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

Make ebooks worth it

Turns out this post is a part of an impromptu series of blog posts. Didn’t plan it this way:

  1. Ebook silos and missed opportunities

  2. Ebook silos, update

  3. Ebooks and cognitive mapping

There’s a theme been running through all my blog posts this week. In fact, a single theme runs through all of my writing on ebooks; the driving idea behind all of my thoughts on the subject.

And, no, it isn’t ‘behave like an arsehole to people and criticise everything.’

The idea is very very simple:

We have to make ebooks worth it.

Print has massive benefits that shouldn’t be discounted. Ebooks have massive downsides that shouldn’t be discounted. The web provides a lot of what ebooks purport to provide.

We are facing the very real risk of limiting ebooks to the role, market position, and capabilities of mass market paperbacks. Remove paperbacks. Add ebooks. Keep the overall system the same with few changes, maybe a bit of consolidation.

This is what a lot of people and companies in publishing want and it would be a tragedy of massive proportions; the biggest lost opportunity in the history of digital media.

Fortunately there’s still time, still a chance, or otherwise I would just shut up.

What would make ebooks worth it?

  • A diversity of new modes of reading.

  • A wealth of new tools for reading and writing that are impossible in print.

  • The ability to enable new modes of learning and skills development (just adding interactive quizzes is a massive bankruptcy of imagination).

  • Democratised tools of publishing. It’s still too difficult to create good looking ebooks and distribute them widely.

  • A more peer-like, less hierarchical, relationship between the reader and writer.

  • A more symmetrical relationship between reading and writing. Reading, annotations, quotes and more should feed directly into writing systems.

  • A greater variety of models for how we extract value from writing, from gift-giving (pay-what-you-want) to subscription to dynamic pricing (like automatically increasing or decreasing prices the more people buy to create either scarcity or abundance, depending on what you want).

It won’t be worth it if all ebooks end up capable of doing is replicate print books with a bit of added javascript and video bling.

It won’t be worth it if all of the platforms keep offering only one business model for ebooks.

It won’t be worth it if the platforms keep every reader’s contributions, notes, and highlights under lock and key.

It won’t be worth it if ebooks become a inferior, partially incompatible, fork of web standards chosen only by the publishing industry.

It won’t be worth it if people keep having to go back to print because ebooks don’t have the capabilities or affordances necessary.

It won’t be worth it if we all switch away from ebooks to the web in a couple of years time because they just don’t do what we need.

Ebooks are only worth the effort if they are equally capable to the web in a unique and complementary way.

Ebooks are only worth the effort if they become something more than what they replace.

Edited to add:

Of course ebooks as they currently exist are fine for many people. But those who assume that this is acceptable are also assuming a stable media industry. In entering the digital arena books (e- or not) are brought into direct competition with not only other time wasters (games, video, etc.) but other forms of reading, namely the web and apps.

If the ebook ecosystem cannot support a diversity of content and interfaces, the web and apps will step in to fill the gaps.

They have already begun to take over areas of specialised analysis. You currently can find wine-tasters, lens reviewers, and economists running subscription websites with writing, analysis, charts, and data that is usually unavailable in either print or ebook form.

It’s unrealistic to expect profitable niches to remain uncontested. During the print era, most of the world’s expertise on how to target print media was consolidated among the world’s publishers. But these same entities are, if anything, among the more clueless companies around when it comes to digital, the web, and apps.

So, in the long term I don’t think it’s a question of publishers holding us back but of them slowly being encircled and swamped by outside competitors, leaving only the subsidised and unprofitable uncontested.


Many non-fiction titles that are written to help the reader solve a problem could be replaced with a well-designed tool (or an extension to an existing tool) that enables the reader to easily solve the problem directly. And if the tools developer does their job properly, the tool can be designed specifically to make skills development natural and easy. Imagine a book on photoshop replaced by a series of interactive tutorials built as a photoshop extension: learning takes place within the context where the skills are to be applied.

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