of Harry Potter, as displayed by Kindle for Mac. For the Kindle edition, the text “[33]” was inserted where page 33 starts in the print edition. This has to be done by the publisher. Because the Kindle uses free-flowing text, obviously the added text might appear anywhere on the screen. The point of this is to inform the reader, “This is where page 33 begins in the printed edition.”


And here are pages 32 and 33 of my book as scanned from the printed edition.


One of the comments suggests another important use for standardized pagination; in reading groups, where people might be reading copies of a book on different devices, it would be very useful if everybody had a common page system. (The original post now resumes; this ends the update.)

The only drawback to inserting the page numbers is that they are a minor distraction when reading. But this is a trivial inconvenience, as the reader can easily ignore the page numbers, while the benefits of standardized citations are substantial.

I briefly considered the alternative of simply dropping page numbers altogether, in digital and print editions, and going with something like numbered paragraphs. But then I decided that was a bad idea. I’ve tried to read a printed book that did not number each page, and the experience was frustrating. I like to get a sense of where I am in a book, and the page numbers help provide that. While lengths of paragraphs vary widely, the amount of text on a standard printed page is roughly comparable across books, though of course it tends to vary by type of book. (Academic books tend to use smaller font sizes relative to popular books.)

There is another reason to include page numbers, besides the fact that some readers will continue to prefer printed copies into the indefinite future. On some devices, pdf documents work better than the free-flowing text of other digital formats. And, with fixed pages, the designer has more control over the look of the text and the overall book. So pages are here to stay. The thing to do, then, is to simply mark the same page numbers in the digital editions. This offers another benefit to readers of free-flowing editions, besides the ease of citing material: they can more easily track their progress through a book. (By contrast, the Kindle tracking system tends to leave the reader feeling lost in an indeterminate void.)

A related problem is that of notes. In print editions, I very much prefer notes at the bottom of individual pages, for ease of reference. But of course that doesn’t work for digital editions with free-flowing text. Moreover, I severely dislike the strategy of numbering endnotes by chapters, because the result is that you end up with a “Note 1” for each chapter, which can be confusing. (“Oh, you meant that the profound mysteries of the universe are answered in the OTHER Note 8!”)

My proposed solution is to clearly tie each note to its page number. For example, let’s say Page 25 of our book contains four notes. Rather than number them, we’ll letter them “a” through “d.” Then we end up with Note 25a, Note 25b, etc. (If there is only one note on a page, that can be marked with an asterisk, and then we’ll just have “Note 25.”) Under this scheme, it really doesn’t matter whether the note is printed on the relevant page in a print edition or included at the end of a digital edition; the citation scheme will remain the same.

I already own an iPod Touch, and my wife and I just ordered a Kindle. While some publishers foolishly decline to make new books available in digital editions, more and more the standard is to release books in multiple formats simultaneously. The year 2010 will have marked the major transition to digital publishing. As this transition continues and accelerates, publishers can do us all a favor by simply making pagination standard across editions.



Anonymous November 30, 2010 at 5:04 AM
There is great confusion over ‘e-books’. I don’t think this is altered by referring to ‘digital editions’, and there are assumptions about the relationships between print and electronic file books.

As you mention, the pdf – and there are other ‘print design’ files that mimic the print book – do contain all these features if required. Even taking those out of the issue of page numbering there are a host of file types. Of these html, and its relations, which can mimic the print book, and text, which can’t, are fairly universal.

Outside txt, the main area of the problem you specify, Ari, is in the dedicated file types for reading devices, and the moderately adaptable ePub. And then it really applies mostly to text books, and well researched non-fiction.

Publishers are already struggling with the multiple difficulties of conversion from print files – where those files do already exist. And I imagine the thought of yet another complication will send hearts sinking right through the boots!

Yet your case is good; or at least shows a puzzling challenge to e-books. I doubt if it can be achieved with extant works.

