I was recently editing a novel destined to be published primarily in e-book form, and made a list of pre-press instructions, to be followed when the final text is agreed upon. Some of these instructions were only needed because the text mimics the printed page, sometimes to the extent of having columns and fully-justified text.

All the e-books I've read use pages. The text is laid out more or less like it would be on a printed page. Why is that? Why not use scrolling text?

There are some advantages to laying out text like this: White space at the end of a chapter is a powerful indicator to the effect that we're done with this bit. Text looks professional and classy when it's laid out on a page.

Why is this done? Is it just because users expect it? Or is there a deeper reason?

  • 2
    You might get some interesting answers by asking this over on UX.SE too. Jul 12, 2011 at 14:14
  • What type of books are you referring to? Technical/nonfiction or fiction books? Jul 13, 2011 at 17:13

5 Answers 5


By doing a "flip page" style of feature in ebooks, it allows the reader a chance to catch their breath. Try this sometime. Get two copies of the exact same book (preferably in the public domain). Read one formatted for an e-reader, and the other in-line. You'll notice very quickly that with the in-line text, you lose your place easily, your eyes tire quicker, and you may become extremely discouraged reading what seems to be an unending march of text up your screen. Ebook formating on the surface seems to be mostly aesthetic, but there is a large chunk of psychological tricks that help keep us interested and reading the text long after we would have given up otherwise.

  • I have read many books, some of them very long, without using pages on Palm devices, and I had no problems with that. The paragraph, section and chapter divisions were quite sufficient. (For example Simplicissimus, Nils Holgersson, and many more long novels from projects Gutenberg or Runeberg formatted as plain text.)
    – starblue
    Jul 12, 2011 at 15:51

I think the theories about eye strain is completely valid and may have been part of the thought process. That said, let's not forget that many people are still not sold on the e-book experience. Keeping it familiar will help ease the pain of switching for the uninitiated or reluctant.

When computers shrunk to the size of a microwave and could theoretically be put in someone's kitchen, it wasn't until they added the metaphor of a desktop (with all the fancy icons that entailed) that massive adoption started to happen. People get familiar with a particular process or methodology and can't imagine switching from it.

Several times (because this is a debate I have a lot), people have told me they don't want to buy an e-reader because they like to physically turn the page or need the smell of the paper. I always laugh and say that's the same reason I can't get rid of my horse and buggy (it's just a more visceral experience). I also ask them how many blogs they read in a day and why they don't print them out before they read them.

Just as the metaphor we use to interact with computers is changing (i.e. touchscreen tablets), the metaphor we use to read e-books may change. But people need to be eased into it first.

  • You make an excellent point about printing out blogs. However, while your horse-and-buggy analogue is amusing, it's imprecise. People can only read as fast as they can read, and there's no safety element involved, nor are you concerned with the elements. "Car vs. motorcycle" would be more apt, and would lead to an actual discussion of the "viscerality" of the experience. Jul 12, 2011 at 11:47
  • While my horse and buggy analogue may be an exaggeration (I don't actually own one, sadly), my point is really about how people are wary of change. The car succeeded the horse, as I think the e-reader will eventually (and that's a long eventually) will succeed the printed book. They will live side by side for a while (just was early cars and buggies did). The users of buggies will be angry and shake their fists at the fast moving metal monsters because they spook the horses. All the while, more people will buy cars and less horses.
    – Joel Shea
    Jul 12, 2011 at 14:21
  • You say people "can only read as fast as they read", but books are not the format they are because of people's reading speed. It's because it's more efficient for the printing process. Many web pages are a long scroll of text because this limitation has been removed. Should the this page be broken up into multiple pages, the first being the question and then an answer on each subsequent page, as to not overexert the user? Many questions and answers here have as many words as a page in a novel. No, the content is broken up a way that is befitting the web.
    – Joel Shea
    Jul 12, 2011 at 14:30
  • Sorry, I was being imprecise myself. :) I mentioned speed because in the literal car-vs.-buggy comparison, speed is a big factor. If you compare car to motorcycle, you remove that nitpick. I understood your point about the objection to change, but you highlighted "it's visceral," not "it's newfangled and different." Jul 12, 2011 at 16:14
  • I'm sorry, I wasn't clear either. My "visceral" comment was meant to be tongue-in-cheek. It's the type of thing I hear from people in writer groups when you start talking about paper vs e-book. One of the best pieces of advice I got about writing for the web that I need to remember was "Sarcasm can't travel in cyberspace."
    – Joel Shea
    Jul 12, 2011 at 16:46

Nathan raises an excellent point. WIth scrolling text, you need to put in extra effort to track where you've stopped and where to start reading again. This may not seem like a lot of mental effort, but it's small things like that which tire the reader's "eyes" - a metaphor of course, it's really the brain which is tired from doing all that needless searching. There is also the fact that most ebook readers don't have refresh rates fast enough for smooth animations.


Eink Ereaders only spend battery when they need to refresh the page. If you have scrolling text, you have to refresh the whole page, but you show very little new text. That is very wasteful in terms of battery life.


It has been my experience that GUI's try to make it easy, and familiar for End Users. In web design, we try stuff that is imaginative and forward-thinking, yet still we code for familiarity: The navigation bar goes in a familiar place, the left and right side bars are scanned for tools.

As traditional books have been around for ages, developers assume that people want the "familiar flip of the page" that says this is how many pages I've read. How many of us, when we are putting our books down, tilt the book up to look at the binding edge to see how far we've gotten. The flip is user friendly!

  • Your second sentence got messed up and I don't know how to fix that. Jul 12, 2011 at 12:31
  • I find some of those implementations of page flipping quite annoying, especially when they use time-consuming animations.
    – starblue
    Jul 12, 2011 at 15:54

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