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Summary:

Before the iPad announcement pundits, including myself, were frothing at the mouth over what an Apple tablet device might mean for the e-book industry. There were strong expectations that the iPad would revolutionize e-books. A week after the announcement, I have to admit that my expectations […]

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Before the iPad announcement pundits, including myself, were frothing at the mouth over what an Apple tablet device might mean for the e-book industry. There were strong expectations that the iPad would revolutionize e-books. A week after the announcement, I have to admit that my expectations were not met.

It’s not that the iPad isn’t an e-book device, it is. Nor is it that it’s a particularly bad e-book device, everything from the new iBookstore to the book interface on the device look very nice and is probably superficially better than the other options out there. What it’s not, however, is revolutionary in the way that I hoped it would be.

It makes sense for Apple to get into the e-book game with the iPad, it’s an obvious use case for the device. But what I was hoping for from the iPad was a new format of e-books that would be a game-changer in how we consume text. The use of the EPUB format, however, shows that Apple is not yet ready to make that move. Although I applaud the use of an open standard like EPUB, the reality is that EPUB’s interactive features are very limited right now, basically limited to simple images and videos. I was hoping for more advanced features.

What kind of features? How about reading a fantasy novel and tapping a single button to pull up a map showing exactly where you are in that fantasy world. How about tapping on any name in a non-fiction novel and getting biographical information about that character? How about textbooks with graphs that can be enlarged and class networking features built-in? And these are just some suggestions from an unimaginative dolt.

Of course many of these possibilities exist via iPad applications. The New York Times presentation at the iPad keynote indicates some of the possibilities available for print publications. The only problem with that is that I don’t want a device with a hundred different applications, one for each book or magazine that I read. What I want is for Apple to do what it’s best at: creating a standard framework with consistent features and enough flexibility to allow developers to create a rich user experience.

Lacking such a new format the iPad may become the default book reading device for many people, but there’s no certainty that Apple’s new iBookstore will become the main point of purchase for those books. You can be certain that Amazon, Barnes & Noble and others will have e-book applications on the iPad from day one, and you can also be sure that they’ll be working aggressively to integrate as many of these interactive features into their e-books as possible. Perhaps Apple will address this in a student-focused event later this year? I certainly hope so.

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  1. You want biographical links in a “non-fiction novel”? What’s a “non-fiction novel”? Do you know what a “novel” is?

    1. John,

      My apologies, that is a bit of a misnomer. Non-Fiction books is what I meant.

    2. Yes, the non-fiction novel seems like a contradiction in terms, but is a valid genre. It’s non-fiction written using narrative techniques more like fiction. It was pioneered by Truman Capote w/ In Cold Blood. Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff are other examples.

    3. Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgård is finishing up his six volume novel these days. About his own life. A non-fiction novel if I ever saw one.

  2. I agree about the ePub format but for a different reason. The format is a “streamed” format designed for text only. You can add a few things into it as you mention (images, videos), but the author has no real control over the typography, the page layout, or the theme.

    An ePub book opened on the iPad might look great, but if it’s opened on the iPhone it will look completely different in terms of pagination and possibly even fonts. If it’s opened on a Windows Mobile device (shudder), or an Android device, it may be 10 point courier monospace if that’s all that’s available.

    Additionally, the user has the ultimate control over the layout, not the author. You might have spent a week testing fonts and margins and settled on 12 point Chicago on a 6×9 layout with headers and footers, but the user can squeeze their fingers together and make it 6 point text, change the font to comic sans and click a button to eliminate the headers.

    ePub is junk.

    1. Epub is streamed and suggested so that you can view on multiple devices and still be able to read it. The author doesn’t know the specs for the end device, so assuming he does is naive. The days of fixed design are over, and fluid layouts is what you have to design for. It’s not going to change, get used to it. There isn’t any way to get around this. If you think of one, then design it and licence it. You’ll make millions.

      1. There is a way to have absolute positioning, and thats made by Adobe back in 2000: SVG for scalable vector graphics.

        As a poet I will NOT accept that there is no format for poets (mathematicians and some programmers) who depend on absolute positioning for their production. Yes, EPUB is shit, and the EPUB commission is no more than sucking the industry’s thumb – that’s what they are, the industry backbone.

