This morning, the USCCB announced the release of a new Catechism of the Catholic Church as an eBook. My hopes that this was finally true were dashed when I found two problems:

  1. The "Browser-Based eBook" is not an eBook—it's the same thing that's been available on the Vatican website for years, just with a search bar at the top and without a parchment background.
  2. The actual ePub Catechism is still $10.

The ePub file costs very little (in terms of infrastructure) to download—probably a penny or less per download. The hard-copy book costs $16… but some of that cost (if not all) is justified by the fact that a printing press, paper and distribution/warehousing are involved. So I’m wondering what the USCCB does with money from ePub sales. Would it not be better to get the text into the hands of anyone who wants it—Catholic or not—for free, or for a much more reasonable cost? After all, people can find a thousand protestant Bibles, atheist texts, etc., all free on the Kindle store or in iBooks. And it’s easier for people to get the content from the major ebook stores as well.

Additionally, the USCCB claims the browser-based ebook is helpful for smartphone users. from the press release:

"Our ability to use the new technologies means that many more millions will be able to find the Catholic Church’s teachings on their tablets, their smartphones, and their laptops."

Sadly, this is only partially true: the online text is difficult, if not impossible, to read on any smartphone (I’ve tried on iPhone and Android). See:

Catechism on the iPhone

I don't think the USCCB is being dishonest. Rather, I think companies like Fig Leaf Software take advantage of the fact that many nonprofits (especially Catholic nonprofits, in my experience) don't really know what's happening in the digital space, and end up selling solutions that are outmoded and even sometimes irrelevant.

In this case, something is better than nothing, and browsing on the iPad or a desktop is definitely not a bad experience. But it's not great either. The book is relatively fast to load, but the search is not topical (only keywords in the text), making the online Catechism not really useful as a research tool, only as a quick reference.

My takeaway? It's good to see the USCCB trying to make more forays into the digital space... but please widen your research circle and look into solutions outside your current approved vendor list!

See also: