I’m going to speak directly to you although most of what I’m saying applies to everyone involved in book publishing. I have a question:
Why don’t we measure books in words?
The old way – with printed books – has been pages. “Do you know The Stand is Stephen King’s longest book? It’s over 1150 pages!” As if a page is some kind of absolute unit. I’m sure you know this but page count varies based on type of book, the size of the page, the size of the typeface, the leading and paragraph spacing, the margin sizes, and the gutters. One page from one book does not equal the same amount of reading material as one page from another book. It might not even equal one page from a different version of the same book. And those pages certainly don’t equal the same amount of content as one page of a manuscript.
Obviously, a single word isn’t an absolute measurement either. But once you have a significant number of them it becomes the best and most consistent way to measure and compare book lengths. Writers already measure their work in words. Plus word count doesn’t vary based on externalities like font size, it’s a direct measurement of the content.
Maybe publishers recognize this and also use word count internally, but the public-facing measurements have always been pages.
Why am I telling you this, Amazon? Because you had a chance to change it. The way people read books is changing and you’re at the leading edge of that transition. You could have swung the public toward measuring by word count. So why aren’t Kindle books measured in words? Instead, they’re measured in dots, percentages, and “locations.” Let’s talk about all three.
I honestly have no fucking clue what a Kindle dot is. I originally thought it was an absolute measurement, like one dot equals ten thousand words, but that’s wrong. When I asked an Amazon rep they said, “At this time, we cannot determine the unit of a dot.” At this time? Okay. I’ve heard that it somehow relates to the number of chapters. Obviously, measuring chapters is even more arbitrary than measuring pages. I can’t confirm that claim, though. I can’t even confirm that longer books have more dots. Again, from an Amazon rep: “books with more contents and large number of pages may have longer dots. However, we don’t have specific number of pages per dot.” May?
But I think I get it: dots are a nice visual indicator for what percentage of a book is remaining. Fine.
In addition to the dots, Kindles display a specific percentage. I have no complaints about this measurement as long as it’s coupled with something more absolute. Of course, it isn’t. So you’ve read 50% of the book. How much was that? Who knows. Double it and you’re done. At least it allows you to tell another person, “I’m 75% of the way through Writing For The Web.” Which is way better than saying, “I’ve got one dot left and I’m on the edge of my seat.”
We finally have an absolute unit. What exactly is the measurement? The speculation is that each location represents 128 bytes of data. Is that useful in any way at all? Well, yes. A location on one Kindle should match up perfectly with a location on another Kindle. In that respect, it’s useful. But you can’t use it to measure books in relation to printed or non-Kindle versions. And nobody is familiar with them. Saying that Crime and Punishment has 300000 locations is meaningless to most people.
At some point you, Amazon, realized the problems with dots, percentages, and locations. You fixed this by adding a word count, an actual measurement of the text that is comparable across all books, editions, and devices. Just kidding! You added a page count.
In 2011, you added “real” page numbers to Kindle books. This is almost worst than dots. The page numbers on my Kindle don’t correspond to the content of one screen. It’s not a “Kindle page.” So what it is? Is it the equivalent page of one of the printed editions? Which edition? Or is it some hypothetical page count calculated by using the location or word count? I don’t know. Adding pages doesn’t help. It’s just a friendlier measurement of location.
The only solution is word count.
It’s not too late, Amazon. This is my official plea: Please add word count to your Kindle books, devices, and apps.
Published on October 8, 2013
Cover image: Courtesy of Denis Travin