Is It Time to Rethink E-Books?

The father of the e-book passed away last week. Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg, died Tuesday, September 6, at the age of 64. Considered by most to be the man that jumpstarted the move toward digital books, Hart created the first fully digitized public document by hand-typing the Declaration of Independence into a University of Illinois computer.

That was back in 1971, and Project Gutenberg has arguably paved the way for what we now know as e-readers and, most importantly, e-books.

Project Gutenberg aims to digitize and make freely available a wide array of books. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

But back in Hart’s Gutenberg days, the main purpose of the project was to provide wide and free access to information. It made sense for these digital archives to be simply that — electronic replicas of the books they were representing.

It seems that even though e-readers are everywhere, the publishing industry, editors, and writers seem to have forgotten that they’re working with an entirely new, quite powerful medium.

No wonder there are so many lamenting the fall of The Noble Book, an artifact that smells like everything that’s good in the world. The gritty pages turn with a pleasing swish, and on each page are margins within which you can make your notes.

You can leave a physical mark in the physical world with physical book. And now, here comes this electronic doppelganger that attempts with its page-turning and bookmark metaphors to be just like what we’ve all come to know and love, The Noble Book.

What we have now is an imposter.

Hyperbole aside, e-book dissidents dismiss largely based on nostalgia and sentimentality of the time that once-was, much like what happened when the television moved into the living room, crowding out the Wholesome Radio.

But the arrival of the e-book is not like that of the television; televisions offered an entirely new dimension to radio. The vast majority of e-books offer little more added value than an ability to carry more books at once than ever before.

What We’ve Got Now

The e-book is falling short of its potential. Perhaps this is because innovation takes a long time, and adoption rates for new experiences are painfully slow. Whatever the reason, it’s time to take a long, hard look at what e-books are, what they should be, and what they can be.

Instead of waiting around for the publishing industries to create the Next Big Thing in terms of experiences, I can think of no better pool of minds to address than the growing troops of user experience designers.

With only a few exceptions (see below), e-books are facsimiles of print. Not much more, not much less. Most of the innovation in the industry is heading toward making e-books even more like printed materials, like improving refresh rates and producing better e-ink.

But why bother, when print is by no means on its way out? While I’m not writing an article to discuss why print will be around for at least several more decades (and I’ll eat my neighbor’s hat if I’m wrong, of course), this likelihood is important to keep in mind.

Imagine if the quality of music on cassette tapes and CDs were of equal fidelity. Also figure that people had been listening to cassette tapes for decades, had historically sentimental feelings toward them, and spent hours upon hours holding them in their hands.

If CDs really had nothing more to offer than cassette tapes (other that the fact that they were thinner and could hold more information), what would be their justification?

Rethinking the Direction

There are minds out there, slightly crazy minds, taking up this discussion with the academic communities, but we all know where that ends up — in trade journals that only a select few read.

The future of the e-book is a very exciting issue to many a futurist and thinker, and many are advocating the push away from the paper-doppelgangers.


Ted Nelson is one such man. A visionary and, some say, quite quirky, he’s like the Kurzweil of documents. Nelson coined many important terms that ushered us into a new age of technology: hypertext was his, as was virtuality. So was teledildonics. Nelson was also the first person to actually try to build out what the Internet is, in essence — a series of hyperlinked documents. He failed, of course, but many of the big names in the Web’s history credit Nelson as an essential player in the game.

Ted Nelson firmly believes in a bright future for electronic documents, and fights for their innovation. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Nelson, now in his 70s, has a lot to say now about electronic formats of documents. For instance:

"A document is not necessarily a simulation of paper. In the most general sense, a document is a package of ideas created by human minds and addressed to human minds, intended for the furtherance of those ideas and those minds. Human ideas manifest as text, connections, diagrams and more: thus how to store them and present them is a crucial issue for civilization."

While he’s not talking specifically about e-books, shouldn’t the same ideas apply? Nelson further outlines what he proposes happen to the medium for electronic books, and each proposal takes advantage of the technologies at hand, all the while taking into account more literary issues, such as narrative, structure, and experience.

