On eBooks

Now, when eBook become a mainstream commodity rather than just one of “the next big things”, maybe it is time to step back a bit to think about what ebooks really are?

Does this medium change our perception of what a book is, or is it just the old good thing in new clothes?

Are eBooks “books” after all?

These questions arise naturally for everyone who deals with eBook formats like ePub or mobi, especially when the product is of textbook or technical nature, not a work of fiction. Or for those who invent, as we do in Xyleme, own domain-specific eBook formats.

Design

Typography, fonts, the cover. Book design is the characteristic that gives the first impression of a book.

eBooks typography and design are as important for them as they are for classic books.

eBooks design requirements

However, the electronic ones add quite a few requirements to that of print. eBook typography and design have to respect the way the eBooks are consumed. By enabling font size changes to fit reader preferences. By letting the corresponding dynamic text reflows – also to fit various page sizes and aspect ratios in different book readers, and by adapting to reader orientation in portrait or landscape. By having an optional ability to scroll in a page, instead of simply page through uniform-sized pages. Also, eBook allows for rich media contents and interactivity.

With enumerating these requirements, one analogy arises immediately in mind, an analogy to a Web page. Not for the last time, and I’ll return to it later.

Need for close eBook formats and readers interplay

Interactivity, like parts of the content that reveal and hide as a reader (or shall we rather say “user”?) investigates the book, annotating, clipping quotes, is not a function of eBooks themselves: it is implemented by readers hardware and software.

This fact emphasises a need for close eBook formats and readers interplay in order to provide consistent user interface and experience.

The eBooks design and typography thus spread beyond content boundaries to reader software and hardware.

Content organisation

Another way we can see books is as a way to organise information into knowledge. This is especially valid for text-books, manuals, training materials and other non-fiction works.

What do I mean?

Crucial component of such a book value is the way information is organised in it: not just a mass of information printed on pages, but their relations and relations of these relations represent book value.

Lets investigate a printed book from this perspective, adding complexity in each step. A printed book can be then seen as

  • a pile of paper sheets, or pages;
  • a series of pages, numbered;
  • information bits as leaves on tree branches which represent sections and chapters, paragraphs.

And how a reader reaches information contained in a book?

  • by paging through the book;
  • by using table of contents (book tree structure);
  • by utilising index, or glossary;
  • by examining footnotes.

Yet, even with tables of contents and indexes, printed book cannot escape its inherent linear – a series of pages – nature (although there were attempts to do so, e.g., by Ladislav Sutnar1,2).

And this is where eBooks can differ the most from their printed brothers, or cousins, and add specific value.

Navigating in eBook content

Today, most eBooks still support just one privileged navigation path – the linear begin-to-end one. Even when they utilise internal hyperlinks, they do it for table-of-contents or index, glossary jumps.

For many eBooks, especially digitised classic books and most works of fiction, this makes perfect sense.

However, isn’t there a better way of using the eBooks freedom from the printed books physical linear nature?

Let us take an example: in various manuals – some of them have a foreword that reads

“if you are interested in general introduction to this topic, then start with chapter 1, skip chapters 2, 3, 4, and jump right to chapter 5… when you are already familiar with the topic and want technical details how to deploy it in you project, you can skip chapters 1, 2 and start with chapter 3…”

In other words, one book can, in fact, have different tables of contents, or paths to go through.

Shouldn’t this be taken in account in user interface and experience? By, for example, presenting not a table, but a graph, or a web, of contents that reveal more complex relations between covered topics. And with several suggested paths how to read the book to allow user choosing of one of them for navigating back and forth in the book? Moreover, this web-of-contents can present the progress of the reader along the chosen path, and show possible useful offshoots from each of suggested reading paths.

Now, this web-of-contents brings in mind the Website analogy, for the second time.

Is eBook a Web site?

From the technology point of view, like the presence of hyperlinks, it may seem that an eBook is in fact just an encapsulated Web site.

My opinion is that it is not.

Let us leave the technology aside first: after all, we do not want it to dictate the result.

Both eBooks and Web sites provide and organise information. however, the ways they organise and publish the respective content differ principally.

Differences between Website and book

While a typical contemporary Website is an ever-changing and ever-growing heap of loosely inter-wired content; a book is more stable, and tend to be much thoroughly organised.

A book is something one possesses, reads for days or weeks, returns to – and expects it to be the same upon the return, including personal highlights and side-notes.

Rigorous content organisation is a prominent requirement for eBook, and it must be reflected both in eBook pages and metadata formats as well as supported by eBook reader software and hardware.

While the described way of eBook content structure can be emulated by a Web site, there is one principal technical difference here: eBook is not served from and supported by a Web server, it lives in reader hardware and software. Thus, eBook integration with eBook reader hardware and software should be much closer than a Web page integration with a Web browser.

On the other hand, using proven Web technologies (HTML, CSS, js) for presenting eBook content is an advantage, we only have to be careful not let the Web analogy go unreasonably far and obscure the principal differences between Web site and book as outlined in this essay.

Having said that eBook lives in its reader does not mean it lives in isolation from the outer world. Investigating possible integration ways with it, however, is another story, perhaps a sequel to this treatise.

Conclusions

eBook share many characteristics of printed book, mainly because it is used similar way printed book is. However, creating an eBook just as a one-to-one version of a printed book original, while technically possible, fails to take advantage of many new possiblities brought by electronic publishing.

Most of  new features that are avalilable to eBooks comparing to printed books are, technology-wise, borrowed from Web. This may mislead to a conclusion that eBook is encapsulated, off-line Website. As it was shown in this text, neither this analogy is reasonable.

eBook is new media, that shares various features of printed book and Websites. To use this media full potential, we indeed have to overcome both of the most obvious analogies and think, truly, out of the boxes they frame.


Links in the text:

  1. Ladislav Sutnar Wikipedia page
  2. Steven Heller: Web Design Before the Internet
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