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Are ebooks good enough already?

Could an entire industry be working to solve the wrong problem?

In reading Horace Dediu’s (@Asymco) piece on the possibility of the iPhone being good enough, an interesting question formed…

Is it possible that ebooks are already good enough?

Are we currently experiencing the best possible forms for the enjoyment of a written work?

It’s a viable question because, if you look closely at your reading habit and preferences, what would you really need or want to change that is materially different from what you’re capable of doing today?

As more technological innovation hits ebooks (and storytelling, sharing, news, etc.), more readers are complaining in unison not about the lack of robust multimedia or interactive elements but about the need for improved basics: cross-device portability, page formatting, font sizing & clarity, bookmarking, sharing, etc.

Improvements aren’t being sought in the quality / type of the content’s presentation. Improvements are being asked for relative to the consumption experience.

It’s possible we’re looking at the ideal form for an ebook and we’re taking it for granted.

What if the time spent and money invested in building “new” ways for stories to be presented was, instead, spent on / invested in helping storytellers gather information and formulate ideas to create more high-quality stories?

Could an entire industry be working to solve the wrong problem?

Thank you for the prompt, Mr. Dediu.

[Ed. note: You’ll also want to read Jenn Webb’s earlier interview with Horace Dediu here.]


Comments: 16

  1. I disagree.

    For certain forms, such as the novel, we’re pretty close. Reading a novel on a Kindle is a reasonable experience and betters paper in many ways. For textbooks, large format books, or books that have any sort of elegance to their typography or composition, we are still years away from anything that’s vaguely acceptable to someone who loves books.

    PDFs can replicate the experience to a point but marketplaces and publishers seem to be running away from them in favor of more versatile formats like EPUB. EPUB in its current form can’t reach the places that print can in terms of typography or layout. Could you imagine an Edward Tufte book in a current, typical EPUB compared to the gorgeous, well designed print editions? Or almost any book by TASCHEN?

    Safari Books Online demonstrates this quite well, sadly. There are many technical books that have superb layout and typography but are then rendered in HTML with no line length limitations (I just counted a book I have open in it now – 24 words to a line!) in garish, miserable Verdana.. with no sense of layout, just images scattered mid-flow.

    I think that efforts to make books interactive or introduce multimedia elements could be less important than some believe (an opinion I infer from what you’re saying too) but in terms of actual presentation, layout, and typography, we have so far to go to get a good experience that takes us beyond the convenience of e-books and into a world where it betters print in every regard.

    •  Tufte would work in PDF on a full-size desktop screen.

      • I agree (beyond the issues of feel, navigation, etc.) but some publishers seem to be keen to dump PDF in favor of more “responsive” formats like EPUB so they can solve the multi-format problem. Safari Books Online, for example, has stopped accepting and sharing the print layout versions of books in most (but not all) cases and many books suffer for it 🙁

        On the flip side, Tufte designed his books in an era when the book format was the main game in town. If Tufte were to design a book with the sensibilities of, say, 2018, I suspect he’d come up with something similarly awesome but using the popular formats of the day.. so I may just be a stick in the mud on this one 😉

  2. The term book is too generic a term to continue using given the technologies we have at our disposal. The previous technology and business model for printed publications were obviously limited and shouldn’t be used as the comparison point. All material had to be fitted in to this one format. Now, distinctions can be made according to content and focus, particularly for non-fiction. Audio, interactive graphics, still images, moving images, can now be part of the resources used to convey ideas and meaning. Where once all that was needed was an editor, designer and proofer, now we need to think more like film and drama and have producers and directors to help the author integrate her ideas into a synthesis of possible and relevant media forms.

    So I disagree that we’re working on the wrong problem. I think we’re focussing on the wrong term. I think we need a new word, which integrates various media, but which is as simple as the term ‘book’.

  3. No. The ebook is not good enough. Right now it’s an unaesthetic, auto-processed (decent) stand-in for a product that you could also get carefully designed.

  4. It seems that what publishers think readers want isn’t what readers want. I have to say that the readers’ wish-list fits my own. Rich content comes in second to searchability, good indexing features, and a layout that lets me quickly track down that bit I can sort of remember about . . . you get the picture. The benefits of a fixed layout and ease of scanning with a printed book are easy to overlook but indispensable for readers.

  5. I think there’s some truth to what you’re saying here, Craig, but I don’t think we can paint with such broad brush strokes. First of all, yes, the current state of the ebook is perfectly fine for some products and some readers. Obviously there are millions of ebook buyers who are quite content with what they’ve bought and read. But that also reminds me of the old Henry Ford quote: “If I would have listened to my customers I would have built a faster horse.” IOW, sometimes customers don’t know what they really might love. Steve Jobs was the king of bringing this fact to life.

    Second, once we start building more rich content into ebooks i think we’ll learn a lot more about what features readers want and, just as importantly, what they don’t want. It’s only through measurement of actual usage that we’ll figure out what the future looks like. But we have to experiment before we’ll have this data.