Programming Languages Must Evolve

Someone a little lower profile but arguably just as visionary is Nick Montfort of MIT. As an associate professor of digital media, Montfort has his fingers deep in the missed-potential-of-e-books pie.

He works heavily in the future of books — particularly interactive poetry and fiction. Montfort and his team are trying to make not only the concept of the electronic book medium evolve, but the concept of the art as well (narrative, in this case).

He proposes that programming languages must evolve before e-books move beyond simply simulating the traditional paper reading experience.

Most importantly, Montfort discusses and stresses the storage and processing capacity of computers (and e-books) and how they can transform the idea of what we call a book, a story, a poem, and so on. This is the spirit Montfort’s academic work embodies, as well as most working in digital media.

None of this is to say, however, that there aren’t a few bold newcomers to the e-book scene taking chances.

The Future of E-Books

Not all e-books are created equal. There are a handful of designers, writers, and publishers that have caught on to the idea that the e-reader allows for new possibilities.

They’ve understood that in order to create a more autonomous e-book (one that’s divorced from its paper predecessors), they have to start creating unique experiences. By doing so, they’re demonstrating the simply awesome potential of what the future of the electronic book looks like.

Bundling Multimedia Content

Observe first Enhanced Editions, a small but significant step in autonomy’s direction. Founded by James Bridle (one of the most influential people in publishing, according to the Evening Standard), this company bundles an e-book’s text with lots of extra content, such as author interviews, notes, and audio book accompaniment, read by the authors themselves. There are commentaries included, as well, just like with DVDs.

While Enhanced Editions aren’t available for most e-books, there are a number of popular titles available, such as Stephen King’s beast Under the Dome, Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, and The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama. Check out the links to see the various features the different books offer; not every Enhanced Edition offers tons of extra content. It is, rather, catered to the specific book. With Under the Dome, for instance, there are only excerpts from the full audio book, but there are little commentaries attached from characters living under said dome.

Cinematic E-Books

The move toward a more cinematic electronic book is also being explored.

The Atavist, a new long-form article platform, recently made a great trailer for one of its authors’ pieces.

Following that trend, there’s even an app that attaches sound effects and soundtracks to whatever book you’re reading, given the book is one on the Booktrack Bookshelf. Granted these soundtracks have very proprietary functionality at the moment (there are only a few titles this close to their recent launch), but the effort to more fully immerse readers in their stories is clear and tangible.

The Atavist pairs one of its long-form articles with a theatrical trailer.

Interactive, Immersive E-Books

Some endeavors take immersion to the next level, and many of these contenders are children’s books. Take The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, for instance.

The storybook is immersive with a haunting soundtrack, moving narrative, and excellent visuals. This book probably turned out so well because it accompanies a great little short film (and that it deals directly, in the narrative, with the sentimentality and nostalgia that come along with books), but it still successfully walks the balance between interactivity and readability. After all, past a certain threshold of interactive features, you no longer have a book. You have a video game.

A screen from Morris Lessmore, from Moonbot Studios.

Morris Lessmore handles it well, as do several other children’s books. Alice for the iPad, for instance, takes elements of the classic story and draws special attention to them, employing the tech of the iPad to do the narrative justice (and does so brilliantly).

Alice for iPad takes advantage of the iPad’s sensors to encourage fun bits of interactivity while reading.

But interactivity and immersion aren’t just for kids. The most immediate and relevant example is a perfect illustration of what reference books may become.

The Elements is simple enough — it’s a periodic table, in essence. But rather than just be a series of textbook-like page simulations about the periodic table’s residents, this Theodore Gray table allows readers to virtually interact with the elements on the iPad’s touchscreen, manipulate them, and even make calculations based on the element’s information; the app connects to Wolfram Alpha to gather the most up-to-date information about whatever element the reader is asking after — the current price of gold, for instance.

Not only is Theodore Gray’s Elements visually gorgeous, but it’s interactive and surprisingly immersive, too.

