What is an ebook? 6 questions about the future of books

Tonight Emily Carr students presented 5 ebook prototypes developed over the course of this semester in an ebook design course. As the students presented their work, and members of the local business, tech and creative communities responded to them, it was clear that we are grappling with a common set of fundamental questions raised by the emergence of ebooks. Here are the 6 crucial questions we need to address as authors, publishers, designers and readers:

  1. How can ebooks take advantage of the design, multimedia or functional opportunities provided by web-enabled tablet devices like the iPad, Android tablet or Kindle Fire?
  2. Does social interaction enhance or distract form the reader experience?
  3. Who is the author of an ebook? The content creator, the editor/curator,the designer or the developer? If the user contributes content, comments or self-directed navigation, is the user an author too?
  4. If you break the page page-turning metaphor, how to you cue the reader/user about how to navigate the book?
  5. What is the ebook equivalent of printing on archival paper? How do you build an ebook to last?
  6. What is the difference between an ebook and a website? What is essential to preserving “bookness”? Does it matter?

It was this last question that most troubled and preoccupied the people in the room. We are eager to pin down the definition of “ebook”, to draw the line between website and app and ebook, or to agree unambiguously to throw these terms out. Our anxiety about defining what makes a book speaks to the value our society places on the traditional codex, and the opportunities (as well as the dangers) that come from transcending it.

Do ebooks help or hurt children’s literacy?

Grandmother with child on iPad

Print books may be under siege from the rise of e-books, but they have a tenacious hold on a particular group: children and toddlers. Their parents are insisting this next generation of readers spend their early years with old-fashioned books. This is the case even with parents who themselves are die-hard downloaders of books onto Kindles, iPads, laptops and phones. They freely acknowledge their digital double standard, saying they want their children to be surrounded by print books, to experience turning physical pages as they learn about shapes, colors and animals.

So the New York Times reports in an article today on resistance to ebooks for young children. It’s an interesting challenge for ebook developers, particularly since children’s ebooks have been the standard-bearers for the interactive and graphical possibilities of tablet-native titles. In part because storybooks are shorter than adult titles, they’ve demonstrated far more creativity than the initial generation of adult ebooks, featuring everything from simulated pop-ups to reading aloud to touch-triggered animations.

But it’s a great example of how an app’s greatest strength will typically also be its greatest liability. Precisely because children’s ebooks have been so successful in blurring the line between book and app, and between narrative and game, they can lose the perceived purity of the reading experience. Our emphasis on reading as the cornerstone of education and learning means that parents resist anything that appears to distract from or dilute that reading experience — particularly if it feels like that new paradigm of evil, Video Games.

We owe it to our kids to rethink this idea that books and readings are not only distinct from, but antithetical to, gaming. Gaming is the environment in which our kids will spend a good portion of their school years, and which may also define much of their adult work lives as software developers become more successful at integrating game mechanics into other on- and offline activities.  We can best serve our kids if we not only embrace gaming as part of literacy, but also find ways to integrate it with the traditional literacy of reading.

Self-publishing: 5 issues for authors to consider, from Amazon’s Jon Fine and Prof. Tim Laquintano

A Picture of a eBook

At the Merging Media conference today, we heard from Jon Fine, Amazon’s Director of Author & Publisher Relations. Jon’s talk reminded me of the terrific presentation I heard at AOIR from Tim Laquintano, a writing professor at Lafayette College who spoke about the evolution of self-publishing. Drawing on their talks, as well as on a paper by Tim, I have identified 5 key issues that authors need to consider if they are interested in self-publishing:

