Scott Pilgrim vs The eBook

19 Aug 2010

Having failed to avoid succumbing to the Scott Pilgrim fanfare on the web, I decided last night to see if I could grab the original comics in eBook to read on my iPad. I think I’ve said before that I quite like eBooks – the iPad’s a great reading device, they turn up instantly when you order them, and they hopefully reduce my tree count. Also, apps like the Marvel app show you can deliver a compelling comic book experience on the iPad – so bring on Scott Pilgrim!

There’s two primary ways of getting ebooks onto your iPad – Apple’s iBooks and Amazon’s Kindle app – and the first volume of Scott Pilgrim can be found on both. I’d used iBooks before, so I thought I’d give Kindle a whirl. The Kindle experience is certainly a little less slick – you install the app, but when you click buy in Kindle you’re taken out the app to the Amazon US web store – this is a legacy from when I got my iPad and only the US store worked for kindle. I search for Scott Pilgrim, when it tells me I can now use the UK store, so I transfer my Kindle account to the UK store, and search again for my book, pay my £3.49, and head back to the Kindle app, ready for my instant gratification of comic book action.

Only, for no reason I can discern, the Kindle app decides to install two books. Scott Pilgrim Volume 1, as I purchased, but also, and more vexingly, first, it installs The New Oxford American Dictionary! So, having ordered a tiny book, and having done this dance through Amazon’s web site, I’m now having to wait while it downloads some book I didn’t buy. And not just any other book, but an ENTIRE DICTIONARY!

Thankfully the dictionary only takes a few minutes to download, and I’m soon ready to settle down with the adventures of Scott and friends. Only, the quality isn’t very good. Not very good at all:

The entire thing looks like it’s been scanned in at a fairly low quality, and hasn’t been cleaned up at all. The picture above is a screen shot from the Kindle app, blown up to twice the size – the default is really quite small for reading. The Kindle app (unlike iBooks here, so one up for Kindle) will let me zoom in on pages to help with reading the tiny text, but then I can’t navigate to the next page without zooming out again. And zooming in doesn’t buy my any higher resolution – that above is as good as it gets.

I decide I can’t face 170 pages of this, so head over to iBooks to see if I fare any better in Apple’s hands. £4.99 later (and no leaving the app, and no strange dictionaries downloaded) I once again settled down to Scott Pilgrim and co. This time, the scan is much cleaner, but the resolution is still pitifully low:

But the cleaner scan at least makes it a lot less of a headache to read – clearly the £1.50 was well spent in the book’s production. Maybe.

I read on, and hit more frustrations with the eBooks – any fine detail is totally lost. Early on in Scott’s tale, his band play a song, and rather nicely they provide both lyrics and guitar music – how cool is that? At least, I assume it’s cool, as the best I can get out of either version is this:

G, C, and Em I can make out, but the rest of the text, and indeed most the lyrics to the song, aren’t legible. Add to this the lack of colourful, scene-setting cover (both eBooks have text only covers), overall it’s been a very disappointing experience. I’m quite frankly amazed that Harper Collins, who are responsible for both editions, quite frankly let them out the door. It might not be Harper Collins fault, perhaps they’re constrained by the software, but the end result is not fit for consumption if I can’t read parts of the book.

To check that I wasn’t doing Harper Collins a disservice, and that it wasn’t the source material that was at fault, I decided to give in and get the paper edition. So today I duly went to Waterstones and paid £7.99 in return for a lump of dead tree.

You can immediately see the paper version cared a lot more about the presentation of what is, after all, a visual medium. No colourful funky cover for the electronic version – I suspect Times New Roman is almost the antithesis of the original.

But what about the quality of what’s inside? How do Scott et al shape up in print? Quite frankly, a lot better:

It’s a shame really – there’s no reason the iPad shouldn’t deliver just as good an experience as the paper edition for a comic like this, instead this will just put people off the idea of eBooks. I’ve happily consumed both fiction and non-fiction eBooks on a variety of devices, and this was the first time I’ve been let down. But boy has it been a let down.

In the end, I did enjoy the first volume of Scott Pilgrim’s adventures, and look forward to reading the subsequent volumes. But I fear I’ll be getting those on paper until Harper Collins see fit to do the medium justice.

The paper version did have one other advantage though – I was a lot less worried about dropping it in the bath…

Update: A few days after I went through all this I got in touch with both Amazon and Apple and asked for a refund on the grounds the eBooks weren’t fit for purpose. I’m pleased to report that both companies got back to me promptly and refunded me in full, with an apology that I’d had such an unfortunate experience, and that they’d look into it. Top marks to both Amazon and Apple there on the customer support front.