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Maps And eReaders

“I wisely started with a map.” – J.R.R. Tolkien.

Clearly ebook publishers ascribe to a different way of thinking. Does Amazon.com hate fantasy readers? Does Barnes & Noble? Kobo? Apple? I’m reasonably certain the answer is, again, no. But sometimes I do wonder. I would imagine fans of historical fiction and non-fiction history occasionally feel the same as well. Why? BECAUSE EREADERS AND MAPS DON’T MIX!

Pardon the shouting. I’m annoyed, so I shout. Just imagine what happens when I get angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry…

Krynn MapI digress.

With absolutely no numbers to back up this statement, I would imagine that sci-fi/fantasy readers are one of the larger demographics utilizing ereaders to consume their literature of choice. Generally a forward-thinking group, we fans of speculative fiction love technology, the Internet, and hoarding. Personal digital libraries scratch all three itches. To be fair, we also love oversized, leather-bound, slipcased editions you could use to inflict blunt force trauma, but changing one’s mind is a lady’s prerogative, no?

Focusing specifically on the fantasy genre, maps are often integral parts of the story being told. Certainly there are authors—Joe Abercrombie comes to mind—that eschew conventional wisdom and don’t believe that fantasy novels must be accompanied with maps. But the vast majority of authors provide a lay of the land, both literally and figuratively. And while flipping to a map while holding a paperback or hardcover in your grubby little mitts is easy, digitally flipping (forgive the pun) is anything but. But shouldn’t it be?

Westeros MapMy Kindle does pretty much everything but tuck me in at night. It reads to me. It suggests new books. It tells me what words mean, and can make those words magically change size and shape. But it simply doesn’t offer an easy, one-keystroke way to “jump to page xii.” My original Nook was the same way. And the Kindle and Nook apps on the iPad are no different. (Author’s Note: I’ve never downloaded a book for use with iBooks. I understand that there “enhanced” books that may seamlessly integrate maps and other ephemera. But please understand that I don’t consider the iPad an eReader. At all.)

If you’re anything like me, you’ve forgotten how far Pax Tharkas is from Solace, whether the Mander actually runs through Whiteharbor, or where Mirkwood is relative to Mordor. Luckily, the authors of those works—or their confederates—graciously provided maps of Krynn, Westeros and Middle Earth for we readers to reference as we’re reading–detailed, professional maps that provide context, scale and scope relative to the story being told. These maps are included in digital editions of the book, yet their inclusion often feels like an afterthought (despite the fact that they are part of the book). They are usually improperly scaled, oft-times difficult to read and generally sub-par when compared to the printed page.

One would think, with the technology available, that eReaders and maps would be the best of friends. Bread and salt. Meat and mead. Even the most basic Kindle or Nook can zoom text and there is an innate ability to move around in a page. Why can’t that technology be applied to maps? Zooming and panning are pretty basic functions. And as far as accessing maps, should I have to do anything more than 1) hit a dedicated key that jumps me back to a specific page, or 2) have a “Go To Map” menu option? I really don’t think I’m asking for much.

While it seems like minutiae, I’ve had more than one friend—and avid fantasy and/or history reader—tell me that they simply cannot make the switch to digital because they can’t stand the inability to quickly reference a map. And then in the next sentence they complain about how aggravating it is to tote a 7-book series on vacation. In this age of as-you-like-it consumption, I think it is incumbent upon the publishers of ebooks to maximize the technology available.

Middle Earth MapAuthors need to carry this torch for their readership. Every author has a certain degree of control over how their books are presented—trade dress, format, paper, art, etc. And every author receives pre-publications galleys for proofreading and final markup purposes. Shouldn’t the same quality controls be extended to ebooks? For better or for worse (depending on how you feel about them), ebooks are here to stay. If I were a published author, I would want to ensure that all my readers were offered the same basic experience, regardless of what format of book they prefer. And if a map were included with the prose, I’d argue that the map is part of the story and should be accorded the same degree of care. The same could be said for spot illustrations and illuminations. Whole, parts, macro, micro, forest, trees—you get the point.