  1. Income potential. Tim Laquintano’s history of self-publishing included the remarkable tale of Carlo Flumiani, who ran a robust and highly profitable vanity publishing scam before being convicted of fraud in 1941. Stories like this may contribute to some authors’ hesitation about self-publishing, fearing that it’s a route to embarrassment or financial ruin. As both Laquintano and Fine have made clear, self-publishing today is frequently more profitable for authors than publishing with a traditional house, since they can sell digitally or through print-on-demand, and earn a significantly higher portion of total sales. Fine made a point of noting that many Amazon authors earn six-figure incomes from their self-published titles, and a few have even hit the million-dollar mark.
  2. Discovery. If you’re only selling your book to people who know they are looking for it, you’re missing a lot of your potential market, so it’s important to have a strategy for reaching people who would be interested in your title if they knew it was out there. Jon Fine points out that traditional book discovery has placed a lot of emphasis on “hand selling” (when a bookseller places a recommended title in your hands, based on your expressed interests) and cover appeal. In the world of digital book selling, your book’s cover matters less than the metadata you use to describe your title. Using the right keywords is the online equivalent of the book jacket: it’s what makes your title turn up in searches that are based on topics or areas of interest rather than only for readers looking for your specific book.
  3. Platform. Time was that if you published a book with a traditional publishing house, they did the work of building a platform (i.e. a reputation) for you. These days, traditional publishers are primarily interested in working with authors who have a pre-established platform, and authors who go the indie publishing route will likewise need to build (or build upon) their own platform. Tim Laquintano notes that online communities can provide a great mechanism for writers to generate publicity, provided that authors don’t treat these communities as ad platforms, and instead become meaningful contributors to the community conversation.
  4. Legitimacy. One of the major themes in Laquintano’s talk was the shift from “vanity publishing” (with its connotation of being far less credible than mainstream commercial or academic presses) to “indie publishing”, in which self-published authors have a newfound legitimacy. But where does that legitimacy come from, if the author hasn’t run the gauntlet of agents, editors or peer reviewers who have read the work and found it worthy of publication? Fine emphasized the importance of authors building out and curating their Amazon.com pages (both the pages for their individual titles, and their overall author page) since this will usually be the top Google result for a search on a book title. Filling out your author bio, upcoming appearances and the editorial reviews of your title all help to underscore the legitimacy of your self-published work.
  5. Authorship. Both Laquintano and Fine focused on the benefits of epublishing for authors. The process of exploring epublishing at Emily Carr has led me to think a lot about the other players at the table: not only writers but also designers, developers and media creators. If you want to go beyond print-on-demand books or PDF-like ebooks, and instead create enhanced ebooks that take wider advantage of mobile, social and touchscreen technologies, a traditional writer working alone will not be up to the job.The ebook experiments we are doing at the SIM Centre are aimed in part at evolving a new model of authorship in which writers, designers and developers collaborate on both form and content so that we can create ebooks that realize the potential of tablet-based devices for storytelling and knowledge-sharing. The business models that make indie publishing appealing to writers aren’t as well-suited to these new forms of authorship: the costs of developing enhanced ebooks (which are often highly complex software projects) demand new models of financing and of distributing both the risks and rewards of authorship.

You can read more about Jon’s work in this interview in Publishing Perspectives, and find out more about Tim’s work in his paper on Sustained authorship: Digital Writing, Self-Publishing, and the Ebook.

Internet researchers tackle the future of reading & publishing at AOIR

True confession: I treat conference panels as competitive events. Whenever I’m participating in a multi-speaker panel my secret goal is to “win” the panel. This doesn’t mean I try to take down my fellow panellists: it’s not like wrestling or ice hockey, where you’ve got to crush your opponent in order to take home the gold. It’s more like rowing or cycling or maybe figure skating, where the goal is simply to turn in the best performance.*

Today I did not win my panel, because I had the privilege of being part of a totally kick-ass conversation at AOIR with 3 smart people doing very cool work on reading and publishing in the digital world, fluidly woven together by Janet Salmons. More amazing still, our work all intersected (not something you can take for granted) in ways that were incredibly constructive for my research, and I hope for others’ as well.

So who were these crazy digital rock stars, and what did I learn from them?