    Finally, let’s respect the fact that multiple readers of the exact same ebook will have different desires and preferences. One reader might be perfectly content to just have the material presented in a simple, text-only format that we have today. Another might want to have some social interaction integrated with it so they can see what others have to say about it. Still others might like to have video integrated with the text. How do you solve the problem of all these different preferences? You’ve got to build products that allow customers to tailor them to their specific needs. That means you include all these features but make it super easy for anyone to turn on/off the pieces that they may or may not be interested in.

  6. PDFs may “replicate” the paper reading experience, but that’s because PDFs are essentially virtual paper copies of the books they represent, right down to typeface and layout.


    I started needing glasses about five years ago. I’m up to +1.75 for daily reading including computer screens. Put a PDF on my tablet and it’s useless because I can’t modify the display size of the text, or I have to scroll down in landscape mode to read the text. And that does the one thing no book should EVER do. It distracts me from what I’m reading.

    OTOH, most ePub readers allow me to set the text size to suit. Even if I forget my glasses, I can set the reader to a larger size and just keep going without having to notice the process by which I’m reading the book. Read. Tap. Read. Tap. And I never even notice the “tap.”

    Most of what I want, at least for fiction, is portability (my phone, my tablet, my desktop all from the same source file and no Digital Ripoff Mismanagement), searchability, font and font size control (already got that), and the ability to bookmark as much as I want, particularly so I can find and report errata to the publisher, assuming the publisher would deign to hear from a mere reader.

    As for “the aesthetics of reading,” feh. If the publisher forces the reader to notice THAT he’s reading, or HOW he’s reading, the publisher has already failed miserably to do his job.

    • I have the same experience w/ PDFs on an eInk device, Edward. Once you’ve enjoyed the pleasure of reflowable text with easy type size adjustment it’s hard going back to a PDF!

  7. “Good enough” is a problem in itself. “Excellent” is the goal of artists and professionals. The ePub3 spec has been out for almost a year. This solves not only the problems of displaying add-on media but also facilitates embedded fonts and all the formatting options of CSS3. However eReader device manufacturers have not stepped up to the plate to support the standard.

    The focus on “improved basics” vs. “technical innovation” suggests worthy priorities but these are not mutually exclusive propositions. If eReader device makers will implement the standards-based solutions that have already been developed and codified, we can move on to discussing the nerdy typographic topics we should already be hammering on.

    For now, if you want to release a “rich” eBook, it seems the best route is to develop with HTML5 and then deploy in the browser (most new eReaders have color screens and webkit browsers capable of rendering a much more elegant reading experience than any ePub client) and as a mobile app.

    At least, deploying engaging eBooks through channels other than eReaders will send a message to the eBook industry that they’re failing high-end publishers and high-end readers.

    Dave Bricker

    • I notice that the ePub version of Zen Garden(http://epubzengarden.com/#/static/middlemarch/OEBPS/chapter1.html) uses Middlemarch as their example book (my favorite novel, as it happens). No interactiviy, no zooming in, no manga, no talking back to me, no pictures of what England looked like in those days — just wonderfully constructed sentences and different ways of laying them out, virtually all beautiful. And all possible simply with the current ePub 3 (once universally implemented I admit). Maybe I’m a dying breed, the kind who’ll be muttering on his deathbed, “There’ll always be a place for a good traditional novel.” And maybe young people (or which I’m certainly not one) want all that stuff (I almost said “want all that crap”). But for me, they can add all the “enhanced” eBook stuff they want, but I’ll stick with a beatifully laid out Middlemarch.

  8. Unfortunately, the content aggregator and distributor I work with is limited mostly to textblock with no fancy features at all; requires 12 point Times Roman and also a limited file size. I don’t have a problem with this at Amazon, but while pictures are allowable, anything decorative gets replaced with Times Roman, and I keep having to reformat everything over again every time they change their metrics. As for exclusivity, that is not my concern since I can offer my content in a variety of formats on my own. I simply don’t enroll in KDP Select and my prices are in parity with half the print price. Truly, the limitations authors have are placed by themselves on themselves if they choose to work with one retailer. If I want to generate an HTML file I can, but since the retailers are my competitors I don’t see why I should go to the extra effort if they place extra limitations on my books’ presentations.

    • Theresa, I love your statement: “the limitations authors have are placed by themselves on themselves if they choose to work with one retailer.” Exclusivity doesn’t seem like a very good option in today’s econtent world.

  9. Are eBooks “good enough already?” You bet they are, if you’re talking about PDFs played on a desktop or laptop with a full-sized screen. In fact, I’d rather have them than a paper book because paper books take up too much space.

    On the other hand, dedicated eBook *readers*, even the latest Kindle and Nook models, are nowhere near good enough. I think Amazon and Barnes and Noble are doing the world a dis-service by selling what are essentiallly personal point-of-sale terminals at or even below cost in order to sell digital media and, in the case of Amazon, goods. They’re toys, not real computers.

    • You’re right that most ebook readers don’t leverage the full technical functionality they’re capable of but I’m surprised that you’re satisfied with PDFs. I love the reflowable nature of EPUB and I’ve found PDFs are a pain to read on an eInk device. I know you’re talking about using them on a desktop or laptop but I don’t like to lug those around all the time.

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