As you can see, as publishers pump out digital copies of bestsellers, there are out-of-the-box thinkers pushing the technology to the appropriate next level.

Why We Need to Rethink the E-Book Format

When I write, I like to create my own little reader persona, and edit according to his response of my article.

In this case, I hear him sitting on my shoulder, prodding me incessantly with short sharp pokes to the neck: "Who cares if you think e-books aren’t what they should be? They’re sellin’ just fine, so what does it matter? Why does any of this matter?"

Well played, little shoulder-man.

But it does matter, because every day, I see editors and designers scurrying with their focus groups to figure out what the secret is to electronic content, what exactly people want from an e-book or magazine.

When no immediate answers present themselves, the process (generate content, send to press, squeeze into iPad format and tack on some extra videos) simply repeats itself ad infintum.

Presently, the e-book is in the wrong hands — it does not belong with the publishing industry at large. It’s a new medium, not an amendment to an existing one. Or at least that’s how it should be.

Print’s going to be around for a while (and this is why):

  1. Print, in most cases, is more accessible and inexpensive. In order to enjoy e-books, you have to be able to afford an e-reader. And that’s simply not everyone.
  2. Corporate and governmental behavior, aside from that of the consumer, is a huge driving force in large-scale technological change. Sociologists and analysts explain a dependence on hard copies: the so-called paperless office has been predicted for decades. It’s nowhere near close.
  3. Sentimentality is a powerful force in sales (think about holiday commercials and diamond ads), and can easily oust logic.

So instead engaging in the battle of print versus electronic books (and there are battles everywhere), we should instead be asking what justifies the e-book, if it’s only a paper simulator?

It’s arguably less accessible (and I’m talking on a grand scale, not just middle-upper class Americans). Sure it saves trees — potentially — but book production hasn’t decreased enough to make a difference, and the environmental cost of e-readers is still up for debate; after all, with new versions of Kindles, Nooks, and iPads coming out incessantly, e-waste will build.

In the words of the futurist and Harvard man John Naisbitt, "strategic planning is worthless unless there is first a strategic vision." There has been too little vision in the way of the e-book, for all its financial success.

E-books shouldn’t just be a facsimile of what they may one day replace. With all the technology they’re riding on, e-books have the potential to take the narrative experience to new heights.

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About the Author

Kristina Bjoran is a science writer based in San Francisco, California. She works in editorial at Wired magazine and is a managing editor at UX Booth. Connect with her on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

This was published on Sep 16, 2011


Patrick Samphire Sep 16 2011

This is an interesting article, but I think it needs to distinguish more clearly the different types of books that exist. Novels (and short stories, etc.) occupy a very different class of experience to other books. A good novel is, by itself, an immersive experience. It is that precisely because its medium is a transparent one. There are no barriers between the reader and the story, other than the printed words, which disappear to the reader.

If you start to add extras, you put barriers in the way. A case in point. My young son loves books. So we bought him a popular kids book app, with lots of added extras and interactive content. He loves this too, but he doesn’t treat it as a book. He treats it as a game, and narrative has no importance in this context to him.

E-books are going to cover a whole wide range of experiences, but I think it would be a real mistake to assume that the experience that you get in narrative fiction (or narrative non-fiction for that matter) will be improved upon by transforming it into something more interactive. That’s why I far prefer to read novels on my Kindle than on my iPad. Other books, it’s the other way round. I would read a web dev or design book on my Kindle for a second. The advantages of embedded videos, interactive demonstrations, links and so on are to enormous to ignore.

For narrative fiction, extras may be fine (why, for example, do so few novels embed video interviews with authors at the end?), but keeping the text as transparent as possible is absolutely desirable.

lukechesser Sep 16 2011

Good article. But how did you go all that way without mentioning push-pop-press’ ‘Our Choice’? I know it’s not an ebook per say but if ANYONE is doing something innovative with books, it’s them. There’s also Inkling, who seem to be off to a pretty good start using Javascript to build interactive textbooks and have a really interesting approach to textbooks.