A map alone a story does not make, otherwise I’d have a favorite cartographer. I am not one of those fantasy fans that absolutely must have a map to enjoy a story. But I strongly believe that a map included in a printed work is the product of the same creativity, inspiration and hard work that fueled the prose on which it elaborates. To treat any type of supplemental material as “less than” simply because of a difference in format debases the work as a whole. And while this little rant probably wouldn’t even rate a boilerplate acknowledgement from a publishing house or ebook retailer, perhaps it will generate a little conversation on the topic. A little…digital stimulation, as it was.

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10 Comments

  1. Avatar Arlyn says:

    This is why I stick with real books. Amongst other reasons.

    • Avatar Zack Matzo (@perch15) says:

      It’s an interesting turn of phrase that you use. “Real books.” I’m of the opinion that, much like mp3s are “real music,” e-books are, in fact, “real books.” While I certainly understand–and value–the bound book to place upon my shelf, making the switch to a Kindle was as difficult, but ultimately as rewarding, as swearing off CDs. Physical space considerations aside, I find I’m reading more, and drawing from more diverse genre pools. Certainly, I have my gripes (as you read–and thanks for that!), but I’m now firmly of the opinion that e-books are, in fact, real books and as such every aspect should be treated with the same degree of care and consideration given printed volumes. Until they are, their general acceptance as “real books” will lag.

  2. Avatar AlmightyZael says:

    Ha. Great article.
    Funny you should write this up, as I had these exact same thoughts about a week ago.

    I would point out, however, that Rothfuss’ Kingkiller series actually works on the Kindle. I know it’s split into two sections, but the map itself is so simple that it is easy to comprehend on the device.

  3. Avatar Eric Storch says:

    The first fantasy series that I read exclusively on my Kindle was “Song of Ice and Fire” and I found not having easy access to the map hindered my enjoyment of reading those books. I had to find the map online and print it out so I could reference it with ease.

    • Avatar Zack Matzo (@perch15) says:

      The first time I did a ASOIAF re-read on the Kindle, I did the same thing. By the second time, the HBO map was available for purchase so I picked that up. Kudos to Martin’s pubilsher for offering the maps in official PDF form, though. It was appreciated.

      I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one with this issue!

  4. While I think maps are interesting, I’m not much of a map referencer. If I’m forced to look at a map in order to understand the story (and hate being forced to do anything while I’m reading), then I would argue that the writer isn’t doing his job. A map should be an enhancement to the storytelling, not a crutch.

    That said, I agree with you, Zack. A map is part of the book and is a critical aspect of the experience for many people. This is one advantage that paper books have over ebooks, although ereader tech is always evolving. I’m curious to see if and how this problem will be addressed.

    • Avatar Zack Matzo (@perch15) says:

      Thanks for reading, Brandon! It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it? One man’s crutch is another man’s enhancement! I’m of the opinion that maps aren’t essential, but I definitely prefer them. Abercrombie’s books are the perfect example. While his position has softened over time, I recall more than one occasion when reading the first trilogy that I wished I had a definitive map. I think perhaps it has something to do with how we process information as an individual. In any event, I’m glad the piece generated some discussion and I, too, look forward to see how the “problem” will be addressed.

      • Avatar Johnson Li says:

        You need a map for Abercrombie’s is because there is a parallel between 3 different locations, and half of them are constantly traveling toward different corners of the world. Is so damn dizzying.

  5. My first time to post here, hope it might help some of you!

    I use an iPad mini and the iBooks app where possible. It does allow you to more easily return to another page (so you can bookmark the map page, go to that page and click’back to page… to return to the story). It’s far from perfect but better than the kindle way.

    Here’s my slightly techy Pad workaround: If you have a Dropbox account download all your favourite maps and keep them in a map folder on your computer, ( let’s call this folder ‘maps’;) and however many sub-folders you wish (middle-earth, westeros etc). Then install either the Goodreader or Documents apps on your iPad (Documents is free). You can sync those map folders to your iPad by connecting the app to your dropbox account. Next simply open them and ‘swipe’ between the map and the book (app to app). This also has the advantages of allowing you to use really great hi-res maps and zoom in pan around to your heart’s content. I also use the same system to collect my favourite art and book covers. Everything, all my books, art, maps in one place. I also recommend the likes of Instapaper to collect articles, reviews and so forth.

    I also recommend finding some cool kind of case which can really make the device look and feel more like a book.

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