Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland

Ebook silos and missed opportunities

ETA: I’ve posted a followup to this post that hopefully clarifies things and offers a few suggestions: Ebook silos, update.

Ebooks can be transformed by context. Print books cannot. No matter where you take the print book, no matter what room you read it in, it will remain in the same form and have the same affordances as it did on the day it was first stacked in the bookstore.

An ebook could, in theory, be reformed, rebound, and recast at will. A writer who is reading for research could open it in an ereader specifically designed to enable writing and integrates directly with writing tools. A student could use a specialised ereader that is full of mnemonic tools, structured note-taking, and export functions that integrate with common reference management software. A genre fiction reader might use an app that stamps all ebooks into the same aesthetic template, configured by the reader into the form they consider ideal.

It’s easy to imagine how these would work:

The writer’s ereader wouldn’t atomise the reader’s annotations but would present the annotations for a book as a single, freeform, document that could be edited, extended, filled with notes and exported in formats compatible with common writing tools (Word, Scrivener, etc.). Every set of annotations would be a commonplace book in machine-readable form. Bonus points for automatically syncing to Evernote and Dropbox.

The student’s ereader would integrate directly with Endnote and offer mnemonic features such as regular pauses for recollection, forcing the reader to note down what they thought the preceding pages were about (research shows that if you stop, close the book, and try to recollect what the preceding pages were about your recall will subsequently be improved). There’s a lot of research on learning styles and tools that would be a goldmine for this sort of UI experimentation.

Then there’s the potential for a specialised comics app. Fixed layout formats require dramatically different UIs for optimal treatment of annotations, clipping, highlighting, and browsing. It’s easy to imagine a comics ereader that makes it easy to clip and visually annotate sections from the comic book. It’s also easy to an app that specialises in the format would offer a much better experience than the schizophrenic status quo.

The genre reading app does not have to limit itself to design configurability. A reading app for crime and mystery stories could integrate an extensive database of firearms, poisons, historical crimes, police terminology, and common codes for crimes.

That’s without getting into the various features that nobody offers because everybody’s trying to be the same:

  • Scrolling instead of pagination. I’d jump on a well-implemented scrolling ebook reading app (iBook’s jerky crap is not it).

  • Autoplay/autoscrolling. Sometimes you want to force yourself to keep a reading pace.

  • In-text annotations. Sometimes I want to edit the actual ebook itself.

  • Dropbox syncing for my library and annotations.

None of these features require new standards or extensions to old ones. They could work with plain text if you wanted.

An app that is everything to everybody is bland. Generic is dull. Specialisation creates immense value.

But instead of specialisation and diversification among ereaders we see convergence. Ebook reading app become more similar with every release. They all aim to support the same rendering features, in roughly the same way (infuriating differences in style overrides notwithstanding), surrounded by the same constellation of widgets and tools.

  • Highlights? Check.

  • Highlights made more ‘natural’ by behaving like a highlighter? Check.

  • Notes? Check.

  • Notes mades social in some way, via sharing or a dedicated service? Check.

  • Highlights that lose all formatting whenever they are moved into another context? Check.

  • Offer a selection of four to five fonts (plus the ever present ‘publisher defaults’)? Check.

  • Sync all of this bland crap using a proprietary syncing service allowing no other alternatives.

  • Limit the export of all of this bland crap to something even blander and more useless than what you already offer like text-in-body email.

  • A neato brightness UI that makes people swoon because their Stockholm syndrome has lowered their expectations so far that they have to look up to see the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

Check. Check. Check. Any ebook reading app that doesn’t behave like this is aiming to. This is the ‘ideal’ they all seem to be striving towards and when pressed for answers on why they don’t try to solve hard problems (like proper annotations export), the only reply is that the standards for those hard problems aren’t there yet.

And they will never be there because the best standards are those that standardise existing best practice. Nobody offers proper annotations export and so there is nothing to standardise.

But just focusing on the individual features is the wrong way to look at the problem.

Which, obviously, is silos. You’re locked into the ecosystem you bought the ebook from. Nobody will ever create a specialised Kindle ebook reading app for writers or for students. There will never be much variety in how ebook reading apps based on Adobe’s RMSDK behave. The only app that will ever work with ebooks bought from the iBookstore is iBooks.

The one major and unique strength that ebooks have over print, flexibility and fluidity, the characteristic that has the biggest potential for adding value, has been thoroughly walled away by the silo mentality. Ebooks could have been a transformative sea change in how we read books but instead are nothing more than a second-rate alternative to cheap paperbacks.

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