  • Peter Boot talked about how online communities enable new kinds of conversations about books, which go beyond reviewing to content creation and identity construction, and made me think about how that kind of identity work could happen within an ebook if it offered a community to its readers
  • Kathleen Fitzpatrick talked about how we can get over the conventional model of peer review, already, and start editing in ways that actually enrich scholarship — and made me think that is a universe in which I could get pretty excited about academic publishing
  • Tim Laquintano talked about the stigmatization of “vanity publishing” and how it’s giving way to “indie publishing”, and saved me about $5,000 in future psychotherapy by convincing me to just get over this obsession with being published by an Official Imprint

My own talk shared some of the ebook research we’ve been up to at Emily Carr, where I’ve been part a team of designers and researchers including Jonathan Aitken, Celeste Martin and Ron Burnett. In particular, I talked about our interest in creating social ebooks — ebooks that support not only collaborative annotation and highlighting but fuller social experiences in which readers converse and even contribute to book content. To think about how an ebook might deepen reader engagement, I’ve been drawing on the reader-to-leader framework of Preece & Shneiderman, which has been used to study many different kinds of online communities:

Reader to leader framework shows 4 levels of participation


If we think ebooks can act as some form of community, then perhaps the reader-to-leader framework can apply to ebooks. Based on the work we’ve done so far, here’s how different ebook features might map onto this framework — along with a minor adjustment to the framework that makes it a little more useful in this context.

eReader to Leader adds a "user" layer above "reader"


It’s going to take me at least a few days to digest the ways in which these talks fit together. When I have something semi-coherent to say, I’ll follow the spirit of the panel and share it digitally, as fodder for further conversation.



* Yes, I am using a sports metaphor — a move that is guaranteed to cost you crucial points in any panel performance I might be judging. And yes, I said “ice hockey”.

Social e-books as online communities, for AOIR 2011

Tomorrow I’m off to the conference of the Association of Internet Researchers, an event I’ve always wanted to attend and this time actually get to present to! I’m part of a session on Books and Publishing, where I will be talking about the e-book research I am now undertaking at Emily Carr in collaboration with Jonathan Aitken, Ron Burnett, Celeste Martin and other colleagues.

Our research has morphed a little in the many months since I submitted my session proposal, so here’s a slightly updated version of what I’ll be discussing in this talk.

Would you friend a novel? Social e-books as online communities

Social e-books are now emerging as a new form of participatory culture. The iPad and other tablet devices have ushered in a new generation of books that blur the line between text and performance, book and app, e-publishing and online community. These e-books that are now appearing on tablet devices differ from their modestly enhanced predecessors by incorporating not only text, image and video but also features like collaborative annotation, game mechanics, interactive animation and socially generated content. This paper argues for the incorporation of social e-books into the study of online community and participatory culture, introducing a model for analyzing social e-books as online communities. It provides a preliminary test of that model through the case of a social e-book now under development.

To date, the literature on electronic books has largely fallen in the fields of information science, publishing and education addressing topics like reader perceptions of electronic books (often by analyzing library usage) (Hurst et al. 2009); examining implications for the book industry; or the assessing impact of electronic textbooks on student learning (Chau 2008) and reading habits (Simon 2001). This emphasis on the fundamental experience of reading made sense as long as PDFs and black-and-white virtual ink readers like the first Kindle represented the technical frontier of e-books of mainstream readers.

The advent of the iPad created a critical mass of consumers who now have access to a tablet with the technical capability to support much richer forms of media interactivity. In the ten months since the arrival of the iPad, social e-books have begun to enter the mainstream discourse on electronic book publishing, although rudimentary speculation on its potential features goes back at least as far as 2002 (Henke 2002). Social and interactive iPad titles, mostly aimed at children, have dovetailed with the predictions of industry observers who anticipated e-books that support sharing reading notes (Johnston 2010); the exchange of voice annotations, book lending and socially-based reading time estimates (Rose 2010); and “crowdsourced wikis linked within the book” (Wolf 2010).

By reviewing a selection of leading-edge social e-books that represent the range of functionality now being incorporated into electronic publications, this paper creates a taxonomy of these emergent features. These include the e-book’s incorporation of video (as per a wide range of Vook titles); interactive animation (for example in Alice in Wonderland and The Heart and the Bottle); animated illustration (The Pedlar Lady); game mechanics (Dusk World); social sharing of book highlights (Copia, and the latest Kindle update) and user-generated content (on the recently announced SocialBooks platform).