Jonah Gibson Sep 16 2011

Excellent! Thoughtful and incisive survey of what the e-book is destined to become – something powered not by imitation, but rather possibility. Thanks.

Daniel Sep 16 2011

As far as I’m concerned, there should be putten more focus on Multimedia, as you pointed out at “Bundling Multimedia Content”. I am not that tech-savvy considering programming and designing ebooks, but I know what’s possible with other Rich Media Types. Reading an ebook should be fun and interactive, as is the web. Maybe even with user-input, an interactive book where you can lead the story.

Paula Sep 16 2011

Very thought provoking article. As someone with a software engineering background who converts manuscripts to eBooks, I see a lot of the potential that you mention.

However, part of the problem is that we have a couple of different formats and getting something as simple as tables and CSS elements to work well and consistently in the platforms can be a frustrating experience.

Perhaps if there was more of a standard, like with the W3C for web pages and an expansion of what coding options were available? Then people like me would push what features are available, especially if html5 was able to be used.

As for book purest, it would then be easy to customize what features you want to show in each story. No extra features for a more purest read to a fully interactive media production.

I hope to see more articles like this!

Thanks you!

Zachary Sep 17 2011

Designers need to take this more seriously as a creative medium. I can’t see why a web designer or illustrator couldn’t create a masterpiece of interactivity on an e-pub format.

Andy Griffin Sep 17 2011

The best example of what eBooks should be like is Al Gore’s “Our Choice” for the iPad. I don’t care much for the message. It’s full of propaganda and political mumbo jumbo. I bought it because it was revolutionary. And it is. You should check it out. It’s got the right idea for video/photo/interactive content integration. So many of the multimedia eBooks get really hokey with hodgepodge video implementation and corny graphics and textures. Gore’s book really made me feel like I was on the cutting edge.

Andy Griffin Sep 17 2011

Oh, Amen lukechesser :)

What I like best about e-books is the ability to have an audio version. On my Kindle I sometimes hook it up to my radio in my car and listen to the book like an audio book.

Irina Sep 19 2011

Great article, thanks for sharing this. For me ebooks are exactly this – paper simulators. I like to read ebooks on the train just because I don’t like carrying around big heavy books with me and it’s usually easier to purchase an ebook than wait for the traditional book to be delivered. IMO not all ebooks need to be interactive as it’s simply not always relevant.

Alex Blaken Sep 19 2011

I agree with you Zachary, Creating ebook is supposed to be a creat event. hmmmm what a great article..

Kristina Sep 19 2011

You’re absolutely right, and it’s something I considered and decided against for length and focus-sake. Different genres of books warrant different kinds of features, and unwanted features do hinder the experience. And your point about the pop-up book being treated more as a game is something I tried to get at a bit in the article–there’s a *very* fine line between an interactive book and a game. I’m not sure it’s a line that’s been clearly defined yet, either.

@Lukechesser (and Andy Griffin):
I feel foolish now, actually–Our Choice completely slipped my mind while writing this, somehow. I’d even written about usability within Our Choice over on UX Booth. Good call–I’d include it for sure if I were writing this piece again. As for Inkling, I only avoided them (and Nature Publishing’s textbook initiative) because the effort is so localized at this point. I think textbooks belong *only* in ebook format, frankly, but it’s a long ways out.

Dead on with the formats. Languages are also a problem, as Montfort and Nelson talk about extensively in their own arguments. And while standards are an excellent idea, only the futurists are talking seriously about it right now, unfortunately. If I were more engineering-minded, I’d approach them myself :) Thanks for reading!

Thanks to everyone for the comments–this is certainly a field of discussion that needs attention (well, I clearly believe that, anyway) :)

John Bowman Sep 19 2011

Excellent, thought-provoking article. I was particularly intrigued by the linked article about marginalia (notes and comments written in margins).

Traditional marginalia is anchored to a physical location inside a real book. The reader’s contribution to the written word is in many cases locked and hidden away. We have the opportunity to change this.

