I'm David Little, a user experience researcher and designer

Reading digitally

Posted: April 21, 2011

Dead books?

I recently rediscovered the dissertation for my Master’s degree in library and information studies back in 1999. Having struggled to find anything that really interested me in the rest of that course, my module in “electronic publishing” inspired me to go for the slightly sensationalist title, “A history of the death of the book 1990-2000″. In it I looked at contemporary views on the death of the printed book, examining the utopian views of post-modernist literary theorists on the potentials of hypertext fiction and the opposing dystopian fears that moving from print to digital posed little less than a fundamental threat to Western civilisation.

It’s not a great piece of work–it was written in a bit of a hurry while holding down a temporary job. However it’s interesting to me not only as a personal historical document, but also for its mention of what were becoming known as ‘e-book readers’. References to ClearType and ‘digital paper’ aside it’s clear that these devices were for early adopters only.

Fast-forward another eleven or so years and I’m the proud new owner of an Amazon Kindle, astounded by the quality of the e-ink display. However there’s something about it that reminds me of the Web back in the early to mid ’90s: a technology full of potential but one that is a little limited in its current format. A reminder perhaps that we’re not yet in a brave new age of digital reading but rather starting to explore new modes of publishing and reading.

Long and short form digital reading

In this post I want to concentrate on the current situation of–and possibilities for–digital long-form reading. When I say long-form reading I specifically mean books, or longer texts. Short-form reading (blog posts and magazine articles etc.) is undergoing its own revolution, with tools such as Reeder, Instapaper, Treesaver, Readability and Flipboard helping to transform the way this content is produced and consumed.

Long-form digital reading I believe faces a number of challenges. Leaving aside any copyright etc. issues and concentrating on the experience of reading itself I see these principally as device limitations and uncertain publishing ecosystems.

The current landscape

Digital long-form reading can currently be experienced in a number of ways. Brewster Kahle in his speech to the 2010 Books in Browsers conference summarised these as in-device, in-app and in-browser–terms which I will shamelessly borrow here.

In-device

Specialised ebook readers such as the Kindle allow readers to purchase titles from an online store and transfer them to their device via a network.

These kind of devices tend to use advanced text-rendering technology, such as the Kindle’s e-ink which makes them pretty much as easy to read as a printed book, although they are limited in terms of only being monochromatic and feature limited typographic and formatting choices. As a result they tend to be best for what Craig Mod calls “formless content”, i.e. text that can be consumed divorced from any particular requirements of layout, such as novels or common non-fiction works. They’re not so good at displaying content that depends on layout for its comprehension –e.g. works displaying complex data or with more advanced layout needs.

Smart phones such as the iPhone are similar to e-book readers in that they have limited screen real estate, although they may also be able to make use of the device’s OS to provide more layout options (changing orientations, more fonts, colour displays, embedded multimedia options etc.). Tablets such as the iPad provide increased screen space, although usually with less detailed screen resolutions.

In-app

Amazon offers Kindle as an app–for iOS, Android, Mac and PC. This allows readers to access their library of purchased and free items on a number of devices. Kindle app still provides limited formatting possibilities, and clearly cannot provide such an easy reading experience as the content is now divorced from the e-ink screen.

Other app-based publishers include Enhanced Editions which produces digital texts for iPhone only–in addition to the text of a work they also provide an audio soundtrack of the content read by the author and additional embedded video components.

In-browser

As soon as content moves to the browser it is free of the limitations of proprietary technologies and can be consumed with any device with a browser and network connection. Craig Mod has produced a layout framework for formatting long-form texts, Bibliotype and the Internet Archive’s Open Library is an impressive endeavour to provide access to digitised texts via the browser: readers can view texts online, “borrow” them from the library or where available, buy them from a supplier.

Open Library has a very usable interface and allows the reader to read page by page, skip ahead using a slider, view page thumbnails or search the text. The texts are scanned digital images so it is not possible to highlight, copy or paste content. However, they are of course perfect reproductions of printed works.

Challenges

Digital reading devices all have their own shortcomings. The Kindle and similar devices are bound by screen size and limited formatting possibilities, phones have an even more limited screen sizes and phones, tablets and laptop or desktop computers all use back-lit screens which, even with high resolutions, are tiring to read on for any length of time.

