It’s about time – the book publishing industry is finally going digital and the dream of carrying a library in our hands is becoming reality. Except, that there seems to be some compromises – dampening the experience of reading ebooks over dead tree books.
Don’t get me wrong; current designs already do much to make for a familiar experience. Many ebook readers, like Amazon’s Kindle, use e-ink – which allows for a display that looks like paper. Likewise, other devices, such as Apple’s iPhone and iPad, have page turning gestures and animations. Electronic reading devices also have features to improve the reading experience over dead-tree books. They allow one to change the font, text size, and even “paper” hue.
But other things are missing, unnecessarily so. Consider the different formats of the book Rework, which is geared towards tech-savvy folks likely to be ebook users. In the dead-tree version, it’s clear that a lot of effort went into the presentation. This “atmosphere” adds a lot to the experience of reading the book. And going from paper to electronic form takes away from the experience in significant ways.
For example, the dead tree version of the book is filled with many images that span to the edges of the page – as if they engulf the entire book. Contrast this to the electronic versions. Margins are added to the images. Maybe I’m nitpicking, but it does make a difference in the experience.
Speaking of margins, the paper version of Rework has very large margins and generous line-spacing. This was deliberate to give a relaxed, open feel (honestly, it’s something difficult to put into words). And there’s the font choice; again, more deliberate design. Text uses a serif font while headings use a sans-serif font.
There’s still more, the design choices in the headings next to the page numbers (although not visible in the images, the headings run on every other odd and even pages and have subtle differences in color tone). Even little things like custom chapter title artwork is lost in the electronic version (though this isn’t the case in all books).
Some of these deficiencies are tradeoffs in design choices. An e-ink display may simply be incapable of displaying images well. Or a display may not be large enough to present everything as intended. Conversely, allowing users to change fonts and sizing would conflict the with the presentation selected by the author.
Still, many of these issues can be overcome. In the case of webpages, devices such as the iPad and Android phones already reflow text to fit the screen when you zoom in, allowing the experience to remain mostly the same while providing larger, more readable text. There’s no reason why this can’t be applied to ebooks.
What really boggles me is that this ideal electronic presentation has already existed for years. Amazon.com’s “Look Inside” feature shows a limited set of pages presented exactly as it looks in the dead-tree version. Why does this not exist for e-readers? Devices like the iPad and PCs (running Kindle software) can easily make for a fantastic experience as intended by the authors.
I have a feeling that publishers have a role in stagnating the advancement of experience. I reply with a stern warning – they’re making the same mistake that the music industry made. They’re providing an inferior experience to the very people that support them. I love to read and I’m sure that the many others that do will resort to alternative methods, if need be, to assure a good experience. Pirated books already exist in pdf form. They maintain the presentation of physical books, yet are usable on devices like iPads, PCs, and app phones.
There is a huge opportunity here for publishers. They can engage their audience with the convenience of ebooks while offering a proper presentation as meant by the authors. After all, the experience truly does matter.
Special thanks to James for providing pics from the Kindle and iPhone