But with modern thoughts on how the files are prepared, which has been made understandable through css2 and xhtml, perhaps the future looks much brighter for you idea. There are already many print books that do group by chapter or page.

One well worth pushing, I would say.

Joseph Harris in the UK

Joe November 30, 2010 at 8:21 AM
Care to post a screenshot illustrating this?

Ari November 30, 2010 at 8:29 AM
Joe, Do you mean a screenshot of my book, with the added page numbers? Really all I did was add in the page numbers in brackets; it is the easiest fix imaginable. For example, My page 32 ends with “Though Lupin poses,” and my page 33 continues the sentence, “no threat to others…” In digital editions with flowing text, that becomes, “Though Lupin poses [33] no threat to others…” Then it’s perfectly clear where page 33 begins in the print and pdf editions.

Sam November 30, 2010 at 2:41 PM
Unless a publisher takes great care, pagination may vary between editions (e.g., paperback, hardback, PDF). In your eBook page number scheme, do you mention which edition is the source of the page numbers? Is it important to do so?

Ari November 30, 2010 at 3:23 PM
Seriously, Sam; how hard is it to enter in page numbers? I’ve done it, and it’s a trivially easy and fast process. It doesn’t take “great care” to enter in the numbers correctly; it merely takes a quick double-check. Even for a lengthy book, the process could be completed within a matter of hours. There’s only one edition of my book (with multiple formats), so the pagination is the same for everything. However, if a book undergoes changes with a new edition, clearly that would be useful information to include in the digital formats. (But why a publisher would offer different editions of the same book at the same time is beyond me.)

Anonymous November 30, 2010 at 8:13 PM
The problem with numbering pages in an ebook is that the user has the opportunity to change the font size so both the total number of pages and the page number will alter depending on the font size selected. A great thing to offer but obviously makes it harder then to match numbers to a physical book with fixed shape and size.

Ari November 30, 2010 at 9:00 PM
Dear Anonymous, You are missing the entire point of the suggestion. It is precisely because the text of some digital formats flows freely that publishers should insert pagination to match the printed edition. Obviously, because the text does flow freely, meaning the amount of text on a device’s screen varies with the size of the screen and the size of the font, the inserted page numbers will NOT appear at the top of the screen. Rather, they will appear wherever the page break happens to be in the printed edition, which could be anywhere on the screen of an ereader.

Sam December 1, 2010 at 10:10 AM
Gee, Ari, in my comment I didn’t even HINT that I was in any way opposed to including page numbers in eBooks. I was merely suggesting that a reader may wish to know from which edition the numbering was taken. I recall that in a recent Atlas Shrugged discussion group, two paperback printings of that book had different pagination resulting in some difficulty in referring to passages in the different editions.

Ari December 1, 2010 at 10:14 AM
Sam, I agree with you, and I was not suggesting you were opposed to including page numbers.

Clive December 1, 2010 at 5:32 PM
It’s horrible. We (I run a small press and I typeset amongst other functions) deliberately omit page numbers from EBooks precisely because the browser will sprinkle them all over the text when the font size or page size is changed by the user.
EBooks are actually a bloody awful, pathetic example of technology. Can’t even support a drop cap. Can’t flow text around images. Primitive. Next we’ll be going back to clay tablets …

Clive December 1, 2010 at 5:35 PM
Besides which, pagination is not necessary: the file publisher can include dynamic links from contents and/or index to any text item…

Ari December 1, 2010 at 10:38 PM
Clive, Obviously ebooks have some huge advantages over printed books (less cost, less space, ease of purchase), which is why that market has been growing rapidly and will continue to do so.

You didn’t actually respond to any of my reasons for including page numbers, so there’s really not much for me to say in response. However, it’s a little silly to say that adding page numbers “sprinkle[s] them all over the text;” it inserts them at precise intervals to match the printed edition, which is the entire point.

Look, publishers can either offer books that are useful to readers, or they can lose money. Take your pick.