Ebooks: something new, something borrowed

Just as live theatre continued after radio, and radio survived TV, and TV goes on despite the internet, so, too, will paper books coexist with digital books for a long, long time.  At first, ebook creators tried very hard to mimic the older sibling, which had a few centuries to mature into its own style, with page numbers, chapters, tables of content, margins, and nice bindings.

Finally the ebook is starting to experiment with a style of its own, though the wardrobe changes are happening fast, depending on where you look. Below are a couple ebook trends that I find particularly interesting.

Something new

A couple background bits to better understand my interest in ebooks of late — first, I’m a bibliophile and librarian. Second, while I was getting my graduate degree, I took a few classes on user experience design and usability.  At the time, I thought about usability in terms of websites for library catalogs, databases, and so on.  I was fascinated to see how storytelling became an element of user experience, and now I see user experience entering the realm of book design.

In the paper form, books did not seem to stray far from the traditional codex format.  Now that ebooks are morphing into apps, almost anything is possible.  The table of contents doesn’t have to be a table anymore, chapters don’t have to follow each other, and the whole notion of page numbers can be turned into something else entirely.

Along these lines, I’ve been following a few blogs that are diving into these questions.  My favorites so far:

  • New Kind of Book by Peter Meyers – some of his pieces are repeated at the blogs below, but I still think it’s worthwhile to catch each of his posts
  • Digital Book World – this multi-author blog looks at ebooks from the publishing point of view, more fascinating than I would have thought
  • Publishing Insight on O’Reilly Radar – the more technical side of ebooks and publishing

I’m excited to see the traditional idea of “what is the book” turned upside down.  Perhaps, after a heady phase of experimentation, we’ll end up using the old book trappings after all, even in our ebooks.  Or maybe, as future writers grow up reading ebooks of varying formats, they’ll begin to write in completely different styles that push ebook formats into further changes.

Something Borrowed

Another trend popping up again lately (seems to come and go in waves) is serialization.  When I think of serialized books, I think of old London magazines in the late 1800s selling pieces of Charles Dickens stories and then later, selling Sherlock Holmes cases to such raging popularity that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had to bring the character back after killing him off.  I find it somehow strange that there hasn’t been a online serialized story that has gone viral quite like Dickens or Conan Doyle did in their day.  The blog format seems like the perfect tool for such a narrative unfolding over time, but it just hasn’t taken off in that way … as far as I know, at least.  The closest thing I’ve seen to something like this was the @MayorEmanuel twitter feed during the Chicago election.

Another, shorter Twitter story unfolded recently, as described by Peter Meyers.  And there have been reports of serialized ebooks coming out, with various levels of pricing options:

As readers become accustomed to using devices like the Kindle and iPad for subscriptions, I wonder if serialized fiction will make a comeback.  We have some serialized fiction now in the form of TV miniseries and sitcoms, but I’m hoping for something better.  Deep down I see serialized fiction as the format that will usher in a tidal wave of social reading — people talking about the latest piece of the story over dinner with friends or over coffee at work. Maybe it’s just me, but one big thing I think we would gain from a shared experience of literature (over the shared experience of TV, for example) is the space for imagination, the wiggle room for interpretation that is hardly present (or to a much lesser extent) in the visual and aural world of TV.

Would you subscribe to a novel?  Would you read a chapter at a time as it was released, or save them until you had the whole book?

And most of all – what do you see as the biggest difference to emerge so far between ebooks and paper books?

Amazon Please Fix Your Store

You might have heard about Amazon’s announcement that they have created a textbook rental program.  I think this is a great step — anything that makes it easier for faculty and students to find cheaper textbook alternatives with an interface they might recognize is a good thing.  And I love that students will be able to access their notes even after their rental book expires – that is very important.


However, Amazon’s manifestation of this idea is not a good thing.  In my email to their feedback contact, I outline why:

Dear Auto-response or human,

For your sake and mine, I’m hoping one huge glaring problem can be fixed with the rental Kindle textbooks before university classes get started in the Fall.

The problem is how editions of books are shown in the store.  Right now, if I go to the literature section of the Textbook store, I’ll see titles such as “Pride and Prejudice (Barnes & Noble Classics)” or “A Tale of Two Cities (Penguin Classics)” but the Kindle books attached to these items are not the B&N Classics or Penguin Classics editions, and this will be VERY important for students who are assigned a particular edition by their professors precisely so they can read the supplemental materials included by Penguin or B&N.  The Kindle editions are just Project Gutenberg knock-offs, and the students will get very frustrated since they can’t figure out how to get the edition they actually need for class.

PLEASE, start putting some decent publication information on the Kindle books!  I would truly love to see Amazon enter the Textbook market – I think Amazon makes an excellent ebook product, except when it comes to anything that requires a particular edition of a book.  As a book company, you of all companies should know that all editions of one title are not the same.  Please fix this so we won’t hear the complaints come this fall.

Thank you…

I’m sure there is a much better way to explain what I’m trying to describe here.  Do you see this as a potential problem for your campus?  How would you fix this?

Death to e-classics. Long live e-classics!

By the silly word “e-classics” I mean ebook versions of dearly beloved public domain works by authors such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, H.G. Wells, Shakespeare, and so on.  The first ebooks I read were in fact e-classics –  the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, found for free on FeedBooks.

