Linking Books with the Web-Way of Thinking

I spent most of this morning reviewing several O’Reilly books in Adobe Digital Editions that we’ve converted into EPUB format — we’ve been working to get our heads fully around the spec, and figure out how to best fit some our content into the constraints of the ebook medium. And the more time I spent scrolling and clicking through the books — a very Web-browser-like experience — the more I realized how frustrating it was that the books don’t take full advantage of something we take for granted on the Web: outbound hyperlinks. The constraint sword cuts both ways (at least for now).

I can’t really blame the authors — they wrote their manuscripts for print, after all. And there’s much we as the publisher can do to retrofit at least some links prior to distributing books in a digital form.

But this issue is a great example of the changing nature of book content, something nicely described in a great post from Martyn Daniels (link via Peter Brantley) about digital text and non-linear thinking:

We have long promoted that ebook readers and the current conversion of 250 pages of text into 250 pages of digital content is transitional. The challenge is not just to adopt the technology but adapt it to do things differently, exploit its true potential, learn from the experience and move on to the next step change. Merely taking today’s content and converting it into digital content follows the logic that digital is merely just another format or manifestation and that it will be read the same way. This is the greatest challenge to many genres: travel, reference, religion, art and design, craft etc, who can do things differently in the digital world and must not be drawn into mere replication.

That’s very much in line with Thursday’s post on the AAP’s EPUB stance: publishers must begin making the transition from creating books to be consumed primarily in print with ebooks as an afterthought, toward designing books intended to remain digital throughout their lifecycle — in particular, adding new value that leverages the potential of digital content. Of course, that also means that sometimes they won’t be building "books" at all — but instead whatever does the job best (here’s Tim O’Reilly on the subject):

The failure to think about what job your product does for the customer, rather than the tools or approach you’ve historically used to do that job, is the reason why many established companies fail to make the transition when there is a technological change. Hence the old saw, "If the railroads had realized they were transportation companies, they’d be airlines today." (Well, maybe yesterday, as the airlines are suffering their own business transition. Maybe they’d be Fedex/Kinko’s today. Or Google/Skype.)

Martyn’s point about transitional forms is a critical one, and a simple example illustrates Tim’s point about the transition: Encarta on CD-ROM was a transitional format from printed encylopedias to Wikipedia. Note that’s three completely different players: Brittanica sold encyclopedias; Microsoft sold software; readers were looking for comprehensive general reference, not encylopedias or software.

We’re experiencing this acutely at O’Reilly, as more of our audience finds the information online they once sought in our books. We’ve historically sold books; readers are looking for answers, information and instruction. We’ve found other ways to do those "jobs" and remain relevant, but it’s not an easy transition.

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