E-book Innovations

Earlier today, I was skimming Digital Book World for some writing news and happened across an article about Amazon’s lack of innovation toward e-books. This relatively short article, “Amazon, Ebooks, and the Lack of Innovation” by Jason Illian, discusses how Amazon is known for innovations in technology, but chooses not to innovate in reading technology. It’s an insightful, and somewhat discouraging thought about the state of reading and the attitude that the major distributors of e-readers and e-books take on it. It’s definitely worth the read, as are the comments that appear from readers at the end of the article.

And it got me thinking about the topic of e-book innovation, not just on why they choose not to innovate, but also on how they could innovate if they were to choose to, as the article and certain articles linked to in the comments section, particularly one by Chris Meadows in his article “Whoever feels like innovating e-books, please raise your hand!” posted at TeleRead, address the question of how e-books can leap forward without becoming “spammy” with advertisements or cluttered with distracting materials that no reader actually wants.

Coming up with ideas can certainly be tricky, but the bigger problem, according to these articles, is that the e-reader manufacturers don’t want to innovate. They don’t want to because they don’t need to. If they’re not losing the market to paperbacks, then they are keeping the market on the backs of those who aren’t looking for innovative leaps in e-reading.

If the people are complacent, then so will be their providers of technology. I mean, why should they innovate if no one is asking for it?

To be perfectly honest, I’m okay with the lack of innovation in e-reading. I’m one of the massive many who prefers paper to electronic form. In fact, the only reason I’ve spent the last year writing for the e-book format is because I can, and because I can do it for basically free. Reading it is a different matter. I don’t have an e-reader of my own. Nor do I have a trendy phone that can read my books to me or for me. I’m still a technically backwards guy who does his reading in print or on a computer screen, thanks to Adobe Digital Editions.

But, I’m still an imaginative reader who has ideas on what could get me to start reading in electronic form more so than on paper (not that I would ever give up reading paperbacks entirely) if anyone were to take a chance on moving things forward. I’m one of the reasons why innovation in electronic reading should be considered more by those technical geniuses who know how to implement it. I’m one of the reasons why the e-reader market even has a slump.

What Readers Want

I’m going to make an educated assumption now. E-readers have lost a chunk of their audience to Androids and other well-adapted cellphones because, in many cases, these devices are better, clearer, and, let’s be honest, linked to something they already have. Some of these phones have the ability to “flip” pages according to where the user draws his or her finger, which I think is pretty cool. The first time I saw Shell Out on a friend’s phone and manually turned those pages, I was awestruck. I was turning pages of my short story, on a phone! For these people, why would they even need an e-reader, especially one that’s ugly, clunky, or archaic? Better question: Why would they pay for a dedicated e-reader when they can just press a button on their phone? If my phone did all that, I wouldn’t bother buying an Amazon Kindle. Well, not likely. Exclusivity poses its own issues, but I’m not going to focus on that here.

Now, I’m not usually so easily impressed by the latest innovations unless it makes something I like doing a lot easier. I had a similar reaction the first time I saw the computer program Sprout in action. But, when this new technology I generally don’t see in action is doing something special to something I’m responsible for (in this case, taking my favorite short story from my personal collection and making it electronically interactive in a physical world—use your imagination if you’re lost by that comment), then I’m colored impressed. I’ve yet to feel that way about the average e-reader. Maybe I thought the Kindle was cool the first time I saw one in action many years ago. But I’m more impressed with phones these days.

I agree with those who think e-readers, or e-books for that matter, lack innovation. But the accusations don’t end with this simple opinion. The argument they make is that readers aren’t crying for innovation. They further argue that readers want to be left alone with their books and don’t want the advertising blitz, or fancy videos or sounds to ruin their personal experience that a likely strain of e-book “innovation” may create. Honestly, I agree with these arguments. When I read a book, I want to be left alone, in a quiet place, with my thoughts on the story or the information I’m reading, not the series sales pitch or the related graphics that might try selling me the phone that the writer is writing about. Not really.

But, I think that part of the reason I don’t want these things is because I haven’t been given a world where I have these things.