        SVG CAN be embedded in EPUB, it IS supported, but only a couple ebook reader devices support it. AND its no good in landscape mode.

        I am writing about it on my blog – trying to awaken the industry, and I am happy (or sad, as you look at it) that there in fact are people out here, who share my sentiment about EPUB.

        http://krabat.menneske.dk/kkblog/2011/02/02/absolute-positioning-asking-amazon-to-help-the-opposition-ie-the-whole-industry-and-poets-too/

    2. That’s what’s *good* about ePub. If there’s one thing that should be enormously clear from the Internet revolution, users want choice. Website authors used to try and control the font-size, font-faces, etc., on their sites and this led to a dark, dark age of awful, inaccessible content. As an author, you may think your font choices look beautiful, but the end-user may be crippled by your choices. What about older people with impaired eyesight? They might need unusually large fonts to comfortably read. In all things, it’s best to let the user decide their experience. Technologies that do that well are the one’s that succeed long term.

  3. Let’s just say the iPad had the eBook features you are looking for? Authors would then have to start reworking their content to accomidate these new features. For example, for the Geore RR Martin fans, he has 4 rather large books in his latest series, he would, in effect, have to retool all these tomes to support this new format, when we as his fans would prefer he spend his time finishing the 5th book in the series.

    Though your points are totally valid and yea, it’s going to be great when there is support for what you are talking about, I can’t put all the blame on Apple it’s also the content providers that have to sign on to the new format, and then create or rework their content.

    1. OTOH: That is exactly how the iPad can rescue the “publishing” industry! Rather than the author reworking the books, the publishing staff can do it. I can imagine new positions opening with new job titles. The publisher can earn his fee while making the e-book more valuable than the tree-book.

      I imagine that the textbook market will lead the way, in fact, I am betting on O’Reilly in particular.

  4. While I am 100% happy with the iPad as is, I was hopping and still hoping for something groundbreaking/innovative especially with textbooks (And cookbooks) as I am planning to buy the iPads for my kids. I am looking for something that will keep their interest high and be a great educational device at the same time.
    So yeah, I am with you on this one…

  5. You’re quite right, ePub is an anemic format for publishing books. Its only advantages that it’s open and non-proprietary. We can only hope that, by getting the ball rolling with a device that’s much more versatile than a Kindle, something better will come along, with Apple pushing the process along. That’d deal with one of things that’s holding ebooks back: something that would make it as good as or better than printed books. I can’t see that happening with Amazon with its proprietary (and woefully limited) Mobibook format and bent toward bullying.

    The iPad partially solves one problem that’s been haunting ebooks–a device that has advantages over iPhones and laptops. I like reading on my iPod touch, but it’s very restricted in what it can do. And I’d rather carry a heavy hardback about than fuss with a laptop or even a netbook for reading. The iPad should make reading an ebook fun and, because it does so much else, make the purchase price easier to justify. I can only hope that Apple adds bookmarks and user notes to iBooks, along with the printed equivalent of podcasting.

    The iBookstore, whatever form it takes, should help with another problem: an efficient means of distribution. About five years ago, I tested the ebook waters by releasing about 10 books in PDF via Ingram. For a while they sold modestly well, mostly via Amazon. But Amazon’s support for PDF titles was pitiful at best and ended entirely when they began publishing their own Mobibook titles and dropped all PDF titles from their store–essentially the same tactic they just tried with Macmillan but with a more lasting impact. I’d learned my lesson. Don’t trust Amazon as your primary distribution source. Apple should be more reliable.

  6. They’ll nail the ebook market with the iPad. It’ll just take one sweet app for it with a nice ‘swipe’ action to flick through the pages. I’m getting an iPad, and the ebook side of it is a massive reason why.

  7. MADtv: iPad Commercial Wednesday, February 3, 2010

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  9. Everything you describe is possible with epub. In the core of it is XHTML and CSS. And while standard recommends not execute embedded scripts it doesn’t prohibit doing so and even describes script and noscript elements in the spec. Also standard doesn’t prohibit using video or audio in books. Just requires a meaningful alternate representation in one of required formats.

    So basically epub file can be valid according to spec and can be displayed on older limited readers and still be a very interactive and reach both in terms of content and presentation.

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