Kindle Locations

It has always been an issue that different editions of a book might have different page numbers. For citations, the exact edition of the book must therefore be included.

With the kindle, Amazon had a similar problem. In their case, since kindle users can change their font, text size, line width and line height, each user might have a unique “page” count for the same content.

The solution to the problem was to create a new position counter for ebooks which was tied to the content itself rather than the display. Instead of giving a number to each screen (or page) of content, a number is given to each chunk of text, where one chunk is 128 bytes of data.

This 128 bytes includes markup, but not the size of any images themselves.

A screen-full of content now shows multiple chunks, and instead of having a page 124, we might have a screen showing locations 1023-1027. For a same ebook, each location would now be identical regardless of the reader used. Your location 1023 is the same as my location 1023.

Locations: better than pages

Many people have complained about the use of locations in the kindle rather than page numbers 1. Even now that “real page number” support has been added to the kindle, many books do not support it, and people are still unhappy.

The main complaint seems to be that it is now hard to find a given page when discussing a book with someone who is reading on paper or looking up a citation.

Another issue people have is that they find locations unintuitive They no longer have a feel for the length of a book once page numbers are removed.

I do not agree:

Locations are consistent

The length of a page varies hugely across books, and even different versions of the same books (pocket, paperback, hardback). I recently read “The war of art”, which contained many half empty pages and weighed in at 165 pages or 1123 locations. In comparison, “Fooled by randomness” is 368 pages or 4865 locations long. Judging by page-length, “Fooled by randomness” is 2.2 times the length of “The war of art”. Judging by location-count, it is 4.3 times the length!

Locations are more granular

Citing a location will be more precise than citing a page, especially for a very dense book with many words per page.

Pages are not the future

As more books are released without a paper version, there will be no (sensible) way of assigning page numbers to ebooks. We need a new convention.

Getting a feel for locations

Whether you agree or not, you will need to deal with locations if you read using a kindle. It makes sense to develop an intuitive feel for them.

From experience reading you probably know roughly how long a 350 page book might take you to read. There is no reason you could not gain the same ability for ebooks.

By timing yourself when reading you can work out how many “locations per hour” you read at. You can then calculate how long a given book might take to finish.

Combined with noticing how many total locations are in the books you read, this should eventually give you the same intuitive feel for locations that you currently have for pages.

It would have been easier to gain this intuition if locations were more prominent in the kindle interface and when purchasing a book. If there were an option to show “6700 locations or roughly 500 pages” next to each book, people would quickly become used to locations and might not be so upset about them.

Based on amazon’s help center2 I had hoped that the length in locations of a sample chapter would be roughly 10% of the length of the entire book, and that this would be a good way to estimate how long a book really was before purchasing (the file size depends on the amount of images).

Unfortunately some testing with two different books gave a sample chapter length of 6% and 15%, so it may look at 10% of file size, or use some other metric.

My experience

Based on timed periods of reading a selection of both fiction and non-fiction books, my average reading speed is currently 14.5 locations per minute. This was uninterrupted reading time, including highlighting interesting sections and pausing to think when necessary.

Fiction was closer to 16 locations per minute, with non-fiction around 13 locations per minute on average.

The sixth extinction is a 336 page book in print. The content, excluding the table of contents and the notes (although the notes are very useful in this particular case) is between locations 47 to 3711. I would need around 250 minutes, or a little over 4h of reading to finish this book.

Something better than locations

While I think locations are better than pages for ebooks, they are not perfect.

A better system would have two parts:

  • A way of identifying a piece of the text for citations, that is consistent regardless of formatting, font size, etc.
  • A way of seeing the length of a book independent of formatting, and seeing one’s progress through the book.

Locations are not ideal for citations since they currently include metadata and formatting. This means they may change when small adjustments are made to formatting (the same is true of pages).

They can also give us an idea of book length and progress, since formatting and metadata is a relatively constant overhead, and will not be very different between books. (pages are terrible for this, as shown earlier.)

We could therefore have two values displayed on the screen at any given location:

  • a location, that would depend only on the text itself (word or character count for example)
  • a paragraph, that would be indexed using the form “Chapter X, Section Y, Paragraph Z”

Word 12,230/78,021 | Chapter 2, Section 3, Paragraph 12

In short

Locations are good, although not perfect. I suggest getting used to them.

Amazon: please implement something better.