The e-publishing literature is not well-equipped to predict, analyze and elicit user engagement with books that include these kinds of participatory features. In contrast, research into online community and participatory culture provides a rich source of inspiration and insight for e-book creators; the field may also be enriched by incorporating the study of newly social e-books. This follows the path of other emergent forms of online community that have been successively recognized and incorporated as appropriate subjects of inquiry, such as photo-sharing communities (Nov, Naaman, and Ye 2009), social networks (Boyd and Ellison 2008), YouTube (Rotman and J. Preece 2010) and mobile/SMS-based communities) list-making systems (Krüpl 2010), and Wikipedia (Gleave et al. 2009)

To assess the value of online community research in analyzing social e-books, the paper draws on the reader-to-leader framework (J Preece and B Shneiderman 2009), a relatively recent contribution that has already informed research and experiments as diverse as an online community to address climate change (Malone et al. 2009), an investigation of distributed participation in scientific research (Nov, Anderson, and Arazy 2010), and an analysis of geocaching communities (Clough 2010). This framework articulates the user’s experience of deepening social participation in terms of successive levels: “reading, contributing, collaborating, and leading.” (J Preece and B Shneiderman 2009) By mapping the taxonomy of social e-book features onto the levels in the reader-to-leader framework, the paper establishes both the utility of this framework for analyzing reader participation in existing social e-books, and suggests some of the framework’s limitations.

It then demonstrates how the framework has been used in planning a specific e-book project by demonstrating how it has been applied to the e-book projects now underway at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. The relevance and gaps of the reader-to-leader framework in structuring the design choices for this project will inform the paper’s conclusion, which identifies the implications for the research agenda in the fields of online community and online participation as well as e-publishing.

The post-reading generation talks about the future of books

This post originally appeared on SIMCentre.ca.

Today I got to be a (tweeting) fly on the wall in Jonathan Aitken’s ebook design class. Somewhat to my amusement, Jonathan began by explaining how old people like us used to read in linear way, where you flip through pages in order. The explanation seemed less amusingly superfluous once a quick show of hands revealed that the vast majority of students had read fewer than 10 books in the past year. (OK, I’m not doing that much better myself, but I have kids — useful not only for their steady supply of amusing Facebook anecdotes, but as an iron-clad excuse for not reading more.)

Once we got into discussion mode, what was really interesting was how reverently these not-very-book-consuming young people talk about the role and value of books. Some representative comments:

  • There’s still value in actually completing something, and focusing, and we’re losing that.
  • It feels disrespectful to just read part of an article. It’s like me tuning out half your lecture.
  • A book is meant as an escape.
  • There are a lot of studies that show that hyperlinks break your concentration — a hyperlink is an implied decision we can’t stop thinking about.

And on socially enhanced ebooks in particular:

  • I would rather read for myself before getting othe people’s comments.
  • It makes it less intimate, and more social.
  • I want to read a book by myself. The thing about social networks is you get so distracted by tweets by stuff — if you are tweeting back you can’t really focus.

On the other hand, some students noted the value of a less linear or immersive approach to reading:

  • If you are reading a book for entertaining yourself you want to submerge yourself, but if you are reading a book for another purpose sometimes you just want to get to the point.
  • It can be useful to read in fragments; sometimes you just need to read a specific thing.

After spending so much of the past year reading books and articles that fret over how computers, the Internet and social networking are slowly chewing up and digesting the brains of our young, it was interesting to hear so many iPhone-toting students making a passionate case for the value of immersive reading. Then again, i’m not sure that Emily Carr students are all that representative of Kids These Days: do the kids in your office draw this nicely on the walls?

5 ebook features that tap the power of social note-taking

Peter Meyers has a useful blog post on 3 ways to improve ebook note taking over at O’Reilly Radar. As he points out in his post, note-taking is one of the ways in which print books still kick the ass of digital books, since they allow you to “[j]ot notes anywhere you like…[h]ighlight non-contiguous phrases on a page, editing out all the boring bits and spotlighting the author’s best points…[d]raw arrows…[c]onstruct simple diagrams…[and] [e]asily review all this stuff by flipping through the pages of a book”. Meyers suggests that the best way for ebook note-taking to catch up is to:

  • Offer pen-like and other rich media markup tools
  • Offer a way to attach a note at either the chapter- or book-level
  • Provide a passage-quoting bulletin board

I particularly appreciated Meyers’ vision for a kind of virtual bulletin board of one’s ebook notes, which reminds me a bit of Pinterest, my latest social media love. If (or almost certainly, when) any of the ebook-makers out there take Meyers up on his point that better note-taking could provide a competitive advantage, I’ll be delighted to see it. But I think both ebook creators and ebook consumers can make an even stronger case for the improvement of ebook note-taking.

