Recommended: Embracing the digital book

Many people have opinions on ebooks, and what they should be. And some of those opinions are even good ones. This is one of the best things I’ve read on ebooks in awhile, from Craig Mod: “Embracing the digital book.”

I’ve personally been interested in e-reading from the hardware perspective, but that’s really only half of the equation. Craig Mod initiates a discussion on the reading apps: “The problem is much simpler: iBooks and are incompetent e-readers. They get in the way of the reading experience and treat digital books like poorly typeset PDFs.”

There are two key questions — which, interestingly enough, could have been asked three years ago, or three years from now:

1) What’s wrong with our current e-readers and how do we rebuild them?
2) What meta-data do we create when engaging digital text, how can our e-readers embrace it and how does that change our relationship with books?

I enjoyed the comparison of iBooks and the Kindle app, from a designer’s perspective. I had not given the design philosophy of iBooks much thought, until reading this, and the attempt to make it more book-like could indeed have the opposite aesthetic effect:

“Screen real estate outside of the text block is filled with lazy metaphor.

Metaphor in design that adds real value — changing the background paper stacks to represent actual pages left in a book, for example — is arguably useful, but the mindless embrace of metaphor based on Apple’s user interface guidelines is a mistake. Especially when these metaphors yell loudly and grow old quickly — precisely the opposite goal for which great interface design strives (be quiet and age gracefully).’s interface manages to avoid the kitsch trap. It’s as minimal as possible while still retaining a ‘book’ feel. It doesn’t jar us with superfluous page-turning animations. It doesn’t clutter the edges of our screen with meaningless metaphor. Even the clock disappears when hiding’s navigation chrome. (Of all things distracting, Dear iBooks, is the clock not the worst?) It lets us focus, somewhat, on the one thing we came to do: read.”

All good observations. One has to wonder: is Apple in fact changing its users’ design expectations? People may well notice and find these things aesthetically ugly, yet with an inversion of “familiarity breeds contempt,” maybe users simply adjust and accept things the way they are. It’s possible.

In terms of typography and font, the Kindle app seems to get a slight lesser-of-two-evils vote over iBooks.

Rather telling that the same critique from a year ago still stands as valid in terms of iBooks lack of cloud-friendliness (or, whatever the more fashionable technical term for that is):

“iBooks also lacks what is quickly becoming a core feature of contemporary software design: cloud syncing. Tim O’Reilly comments on the general lack of dependable syncing by Apple in a recent New York Times essay:[5]

‘Media and application syncing across iPhone and iPad is poorly thought out. MobileMe, which should be Apple’s gateway drug for lock-in to Apple services, is instead sold as an add-on to a small fraction of Apple’s customer base. If Apple wants to win, they need to understand the power of network effects in Internet services.’

With the recent push for iCloud with iOS 5, will this change? It might. It should …

The most interesting part of the discussion you’ll find under the “THE E-READER WE WANT” section. The ebook design is both simple and fundamental —

“But first, let’s not forget what these applications are: spaces for consuming text. Book designers long ago established rigorous rules for laying out text blocks so they disappear to the reader … They took pride in turning the physicality of a book into a tool for efficiently and elegantly getting information into the mind of the reader … Our e-readers seem to have forgotten this heritage. They’ve forgotten that their core purpose is simply to present text as comfortably as possible; to gently pull the reader into the story. Every other aspect of experiencing a book is predicated on this notion.”

And what about some of those other elements in the ereading experience? The ones that we notice on some level not might have become inured to? For example: ugly margins and hyphenation. Some readers might want the options of customizations; most readers probably don’t care enough, except to know what they do or don’t like. Perhaps this is a philosophical question of what user-experience should be: users choice, or make the best possible experience so users don’t have to think about it?

“Line length and margins are intrinsically tied to the type and size of font being used, and the shape of the page (or screen).(FIG 6) Like Instapaper,[8] you could give readers a choice of leading, margins and font size. But readers aren’t typographers. They shouldn’t have to choose. These are page design fundamentals, based on rational proportions. Our e-reader layout algorithms should be competent in balancing these variables.”

Copy and paste (or more specifically, the lack thereof) is a pet peeve of mine in ereading apps. Lame and ineffectual form of DRM? Check:

“That we can’t copy and paste is an insult. The rationale behind this restriction is obvious: publishers don’t want readers to easily extract entire books. It’s a form of DRM through obnoxiousness.”

Amazon’s Public Notes was a good idea in theory. In practice, I’m not sure. It just didn’t seem to do enough. The Craig Mod suggestion, however, is a great one —

“Show me a heat map of passages — ‘hottest’ to ‘coldest’. Which chapters in this Obama biography should I absolutely not miss?(FIG 7) When I’m considering buying a book, show me how far the average reader gets. Do most readers get through the whole novel or give up halfway? How many notes do they take? How many passages do they highlight?”

The saving grace of the Kindle and the Kindle app is the ability to export all your notes and highlights and bookmarks, without it being trapped within that device, or that app. Amazon absolutely got that right. It’s user-generated content. Users should be able to do with it what they please: “When I’m done reading and marking a book, I should be able to create my own abridged copy. Show me just my highlights with notes. Let me export this edition. Let me email it to myself. Or, if you dare, automatically typeset it and let me order a POD copy for my personal library.”

All in all, this is highly recommended reading. One of the best, most well-thought out essays on ebooks I’ve read this year.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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