What Page?

In answer to the question, ‘What page was that on?’  The answer is: ‘it depends.’  It depends if you are reading the book on a Kindle, that is.  The problem of pagination with electronic texts is shared by all eReaders, of course, but since Kindles are the most popular I will concentrate on them in this post.

If you are reading the book on the Kindle Fire, Amazon’s latest color tablet eReader, the answer is ‘I don’t know,’ because the Fire does not display page numbers—yet, at least.  You read books on the Fire with the Android version of the Kindle reading app, and it does not yet support page numbers.  What you will see on the Fire is the location number, and that number is common to all Kindle eReaders, though how you go about finding it varies.  If you are reading the book on one of the other Kindles (the Kindle (i.e., the basic, 4th generation Kindle), the Kindle Touch or the Kindle Keyboard—we’re going to leave the DX out of this discussion since no one you are likely to meet has one) whether you see a page number or not depends on whether the publisher of the book has formatted them into the eText file that Amazon has used.

Kindle LogoBefore we dive into the details, however, let’s attempt an answer to the question that begs answering:  what is a Kindle location number?

I won’t say that I have researched this seriously, but I did a lot of Googling and the answer is very difficult to pin down.  The best answer I could find was posted by a customer (or maybe an Amazon tech posing as a customer) who did not site her source.  Here is “dorsie’s” definition:

Each location is 128 bytes of data, including formatting and metadata. It was useful when e-readers re-paginated every time you changed font size or style. The location provides a set place in the text that doesn’t change with the variable formatting options available on e-readers… (Amazon Kindle forum post located here.)

In other words, there is a running marker at every 128 bytes of formatted text (including both visible and invisible control characters) that is completely independent of the font size, family or any other rendering characteristics.

I found a number of attempts to figure out page numbers based on location numbers, but they all foundered because the didn’t, in fact couldn’t, take into account the invisible formatting bytes.

But where did “dorsie” find this information?  Hard to say.  Amazon is secretive, of course, about Kindle technology, which is why I suspect “dorsie” of being a crypto-Amazon tech.  At any rate, one cannot help but notice that location numbers are much more precise than page numbers, and remain consistent across Kindle devices.

The official Amazon Kindle Keyboard manual is helpful in unraveling the rest of the missing page number riddle:

“Not all Kindle books include page numbers. Kindle books that include page numbers will list “Page Numbers Source ISBN (the print book identification number)” for the matching print edition under “Product Details” on the detail page at Amazon.com. If the Page Numbers Source ISBN (the print book identification number) listed under “Product Details” on the product detail page is the same edition as your print book, the Kindle page numbers will match the page numbers in the printed edition.”  (See Customize your reading on Kindle Keyboard).

Here is a sample product listing showing the ISBN edition used for page numbers for Jim Cheshire’s My Kindle Fire:

ISBN Page Number Edition

and here is one for David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing:

Washingtons Crossing ISBN Page Source

OK.  Clear enough, but as I tried this out on various Kindles, I got mixed results.  Let’s run through the how-tos of displaying page numbers on the various kinds of Kindles, and then test them out using these two books.

The Kindle

According to the Kindle (4th generation) user’s guidel:

“To view page numbers when reading books that have them, press the Menu button. The current page and total number of pages will be displayed above the progress bar at the bottom of the screen.” (p. 11)

Sure enough, on the Cheshire and Fischer books it works:

Page Location On Kindle

though why you have to obscure most of your screen with the menu just to see the page number is a mystery.

The Kindle Touch

The Kindle Touch user’s guide tells us:

” Because Kindle books can be read on devices with different screen sizes, locations identify specific places in a book, just like a page number would for a print book. Location numbers allow you to direct a friend to the exact same place in a Kindle book you are reading, and are always displayed.

“Many Kindle books also contain page numbers that correspond to the real page numbers in an actual print book. To view the page number of the book you’re reading, tap the top of the screen to display the toolbars. The current location, page number, total number of pages, and percentage of content read are displayed below the toolbar at the bottom of the screen. (Not all Kindle books include page numbers.)” (p. 17)

 With the latest version of the Kindle Touch firmware/software (5.0.4) this is not true.  Neither the Cheshire nor the Fischer book displays page numbers on the Touch, and when using the GoTo feature the page number is greyed out.  In fact, I have yet to see evidence that page numbers are displayed on the Touch, though they must be or else the Amazon documentation is out of date.

The Kindle Keyboard

Since the Kindle Keyboard (software version 3.3) seems to be basically the same device as the 3rd generation Kindle, we would expect page numbers to show up, and indeed they do, but as with the Kindle you must press the Menu button to se them.  They are displayed at the bottom of the screen above the progress bar.

At one time, when there was only one Kindle (not counting the DX) Amazon had a project to add “real” page numbers to all Kindle books, which they pushed out as a software upgrade, but it has since been superseded, apparently, because of the wide array of versions of the Kindle software now in use.

Kindle Reading Apps

Kindle does not simply mean a hardware reading device.  It also includes the Kindle reading software that can run on Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, Android, Windows 7 Mobile, and Blackberry devices, even WebOS devices.  Amazon also gives away the Kindle Cloud Reader, which runs on any device that can run Firefox, Chrome or Safari.  As with the hardware devices, pagination displays vary.

 Why Page Numbers

The second, and more pressing problem that begs to be answered is why bother with page numbers at all?  Traditionally page numbers have been used to keep in sync with others who are reading the same text or to cite works authoritatively (though the proliferation of editions of works makes this fuzzy for all but the most scholarly research).  With the advent of reflowing eText page numbers have become an anachronism.  Unfortunately we are still in that formative period (can you say incunabula) where eText standards have not yet jelled, so to reference eText books is problematic.  What is different this time around, as opposed to the first time pagination was standardized after the invention of the printing press, is that there is no cost barrier to every man becoming an ePublisher.  In a world where anyone can self-publish an eBook and market it through Amazon or simply on their own web site, the adoption of standard text locators using a wide variety of publication software tools seems improbable at best.

The discussion above shows that “Page Numbers” just will not work for purposes of text syncing or citation.  The Amazon Kindle location number works well, in fact, better than page numbers, and it is consistent across Amazon Kindle devices and software platforms, but that is just for Amazon books.  Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo, etc. have not adopted the same strategy, more’s the pity.  And who is to say that Amazon won’t at some future date abandon the location scheme.  Library citation guides give some help, but they too are coming to grips with the new publishing realities.    I suppose we should be grateful that Amazon has adopted some sort of standard in location numbers, and hope that other ePublishers would too.