The Problem with Ebooks
Ebooks have been around far longer than you may have thought. Project Gutenberg, the electronic public library, was actually started in 1971 by Michael Hart at the University of Illinois. The project now has over 50,000 free ebooks available online, and a further 100,000 available through their partners. In 1987, a hypertext work of fiction called “Afternoon” by Michael Joyce was released in digital form. The book was made available on floppy disk.
I remember reading ebooks on my PC and PDA using Microsoft Reader which came out in 2000. It was literally (heh heh) a dream come true. No more lugging of books around. I could just pull out my PDA and surreptitiously read without anyone being the wiser. It was a great time to be alive.
Ebooks never became really popular or mainstream, however, until Amazon brought out its dedicated e-reader, the Kindle, in 2007. The device sold out in five and a half hours. Christmas of 2009 saw the first time that ebooks outsold physical books on Amazon.com. In 2011, Amazon was selling 105 Kindle books for every 100 hardcover and paperback book. Now, there are over four million Kindle ebooks available.
The ebook is part of the natural progression of the storing and transfer of narrative. From word of mouth to etchings to scrolls to books to print to digital. The story continues but the medium will always change. There are those who extol the virtues of print books and even feel the need to attack the first ebooks as the “harbinger of the apocalypse which would destroy literature as we knew it”. But just as the printing press revolutionised access to knowledge, the digital is bringing about a revolution of its own, whether everyone likes it or not. Ebooks are just more convenient than physical books.
Most of the time.
There are valid reasons, however, why people may still prefer a printed book to an ebook. There is a versatility in printed books that has not yet transferred itself to ebooks. Ebooks are great for the consumption of linear content: you read a piece of fiction from beginning to end and you are done. But what about content that is not linear?
Why paper still works
Paper books are still a great UI. They are efficient and versatile. You can bookmark it as much as you want, dog ear it, stick post-its on its pages, flip back and forth and even rip off a page if you have to (cue groans from bookworms everywhere). You can highlight passages, circle sentences, and write in the margins. You flip between the contents and reference notes far easier than if it was an ebook.
Any non-linear content performs terribly as an ebook. A travel guide would be terrible in ebook form. You’d have no easy way to jump between pages and sections as ebooks pretty much suck at page numbers, especially if you are are using different kinds of software on different devices. Page 23 on one reader is not going to be page 23 on another. Travel books, picture books, study guides, reference books, and graphics heavy photography books don’t do well on ebooks as they are now.
Ebooks are not evolving
Ebooks have been around for decades, but the problem is that they haven’t evolved much in that time. Sure there have been advances since the 90s with hyperlinked content and graphics being incorporated into the ebook, and several different file formats, but those are tiny advantages compared to what could be done.
The biggest changes have been in the digital devices built to consume content. The kindle reader, Amazon Fire, iPad, tablets PCs and every smartphone available allows you to consume content rich in all forms of media, but the ebook itself has been lagging behind the hardware it sits on.
The ebook is still being treated as an “electronic book”; a physical book converted to electronic form. Just linear text separated into pages that you can access on an electronic device.
Ebooks can be so much more
Ebooks are great things. You can carry a library around with you in a device that is lighter and thinner than a hardback. The technology built into e-readers is pretty mature now. Highlighting, bookmarking, and cross-referencing are all pretty standard and are not huge hurdles to deal with, anyway. With a little work, you could get an academic text to function fine as an ebook.
Travel guides and photography books would work much better incorporating rich media, such as video, audio and graphics with a way to navigate easily between them. Most devices have fantastic displays, GPS, cameras and a ton of features to help make these books a whole lot more interactive. These books don’t have to be accessible in current e-reader software either. A custom app would do the job just as well.
My mind was blown the first time I read a comic on Madefire on an iPad. This is what a comic should be like. The use of audio, moving images, and text that appeared sequentially instead of all at once made this an incredible way to read comics.
Ebooks could work this way too. There is nothing stopping publishers from making ebooks as rich and interactive as everything else is now. The technology is available, and book publishers need to think ahead if they want to stay relevant and not be replaced completely by video content, which is becoming the dominant type of content consumed online. Ebooks need to evolve, and it is not such a difficult thing to accomplish.