Will the E-Book Kill the Footnote?

I’m a fan of footnotes. Most of my books have 40 to 50 of them, and some fans have told me one of their favorite things about my books are how fun and enhancing they are to their experience with the main text.

Years ago, I asked my readers which they preferred, endnotes or footnotes, and a long, opinionated conversation ensued. Readers care more about form that you’d think.

For several reasons, e-books are less kind to footnotes.  Some e-book creation services, like bookbaby, relegate footnotes to endnotes, which few people read.

Alexandra Horowitz has a good article in the NYTimes about the history, and the future, of the footnote. She writes:

The footnote jousting could soon be moot, as the e-book may inadvertently be driving footnotes to extinction. The e-book hasn’t killed the book; instead, it’s killing the “page.” Today’s e-readers scroll text continuously, eliminating the single preformed page, along with any text defined by being on its bottom. A spokesman for the Kindle assured me that it is at the discretion of the publisher how to treat footnotes. Most are demoted to hyperlinked endnotes or, worst of all, unlinked endnotes that require scrolling through the e-reader to access. Few of these will be read, to be sure.

When we change mediums, content changes as well. If you watch a movie in a theater vs. on television, many nuances designed for one medium don’t convert well to the other.  It’s always worth asking someone who was bored by a movie you found fascinating if they watched in on a theater or on TV (or even worse, on an airplane) .  Cinematographers design shots and lighting to work in one form, and conversion to another is something they may never have considered. Old school writers who write footnotes, write the main text assuming those footnotes are there. Move the footnote, and you’ve change something important about how the text will be read.

I think Kindle, iPads and all digital book formats can support footnotes better than they do. But there is so little pressure to do it that I suspect Horowitz is right. It won’t happen all at once, but as the popularity of digital books continues to rise to majority status, we’ll see footnotes continue their slide into esoterica.  Perhaps we’ll see more parentheticals  (like this) or hyperlinks to specific notes, but that will never be quite the same form of expression as the footnote is.

Read the full article: Will the E-Book Kill the Footnote? – NYTimes.com.

18 Responses to “Will the E-Book Kill the Footnote?”

  1. Eric

    Interesting question, but the premise is a bit off. Ereaders are _not_ eliminating the page. I don’t know of any (Kindle, iBooks, Stanza, Sony) that scroll text continuously. They each present pages that get “turned” not text that “scrolls.” However, the idea that a publisher can know which text will appear on which page _is_ going away. Pages are a construct of the ebook reader, not the publisher. This means that footnotes do have to change somewhat, and certainly ebook readers will expect them to be “linked” to the main text, wherever they appear. Part of the problem for ebook designers is that these texts, often based on HTML/CSS web standards, find it hard to acknowledge the “page” even when it is constructed by the ebook reader. The good news: there is some thought going into this at Opera, Adobe, and elsewhere in the web standards world. Once the tools are in designer hands, I think you’ll see items like footnotes reappear more flexible than ever.

    1. Phil Simon

      That would be neat. I for one use footnotes pretty liberally and am no fan of endnotes. Vive the footnote!

  2. Dan S

    Footnotes reset to a specific pint in the text, not the page. E- books need popups or expand in place. Moving form a page model should not be a problem for footnotes. They can still be endnotes but accessible in place without navigation.

  3. John

    Given the poor support for footnotes in e-reader devices and applications, I prefer fully hyperlinked(text to note and back) endnotes.

    After that, I could see a footnote being placed in line with the text following the relevant paragraph. The text could be smaller, and possible offset with other devices such as lines or boxes.

    Ideally, I’d like to see it be a “pop-up” window. I wouldn’t care at that point if it was a footnote or an endnote. I can choose to read it or not.

    With the right markings in an e-book text, there are many possibilities how to display this material – including giving the user their choice after the author’s default representation. (“Default choices” are a topic of another NY Times article – http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/16/technology/default-choices-are-hard-to-resist-online-or-not.html)

  4. vítor

    I’m just guessing here, as I don’t have the habit of reading long books on a screen, so I’m not (at least for now) affected by that, but couldn’t the footnotes in e-books be replaced by a slightly different kind of hyperlinking system?

