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Graceful eBook Degradation

New approaches and tools are required to develop and present the highest fidelity content across devices

Remember the old days when print was the only format a publisher had to worry about? Now the minimum output requirements include PDF, mobi and EPUB. But what about the devices used to read those formats? You’ve got to consider eInk displays, mobile phones, tablets and computers.

We’re in the very early innings of the ebook game and our focus is mostly still on quick-and-dirty print-to-e conversions. That means the ebook pretty much renders the same way as the print book. Reading devices offer so much horsepower and presentation capabilities yet the vast majority of our content is nothing more than the printed page on a screen. Why?

One of the challenges in producing richer content has to do with certain device limitations. eInk devices like the Kindle and Nook don’t support video or animation, for example, and these are still some of the most popular reading platforms in use. Another example is simple web browsing. Yes, it can be done (painfully so) on some eInk devices but I long for the day when every ebook reading device/app lets you access the web from within the book page and doesn’t require you to launch a separate app.

When you publish an ebook which level of fidelity do you aim for? The richer tablet or the simpler eInk display? In order to keep things simple we’re mostly going with a least common denominator approach: If it renders on the eInk display it will also work on a tablet. The same content simply works across devices but what we really ought to be shooting for is a graceful degradation model where the content adjusts itself to optimize its presentation on each device.

Think about how challenging that is. As I mentioned in a meeting recently, it’s like trying to create a totally immersive, 3D movie and have the same product gracefully degrade for playback on an AM radio station.

I don’t think this is a short-term problem either. eInk might go away at some point but there will always be an assortment of devices with different capabilities that will need to be considered. We’ll always want to take advantage of all the capabilities of the most sophisticated devices while also offering a terrific user experience on the less capable ones.

It’s pretty clear that today’s content creation tools aren’t ready for this challenge. Our authoring and development techniques will also need to change. After all, if a video is well integrated but that video must be removed for certain devices how is the surrounding content altered? We can’t rely on empty boxes and references to elements that no longer exist. Logic will have to be built into the product to dynamically adjust the content based on the device it’s being consumed on.

What do you think? Will publishers acknowledge this opportunity and start looking beyond those quick-and-dirty print-to-e conversions? Will new tools and content authoring/development techniques emerge to address this need?

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  • Rebecca Maines

    A lot depends on the market for rich (by which I mean heavily illustrated, heavily visual, and/or multimedia) content in ebooks. (The market for that content is well established in apps, much less so in books, where the best-selling ebooks are still novels and other straight narrative books.) Most of us are doing quick-and-dirty one-size-fits-all-(well, sort of) conversions because we haven’t seen demonstrated sales potential that would justify commitment of time and resources to more dynamic content.

    • jwikert

      I tend to believe the market will move from apps to HTML5-based ebooks with the capabilities for rich content (as you describe). We’re still in the very early stages of the ebook revolution and I’m convinced a flexible, browser-based approach will continue to grow to fit our needs.

  • http://twitter.com/stephanierieger Stephanie Rieger

    Taking mobile web as an example, I think the only approach that can work long-term is one of progressive enhancement. For this to work however the reader spec has to go up (a bit) and quality of implementation has to increase (a lot). 

    Progressively enhancing *layout* and visual styling is quite easy using CSS3…so long as the readers have followed the spec. When they don’t, you end up with styles that don’t correctly degrade and that leads to ugly hacks and work arounds to resolve platform (or version) specific bugs…this is where things become unmanageable.

    Progressively enhancing (or if you prefer, conditionally loading) *media and functionality* is far harder, but doable once you have access to JavaScript and a decent level of CSS 3. 

    What is a bit scary at the moment is the chicken and egg scenario we are in. Readers aren’t great, and the only truly good one (iOS) is the one with the highest price point, and the least amount of consumer mind-share when selling books. This reader is also not without bugs (including some unfortunate media query bugs). Because readers are poor overall, no one is taking the time to really craft books, they’re simply converting. These conversions are bloated and full of hacks, which further perpetuates the problem.

    All that said, we could see a quick turnaround once we get to a point where everyone supports about the same thing. We saw this with the mobile web. Things stagnated for years as (especially outside of the EU), most brands didn’t feel the level of support was high enough to actually “design” much of anything.

    Then the iPhone launched, which initially caused the reverse problem as many people developed only for that device. It *was* possible to design sites that started simple and progressively enhanced, but most people didn’t think it was worth the additional work. Then around 2011, things finally stabilized. Now that all smartphone browsers, and many feature phone browsers support CSS3 (including media queries) and a basic level of HTML5, we’re finally seeing companies take the time to plan ahead, and really put practices in place to design sites that look great, but can support a far wider audience as they are built to adapt to all sorts of micro-variations in styling, layout and functionality. 

    This was only made possible however by the presence of a relatively level playing field. (A shame though that it’s so hard to talk to e-reader vendors…the lack of direct dialogue could (will?) certainly slow this process down.)