In our own research and experimentation with ebooks at SIM, notetaking has been a crucial area of exploration. Like Meyers we’ve been thinking about ways to improve the process of notetaking as an information processing and retrieval tool: the process of annotation is for many people crucial to their ability to master and engage with a text, and the process of reviewing annotation is often the primary way for recalling or reconnecting with something previously read.

But to focus on how note-taking supports processing and retrieval for the individual is to miss the larger opportunity for ebook annotation. What’s really exciting about note-taking in an ebook is the opportunity to collate and converse with other readers. Kindle’s collaborative annotation is an early sketch of what’s possible once note-taking ceases to be a solo enterprise.

Some of the possibilities we’ve been exploring include:

  1. Collaborative annotation organized by your social graph: If I’m reading the latest Gladwell I don’t want to see notes from every reader in North America; I want to see notes from my closest Twitter or LinkedIn pals.
  2. Collaborative annotation organized by reader level: When I’m reading a book about social media, I want to see what’s been highlighted by experienced social media professionals (i.e. my peers). When I’m reading about how to rewire a lamp, I want to see what’s been highlighted by fellow newbies.
  3. Persona management: The ability to create different note-taking personas that have different privacy levels and different sets of friends, so that I can choose to share different sets of notes with different people depending on our relationship.
  4. Social note sharing: Let me authenticate with Twitter and Facebook from within my ebook so that I can tweet or share short passages or the notes and ideas that strike me as I read. Integrate my friends’ updates and tweets into the text — not just based on their reaction to the text itself, but based on other indicators of relevance. For example, if I’m reading about the history of molecular gastronomy, show me the Yelp, FourSquare or Facebook Places check-ins from friends who’ve visited the restaurants referred to in the text, along with their comments on the food.
  5. Note-taking visualizations: As I highlight and take notes on an ebook, I create a digital footprint on that book that can be represented visually to show me which chapters or sections were most relevant to me. My footprint can be collated or compared with others (for example, other people in my class or company) to identify the passages that are most widely salient or alternately that specifically characterize my interest in the text.

This last points to the core challenge in developing appropriate and valuable note-taking functionality for contemporary ebooks: once you plug a book into a network, you need to rethink its boundaries. The idea of sharing a footprint of my reading would be in many cases antithetical to someone who is taking notes in an ebook the way they’d take notes in a print book.

At heart, the beauty of conventional marginal notes lies in its intimacy: deciphering the scrawled notes you wrote on your freshman copy of Mrs. Dalloway will instantly take you back to that reading experience, and you’ll either delight or burn at the sight of your eighteen-year-old perspective. Pick up a used edition with somebody else’s notes and you get the joy and discomfort of seeing inside someone else’s head. Am I the only person who flips through my higlights and marginal notes to check for incriminating evidence before I lend a book out to a friend or colleague?

Once you put a book into a digital, Internet-connected form that intimacy becomes both a risk and a limitation. When I’m reading a self-help book the last thing I want is to risk broadcasting all the places where I’ve written “OMG this is so familiar” next to various tales of emotional dysfunction. But if I’m reading a book about online community management I’ll be downright frustrated if I can’t share my comments and corrections with both my colleagues and my clients.

While Meyers is right to take inspiration from the traditional patterns and advantages of marginal annotation on printed books, a note-taking system that borrows primarily from the print metaphor is destined to miss out on the transformative possibilities of electronic publishing. Much of that potential lies in the convergence of social media and epublishing — a convergence that will bring uncomfortable as well as exciting opportunities to those who treasure the traditional experience of taking notes on a print book. Undoubtedly publishers will attempt to offer the best of both worlds. But they’ll need to take note of the intrinsic tension between the intimacy of marginalia and the exposure of online conversation.