    As I understand, at the moment what they are doing is hyperlinking the text to an endnote, but what if the text was hyperlinked in a way that when you click/touch it, it shows you a kind of pop-up with the footnote? I’m thinking in the ways of graying out he text a little, and showing the footnote on front. Something well designed, something similar to the javascript galleries and effects we sometimes see that work well, wouldn’t that work ok for most?

    On the other hand, e-books could also be treated on handheld devices in a way that you can just “flip the pages”, I’ve seen some like that, but I understand that in some cases, the continuous flow of text can be preferred.

  5. Paul Higgins

    I am more of a fan of footnotes than endnotes but I think the question should be placed into your previous post on false dichotomies. I think that a hyper linked note that you can touch or click on and it expands immediately or is listed at the end of the chapter is a both footnote and endnote and therefore gets rid of the debate. I am just reading James Gleick’s book The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood on the Kindle app on my iPad and find the notes quite useful in this context.

    Keep up the good work – I enjoy reading your writing.


  6. Calum

    The English comedian (and technophobe) Stewart Lee always said he literally half-filled his last book with footnotes precisely so there would never be an e-book version! (It didn’t work, Amazon released a Kindle edition, but I hate to think how difficult it is to read…)

  7. Alex

    Yes! I’m currently reading Terry Pratchett’s “Snuff” (brilliant, as always), and an important part of Terry’s writing style is the use of footnotes. I’m reading it on a Kindle (well, an Asus Transformer with Kindle software, to be specific) and I *hate* how the text bounces back and forth from the footnotes when touching them. Terry’s footnotes (and I suspect many others, including my own) are an integral part of the story, and needs to be read in context, in place, with a quick glance to really get the funny or brilliance out. I’d hate to see contextual footnotes disappear; I really *like* how the eyes catches glimpses of contextual (but mostly irrelevant) writing.

    1. Ben Buchanan

      I was going to comment about Snuff too! Just bought my first Kindle and was interested to see how it coped with a Pterry book. The Kobo didn’t work with them at all, turned them into endnotes. The Kindle was bearable, but still clunky. Haven’t seen a footnote-on-a-footnote yet though…

  8. Jeff Dalton

    I do not understand why this is an issue. E-Readers are software and therefore can make reading notes (footnote or endnote) easy by just clicking on the note indicator. The information can be displayed in a friendly way on top of the existing text. I am thinking of a solution that works exactly like integrated dictionary in Kindle (IPad) or iBook readers.

  9. Sara Rosso

    I don’t think ebooks will kill the footnote – I actually have been using them a lot more in recent ebooks because they are inline and linked so I can jump to the footnote and directly back to where I left off. I don’t think a footnote vs. and endnote will matter in the future….they will be notes, and they will be accessible directly from the text, and therefore helpful.

    I do like the idea of a pop-up note as John suggested.

  10. Fadi El-Eter

    I think both footnotes and endnotes will be killed by the EBooks. There is no need to have them when you can just have popups. The moment popups are added to ereaders (which will be Samsungs and iPads instead of Kindles) footnotes will cease to exist.

    If you guys think about it there’s nothing more disturbing then going to the end of the page or end of the book to read something relevant.

  11. Aaron

    I think the eBook will kill the formatting and presentation method of the footnote, but not the idea. I *really* like the way the current version of the iOS Instapaper app shows footnotes inline (there’s a little ellipses button that shows where a footnote is located inline, with a tap the footnote info opens in an overlay).

  12. Hrafn

    Ebooks haven’t “killed” footnotes, they simply have failed to implement them as yet. Ebooks-as-simple-text only allows unlinked endnotes. Ebooks-as-simple-html only allow linkable endnotes. Footnotes simply require that ebooks go beyond simply using these vanilla legacy file formats to one that actually meets the needs of writers and their readers. Thereafter, whether footnotes get displayed at the bottom of the ereader page, as popups (or even as endnotes) can be left to the reading software (and ideally be set to the reader’s preference).

    Work is being done to implement this, e.g. with EPUB3 (which unfortunately seems to have lost its way somewhat).

  13. Bob A

    So far, the format that I’ve liked the best is endnotes at the end of a chapter that give additional information and endnotes at the end of the book that are bibliographical citations. Even better would be pop-up notes when they give additional information with bibliographical citations as endnotes at the end of the book.



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