How to Improve E-Books

I love print books: the way they feel in my hands, the ease with which I can skim / flip ahead or flip back, and my ability to scribble notes in the margins. I also love e-books for traveling, and highlighting sentences when a pen isn’t handy.

Whether it’s print or electronic, I like the focus reading requires. The singular, focused stimulation of text, with no distractions — uniquely suitable for deep thoughts. So I’m wary when e-book proponents suggest video, animation, sound, and the like — we already have plenty of media objects with those characteristics. Let books be.

That said, there are obvious improvements that could be done without harming the immersive experience. Kane Hsieh identifies several:

The problem with ebooks as they exist now is the lack of user experience innovation. Like the first television shows that only played grainy recordings of theater shows, the ebook is a new medium that has yet to see any true innovation, and resorts to imitating an old medium. This is obvious in skeuomorphic visual cues of ebook apps. Designers have tried incredibly hard to mimic the page-turns and sound effects of a real book, but these ersatz interactions satisfy a bibliophile as much as a picture of water satisfies a man in the desert.

There is no reason I need to turn fake pages. If I’m using a computer to read, I should be able to leverage the connectivity and processing power of that computer to augment my reading experience: ebooks should allow me to read on an infinite sheet, or I should be able to double blink to scroll. I should be able to practice language immersion by replacing words and phrases in my favorite books with other languages, or highlight sections to send to Quora or Mechanical Turk for analysis. There are endless possibilities for ebooks to make reading more accessible and immersvie than ever, but as long as ebooks try to be paper books, they will remain stuck in an uncanny valley of disappointment.

Another misstep in the growth of ebooks was the complete incompatability of previous libraries. People who have amassed libraries of paper books over many years were left behind by ebook distributors. Unlike music or photographs, there is no way to migrate an old book library into a new one. Over the past decade, I’ve been able to convert my tapes to CDs, my CDs to MP3s, and now import my MP3s into Spotify and listen to music over the cloud. Yet, if I want to read my favorite books on my Nexus 7, I have to pay for a separate ebook version, assuming one even exists.

It makes sense to have a third tier of book: paper + digital access. I am more than willing to pay a little extra for a book if it means that I have a copy for my library shelves and I can read it on a tablet on the subway. Amazon in particular is well positioned to implement this pricing structure. Better yet, why not a subscription service? $20/mo for all the books I can read? Unfortunately, as of now, the only options for paper book fans that want to use ebooks for convenience are to pay twice, or maintain two disjoint book libraries. Like its content, ebook pricing models cling to the past….

So ebooks, stop trying to be paper books; break free of the page and the book paradigms and realize your potential as a fully digital medium. As for me, and readers like me, you will never replace our beloved paper books – but if done correctly, I will be proud to own a library of ebooks. Until then, I only use you to avoid carrying books like IQ84 in my backpack.

2 comments on “How to Improve E-Books
  • Very interesting points – I think the offloading of sections to Quora, Mechanical Turk or other services is a great idea. I’m still geeky enough that I love the highlight>dictionary feature but so much more could be done. $20 a month is nice, but I find between my local library combined with Overdrive and new services like Lendle I have access to more books than I have time to read. I’m able to then make my book budget go quite a bit farther, purchasing (typically the Kindle version) of books I either don’t want to wait for, or want to keep in my long term connection.

  • It’s interesting that these sort of articles are becoming more common today. I never understood why Apple felt the bookshelf was a good UI for the ipad. However I think we still have a few years to go before a majority of the population can be as comfortable with technology as we are. Skeuomorphism exists not just because designers neglected to take full advantage of a new technology but to smooth the transition from existing technology to the new. This is especially important for non-digital natives.

    Is the time now right to redress the balance? I think we can certainly begin to explore new designs but lets consider the book as a medium that has existed a lot longer than recorded music. Specifically I want to talk about the infinite page, I know this was used as an example but it’s one I’ve been thinking about recently. It almost seems like this would in fact be a step backward to the time when writing was done on scrolls. Paged books fixed various problems over scrolls but one I’ve been recently researching is how breaking long text into fixed size pages might help us understand and remember the concepts contained therein easier.

    Thanks for the post!

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