Devices other than dedicated e-book readers also run a multitude of other applications all vying for the user’s attention. It is difficult to concentrate on a text at the same time as being open to incoming phone calls, emails and Tweets.

Like others far wiser than me I’m sceptical about pushing content via native apps when the browser can provide much the same functionality and experience, with the added advantage that it is device-agnostic–as long as your device can run an up-to date browser and has connectivity.

Sellers and publishers might prefer the app environment as it allows them to sell content in a controlled and locked-down ecosystem. But what happens if you move away from a device-specific environment to another. For example you can’t view your ePub files on a Kindle or your Kindle files on iBooks. You can of course convert them if you wish using software such as Calibre, but even then it’s unlikely you’ll get a faithful copy of the original.

The way forward

Take a look at Amazon’s top ten selling books for the Kindle and you’ll see that they’re pretty much crime fiction and thrillers. Making predictions is a mug’s game but I’d be surprised if the mainstreaming of digital texts will herald a desire for the kind of hypertext fiction that late Twentieth century literary theorists got so excited about.

We’re still bound by the notion of the page with e-books. Open Library and iBooks use page turning interaction metaphors and Amazon recently announced it would be including page numbers for Kindle books. This is an indication of both the printed book’s place in culture and society and the fact as a technology it’s pretty much faultless.

So–I can’t see the form or content of digital texts departing radically from their printed counterparts at any time soon. The main reason electronic texts are becoming so popular is that they offer convenience above all else. They are easily purchased, transported and, in the case of more “disposable” texts don’t even clog up much-needed space on your bookshelves. Bad news for charity shops though.

I believe the way forward is to improve the e-book experience–from the ways electronic texts are designed and can be read to the ways they can be purchased or “borrowed”.

Design

Maybe unsurprisingly I do believe the browser is the way forward. Digitised images of texts are fine for older works or works where a copy of the physical presentation of the text is important but HTML makes more sense for new titles. Ever improving typographic possibilities in browsers and the wider adoption of HTML5 mean that in-browser books can provide a richer experience for the reader that could be achieved in-device or in-app.

The creation of new canons for e-book design will ultimately need to reflect what readers read (or what they’d like to read), how and when they read and the kind of devices they read on. Interfaces need to be “quiet” and cut down on clutter so as not to encourage the attention away from the text. The Kindle (device), iBooks, Open Library and Bibliotype are already doing this very well.

The design needs to be responsive to the device being used. Again Bibliotype shows a way that this can be done. Laptops and desktops might need special consideration–after all if I choose to maximise a reading window to reduce visual noise from other applications I still want to be able to read text that’s not huge or running on forever. Having said that, I don’t think laptops or desktops are ever going to be the best tool for long-form reading.

We need better displays too. The best e-book design in the world is still going to be difficult to read for any extended period of time on a back-lit screen. Whether the solution is a wider adoption of e-ink style technology (in colour) or some kind of ability to switch between types of screen display I don’t really know. However it is an issue. The best back-lit screen I currently use is my iPhone’s Retina display. Even with this incredibly detailed resolution and the ability to dim the screen in iBooks, it can’t compare to the Kindle in terms of easiness on the eye.

Distribution

As a reader I want to be able to easily purchase and view books without being locked in to any particular device’s or manufacturer’s platform or store. I want to own my e-books and be able to take my library with me should I change device or if support for older formats is discontinued.

Open Library has made some efforts to replicate “lending” of e-books but I’m not convinced that the one copy to one reader model is practical in the longer term, particularly as Open Library’s membership grows. What about lending on the basis of limiting the time e-books can be viewed or downloaded for, along the lines of the BBC iPlayer model?

Good news for trees?

E-books are not only here and being used, they’re becoming increasingly popular. What will this mean for print books? I’m convinced by Craig Mod’s view that “formless” content is best suited for the current breed of e-book readers and devices, whilst content which has more exacting layout and design needs is best handled by print media, and the iPad and similar devices.

However, we’re still at an early stage with e-books and it’s anyone’s guess what will happen in the coming years. Ultimately E-books need to be not just easy to buy but also to manage, archive, be viewable on any device, but above all, be readable.

Note: just as I was preparing to publish this I noticed a news story on the Guardian website: Kindle readers can now borrow ebooks from libraries (21 April 2011). This looks like promising news, although it currently only relates to the US.

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