Two years ago, I thought the upswell in ebook interest would mean a revival for these classics.  They were, after all, the easiest ebooks to get.  You can find many different copies of these books for free online as riffs on Project Gutenberg files.  In Amazon’s Kindle Store, you’ll see a whole slew of these public domain ebooks for sale from swindlers for anywhere from $.99 to $5.  I say swindlers because these are public domain texts and the “sellers” usually haven’t added any value whatsoever from what I’ve seen in sample chapters.  Added value to me would include at the very least a linked table of contents (which Amazon should be adding by default but they don’t), or a map, a timeline, something to help readers make sense of the content of the book itself.

But now that we’re past the year of the ebook (or on it’s third year, depending who you ask), I see I was wrong.  If anything, these free ebook versions of the classics are just mucking things up royally.  Please don’t take my word for it.  Do your own investigations and see what you come up with.  Here are three anecdotal pieces of evidence that I can offer:

1. Lady Chatterly’s Lover

Last year I started reading D.H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel as a free ebook from FeedBooks, which was using an edition from Project Gutenberg.  From the very beginning of the book, the formatting of the text itself was a little distracting — words were run together, the chapter headings were spaced out awkwardly, and there were obvious typos from the ebook conversion process.  I was using the Stanza app on my iPhone.  I ignored these little aesthetic drawbacks and enjoyed the story anyway.  I wouldn’t have known there was anything missing form the copy I was reading if Mark and I hadn’t wandered into a used bookstore one day where they had a copy of the book in their front room.  I happened to be at a place in the ebook with some particularly muddled text near the end of a chapter so I flipped through the paper copy in the store till I found that section and what do I discover?  Why, the paper copy has an additional page of dialogue in this chapter that my ebook doesn’t have at all!  It turns out I was reading one of the “censored” versions of the text.  So I bought a *paper* copy of the Penguin Classics edition of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and gave up on the ebook version right then and there.  Besides actually having the complete book (!) the Penguin edition also provided me with a map of the English Midlands, a glossary of dialect forms spoken by the characters, and a wonderful appendix of explanatory notes to the text.  I would have gladly paid for an ebook version that had all these great features, but from what I can tell, Lady Chatterly’s Lover is not among the select few to be a Penguin ebook.

2. Jane Eyre

Lots of reasons to read Jane Eyre of late.  A) Mark is reading it for a class he’s taking and I enjoy reading and discussing books with him, plus B) there is a new movie version coming out in, oh, a week.  Since Mark is reading it for a class, he had a specific edition to look for – namely, the Oxford World’s Classics.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have this as an ebook for class discussions?  See all your notes and questions in one place, quickly find the paragraph or section in question by just doing a search, annotating passages as new themes are brought up in class. Have in-text links to the explanatory notes and back. But no, sorry. Not possible with the Oxford editions.  From what I can tell, Oxford is only making their reference and medical titles into ebooks so far. I would dearly love to be wrong about this.  Please tell me I’m wrong.

3. The Maltese Falcon

This is a classic but not yet public domain.  Our local public library selected it as the Siouxland book of the year and they have some great programming planned for it, including a free viewing and discussion of the film based on the book.  I was prepared to pay for an ebook version of The Maltese Falcon, but Holy Cow what a mess.

First of all, no ebook version comes up on a search in Amazon except, bizarrely enough, the script by John Huston.  Lucky me, knowing the author is Dashiell Hammett.  How would someone like a high school student even know what they were getting with goofiness like this?

Second, I do a generic Google search for it and get all the suspicious looking ebook torrent sites along with – oh! – Random House.  Really?  Do I have to know the publisher of the book I want in order to find it?  Fine, whatever.  So I go to Random House’s page for The Maltese Falcon and I click on the little ebook link.  From there, I click on the button for “Buy Now” … which gives me a string of links to choose from, including a dead Amazon link and “More…” which gives me 13 links to individual stores.  Just give me an ePub or PDF already and let me get on with reading!


So I’m not reading or enjoying Jane Eyre or The Maltese Falcon at the moment.  Instead, I’m continuing this Educause book I started reading for work.  An ebook that was freely available online, as a DRM-free PDF, which I am annotating with abandon and I’m even going to share it with my boss and colleagues when I’m done, which means even more people will be reading it.  I can keep it in Dropbox, read it with apps like GoodReader or PDF Expert or even something else, if I want!

And here’s something else to think about:  I actually prefer to read on the iPad.  Over my laptop, over paper.  I would rather curl up on the couch with the iPad in it’s clever little stand and both of my hands wrapped around a hot mug of tea.  I could read my RSS feeds on my spiffy MacBook Pro, but the design and interface of apps like MoblileRSS make RSS reading on the iPad a beautiful, relaxing experience.  The stats in my Google Reader Trends can attest to that.  And I would like to carry this experience over to my book reading, too, but for the moment it is still too hard to find the books I want to read in a format I can use.

In the meantime, I both grieve for and look forward to the day when publishers have rendered themselves obsolete to readers.  I will sorely miss the excellent supplemental content provided by publishers like Penguin and Oxford, but I will not miss for one second the headaches that publishers are causing their readers.