Now, I don’t advocate bastardizing the reading experience with gimmicks, ads, or other intrusive things. But I do think the way to leap e-readers, e-books, and book reading in general forward is to innovate how reading is handled. And to do that, it’s important to understand two things:

  1. Readers don’t know what they want until you give it to them. Until Gutenberg developed the printing press, none of us knew we wanted our books in print. Until trade paperbacks and mass market paperbacks became a thing, none of us knew that getting the same story at a cheaper price was possible, or that getting that same story in slightly lower quality was somehow acceptable. We learned our ability to adapt after we were given the chance to experience it. I think the same goes for the first generation of e-readers. The idea driving the development of the Amazon Kindle was awesome, until people figured out it didn’t have the same personal touch as a physical book, yet plenty of readers stuck around to give it a fair chance. Eventually, it “caught fire.” Maintaining that fire is a different story, but the important thing to consider here is that, once upon a time, this technology was introduced and a particular population embraced it.
  1. Readers are innately personal. But they are also visionaries, researchers, explorers, and dreamers. They want the feeling that sitting on a beach during the summer with a good paperback brings, and they want to experience that feeling quietly, unobtrusively, and personally. But, they’re not going to bring their dictionaries with them. And they’re not going to bring with them the memory of what happened 100 pages ago to a minor character who did something terrible to the protagonist, or the recollection that the thing that happened was in fact 100 pages ago. They’re going into the reading wilderness the same way they have since the dawn of books. At some point, readers may want the extra help, the same way that farmers and hunters figured out that the world would someday need a Chick fil A or Applebee’s.

What readers want is the experience they understand. A point made in the article by Chris Meadows (which he links to in the comments posted under the main article by Jason Illian) is that one way to keep the e-reading experience different is to use scrollbars instead of page-flipping. I agree, that would be different. But, it’s not really what I want as a reader. I may be okay with them in web articles, but I hate scrollbars in fiction, so utilizing scrollbars as a selling point, for example, is not a good way to get me interested in e-readers. Of course, I’m one man. Maybe there are readers out there who do want scrollbars. So, for them, they should have one. For them, they should be allowed to check the preference box that says “scrollbars enabled,” where I may want to check the preference box that says “page-turning enabled.” The default, of course, would be a page shuffle. You get the idea.

Yes, custom options would be a great step toward innovating e-books and e-readers. Videogames use options like these all the time in their setup menus. Electronic reading devices would benefit from the same. And maybe there are some out there that are already programmed for that. I don’t know. As I said before, I read my electronic texts on my computer. Point is, it’s something.

But that’s a small leap forward. Having that scrollbar or page-turning application is great for single-screen devices. The problem with that is that it only enables the limitation that the average reader has with the average e-reader. It’s a single screen. Running your finger across the screen doesn’t provide the personal connection that grabbing a sheet of paper and flipping it has. It cannot simulate the joy of clumping entire groups of pages together and flipping them over to span massive chunks of story to more quickly access earlier or later parts of the book to gain insights on the details we have since forgotten. In short, it makes us feel robotic.

Giving Readers What They Want

To counterbalance that robotic feeling, we need an e-reader that makes us feel human again. So, here are my suggestions for making things more personal while jumping e-reader technology forward, and perhaps getting those who treat e-readers like pariahs more on board with the idea of reading things on a “screen.”

  1. Make a “real” e-book. Don’t give us a Gameboy from 1989 and change its programming to read books instead of controlling a plumber through Goomba-infested lands.

Perhaps this needs explanation. The average e-reader is a simple handheld device with an interactive screen. It’s cheap and functional, but not the least bit personal. A true e-book would serve as the electronic equivalent to a real book. And the way to do that is to give readers a real book. Let me clarify: a real book with programmable pages.

Wait, what?!

Okay, yes, if you’re visualizing what I’m visualizing, then you’re already counting the cost of producing such a thing. It would be expensive to buy, and maybe expensive to make. But, every new thing is expensive at first. Once upon a time, that bulky television you bought for ten bucks at the Goodwill would’ve cost you hundreds of dollars at your local retailer. The money you spent on that black and white in the 1950s would probably get you a nice 60” UHD flat screen today. Electronics go down in price eventually. Everyone knows that. In the early 1960s a pocket calculator would cost you over $2000. Kids get them in their Christmas stockings as a bonus item today, so don’t fret about cost.

But, while we wait for that beautiful day when a thousand-dollar e-reader drops down to the price of a Kindle or lower, we can have those publishers who without conscience raise the prices of e-books to the level of their paperback counterparts use the extra money they save on manufacturing to help supplement the production costs that go into the e-reader, and then take a small percentage of every e-reader sale. This would give it sustainable marketability, and serve to drive the price down for everyone eventually. I think. Sounds right. They won’t do it, of course, but it sounds right.

But back to the ideas, a true e-reader should be made up of an electronic cover (matte or glossy), with fiber optic pages that you can customize through add-ons. Each reader would come with a default 350 pages (as most novels clock in at just over 300) and adapters that would allow a reader to add a stackable group of 25 pages each (with limits depending on the digital spine, which should probably be flexible to allow for the adapters, or maybe the adapters add more spine—probably that) to accommodate long books, longer books, epic fantasies, and Stephen King books. Each add-on would cost the reader a little, but once they have it, they’re covered for the life of the true e-book (a brand name which I will henceforth use to describe this magical form of innovative e-reading technology).