What if instead of geotagging we used booktagging to share user-generated content? Instead of seeing what other users have tagged near a physical location, you could see what other readers of have tagged near your spot in the same book. It seems to me that using the unique text strings in a book to tag user-generated content would be the easiest thing in the world.

Anything that can be geotagged could be booktagged. Text-based contributions might include comments, interpretation and argument. Hyperlinks might bring the reader to supporting or opposing views in other books (via booktags, of course). We might find photographs of of celebrity marginalia that might otherwise only be viewed by a lucky few in the confines of a library vault. The more creative reader might contribute photography, artwork or (fan) fiction inspired by the text. We might even make connections by seeing who is reading nearby. And of course, we will always be able to easily share booktagged content or book excerpts via our social network of choice.

Throw a smartphone camera and some OCR into the mix and you have an app for booktagging content from a physical book. That same app might allow you to access content booktagged near the spot in your (physical) book. If someone out there is working on this let me know, I’m ready to download it now.

Dameinator Sep 20 2011

At university I took a course in Multimedia Authoring. At that time enhanced CD-ROMs were touted as a revolution to publishing. You could combine text, graphics, animation, video and sound to for a new kind of media – Multimedia!

The problem is that authorship didn’t change. people still either wrote, or made video, or audio or animation, and coordinating the vision and all of the different skills into a single coherent product was as expensive and difficult as making a feature film or a game.

My point is, we have been here before – in 1995. Why is this going to be any different?

Ridley Sep 20 2011

I find statements like “Print, in most cases, is more accessible and inexpensive” or “The vast majority of e-books offer little more added value than an ability to carry more books at once than ever before” to convey a frustratingly ableist interpretation of the value of ebooks.

Before you dismiss disabled readers as a niche market, think about it for a moment. Think about all the people you know who have failing eyesight or weakened/arthritic hands. That includes an awful lot of people over 50, doesn’t it? People who have lots of disposable income and more free time to read than their younger counterparts.

There’s a huge added value to ebooks: they make reading more accessible to disabled readers.

A person need not identify as disabled to be part of this cohort. Anyone who appreciates the ability to enlarge the type or the freedom from holding a paper book open and turning its pages has benefitted from ebooks’ greater accessibility. They free blind readers from rare and expensive braille editions, allow dyslexics to see and hear what they’re reading, permit quadriplegics to read independently and allow your average middle-age mom or grandma to read comfortably despite their poor eyesight or increasingly arthritic hands.

It’s frustrating to me how ebook discussions invariably glance over this. Ebooks as a mere text facsimile are a huge and welcome boon for disabled readers. Rather than think of ways to attach more bells and whistles to ebooks, I’d like to see people think of ways to make reading even more accessible.

I’m quite happy to read my novels as words and without distractions of sounds and videos and even pictures whether on a real book or kindle. The beauty of reading fiction is in your imagination.

Yes, there could be more interactive books, especially kids and true made for (shorter form) ebook topics, but then you’re blurring the line between books and media. It’s not a limitation of the ebook format. It’s simply an innovation that’s yet to come.

Or perhaps it’s just an “app” (in today’s lingo). Why not buy an app for your favorite book that has all the extras as well as fan interactions, etc. It seems like the same concept you’re talking about basically, with a feature set defined by the author, not a format. The challenge for apps is the same as for ebooks – multiple formats for different devices.

Evan Jacobs Sep 23 2011

Perhaps a better analogy than cassette -> CD for the book -> e-book transition is CD -> MP3. That is, the reason many fewer people are buying CDs in favor of downloading MP3s (despite the equal or slightly superior sound quality of CDs) is that the *delivery* of music via MP3s completely changes the music experience.

Remember that Amazon’s stated goal is to deliver “any book ever written in any language in 60 seconds” directly to your reading device. Of course Amazon is also pursuing what e-books will look like in the future but for now the universal delivery and readability of e-books is a primary force for their adoption.

encyclops Sep 27 2011

My hope for e-books, and at this point it’s presumably just a hope, is that they will allow many more books to remain “in print” or become available again than the traditional industry does.

Melinda Coronado Oct 31 2011


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