Which brings us to the beauty of this system. Each page of the electronic book is hardwired to allocate the digital pages as defined in the .epub file (we’ll say .epub4, as that’s the next generation of .epub if I’m not mistaken). So, page one of the .epub will “print” only on the first electronic page of the true e-book. Well, no, it’ll print on the front of the first page. Obviously, page two will appear on the back side. Can you visualize that?

So, already we’re beginning to feel more like a real book. Add digital loading to the front cover, back cover, and spine, and you have yourself a truly customizable electronic reading device that gives the reader the feeling of reading a real book. That, of course, is because the reader is reading a real book. Just one that can change the content of its pages with a simple upload of a new .epub file.

This means that the true e-book would need a docking bay in which to change the programming. It could work the same way that modern e-readers use menus and online features and “bookstores” in which to shop for new titles. This docking bay would be the impersonal device that modern readers are used to today, the thing that serves as both storefront and book. Or, it could be their computers, as the one element the true e-book will have that a real paperback won’t is a USB port. I mean, even Neo in The Matrix had that input jack on his neck. We can’t escape computer technology in favor of reality entirely. But we can get really, really close.

Now, this enhances the visual appeal of e-books, but not the sensory appeal. To do that, all true e-books should come with a cartridge that emits that “new book smell.” The fiber optic pages, or “paper screens,” should also be meticulously crafted to feel like real pages and real matte or glossy covers. My computer screen feels almost exactly like a matte cover, so I know it’s possible. Shouldn’t be difficult to duplicate. I also think that pages should have Instagram style filters that make electronic pages look like real cream or white pages, with digital noise in the fonts to simulate ink. Or, you know, options for other styles. Make the look of the pages customizable. The modern e-reader already makes it possible to adjust for size and font. The true e-book can do the same, but it should recognize the defaults as set by the author or publisher. This assumes that the author or publisher cares enough about the title to put in these extra options. Unfortunately, a new kind of e-reader won’t necessarily create a new kind of publisher.

fake true ebook 2
Example of what a “true” e-book could look like. Basically like a real book, but electronic.
  1. Give readers features they want that real physical books can’t offer.

The modern e-reader already provides digital bookmarks, dictionary support, and highlighting options. I think it also provides keyword search. Certainly, the true e-reader would provide all of these things (though bookmarking won’t be as necessary, as the pages are now physical, but if the book automatically opens to the digital bookmark when you tap the bookmark sensor, then that would be cool).

But the true e-book would also provide advanced indexing options that would allow you to quick-find characters, events, or other details that might otherwise take away precious minutes from your narrative flow when searching for previous reminders about who these people are or what happened during these events. For example, if you double-tap on the name of the minor character that the protagonist is talking about, it can bring up a small menu with options, including one that highlights any page where that character’s name appears, and then highlight in a different color the name itself so that every instance he’s mentioned can be found in seconds. And for those who still want their foot in The Matrix while reading, other options can include reloading the current page with supplemental information, including other books or volumes the character may have appeared in (and where in the context of those books), basic character descriptions, and whatever else the author or publisher may preload into the supplements file, including an option to load up another book in the series (provided the reader owns a copy). And, if a book doesn’t come with that information, then the selection in that particular menu is disabled. It’s possible that the modern e-reader does these things already, or will soon enough, but the true e-book would most definitely have to do these things to stay on par with, if not ahead of the game.

And, I could go on, but I think it’s pretty clear: Digital books don’t have to be impersonal. And we, as readers, don’t have to accept their impersonal touch. I don’t love the idea of replacing paperbacks, and, as long as we have bookshelves and a desire to fill them, I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of them completely. Even in the age of Netflix and Hulu, we still have DVD and Blu-ray discs bought and sold daily. Even with iTunes dominating the music market, stores are still selling CDs (kinda). The demand for these things may not be what they were before digital markets invaded their turfs, but some of it still exists, and there are still people out there who want to stick to the classics. But regardless of how many want to innovate or how many want to keep to the systems they’re used to, the corporations involved in the production and distribution of these materials need to consider their entire customer base, not just the rich and the trendsetting, and create the kind of experiences that anyone could want, modern and retro alike. It starts by understanding human psychology.

To adapt the famous line from Field of Dreams, “If you [make] it, they will [use it].” Make the true e-book and drive its price down to something affordable, and I’d give it a fair chance. Heck, I might even like it enough to modify my current library of hardcovers and paperbacks. I may be technologically backwards, but I still have movies I like on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray, and I suspect I’ll get them again on 4K UHD someday. I’m not against a good leap forward. Perhaps those in charge of e-reader design shouldn’t be either.

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