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Moving away from the "stupid" e-book: An opinionated survey of our options

Earlier this year, Hachette CEO Arnaud Nourry’s remarked that the ebook was a stupid product, since "it is exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic. There is no creativity, no enhancement, no real digital experience." While shocking in its honesty, it also prompts the obvious question: what would a non-stupid ebook look like?

When contemplating how technology can alter the future, there are two risks to look out for. The first is the false positive, where we fantasize recklessly about tech which actually isn’t the revolutionary game-changer it is imagined to be. The second is the false negative, where we are insufficiently sensitive to the potential of something before us. And that’s not even taking seriously the role of sheer luck in making or breaking a product. Still, speculate we must, and so we might as well do it with full self-awareness about the risks undertaken. So what could the next wave of ebooks consist in?

Custom Books

One obvious-seeming answer is to point to personalization. While we might even one day have tech capabilities for this, I’m still quite skeptical about how popular this would be.

For one, we already have some idea of what personalization could look like. Companies already provide services where they insert names into fixed slots in books, allowing you, or anyone you choose, to be the protagonist of the story. An intriguing idea, but also one that strikes me as a gimmick which anyone would tire of fast. Admittedly there’s some more space for children’s books to innovate in this regard, for example how “Put me in the story” incorporates photos of kids in the books they read, but again I’m not sure if the trend can outlast the novelty factor.

Interactive books which draw from video games, where the reader has to choose how the plot proceeds and what the character should do, will also be possible. But we already have video games, and plus if I wanted to “do things”, I would just go outside. Unless books can somehow deliver on adventure that the cutting edge video gaming industry cannot, this sort of personalization will be unlikely to gain much purchase in the market either.

Perhaps the most radical possibility is that of books custom written for an individual based on interests and favorite genres. With the wealth of information about ourselves we store online, anyone brave enough to give access to a publisher might be able to get a book version specifically written for them! I can conceive of this taking off, but even here I suspect all might not be well. A large part of the book reading experience apart from the actual reading consists in listening to others talk about it, talking about it online and in person with friends, reviewing it and reading the reviews of others, and above all arguing over minute details with others who love/hate it just as passionately. In other words, there are social aspects and rituals predicated on all of us reading the same book, which would be lost if all of us were reading different versions. So even if this kind of personalization were possible, our shared culture of reading might have to change considerably, and not necessarily in a positive way.

Interactive Books

A far more promising approach is the incorporation of multi-media in books, that can include audio, video, gifs, maps, AR, and VR. The application in travel guides and books on far away places is obvious, and I can’t wait to use books that let me access how various locations actually look before booking a vacation, or perhaps even more importantly, to give a sense of distant places to those who aren’t able to make it there just yet. And children, who’ve shown themselves quite susceptible to the charms of youtube, will probably be delighted at having their dull school exercise books being guided by Dora the explorer (or someone else less likely to violate copyright).

An unexplored avenue for multimedia is how other genres might find surprising potential. In high fantasy, for example, it is common for maps to be provided at the beginning of the book, and have characters traverse it during the story. To be able to explore these maps immersively while reading, to get a sense of how the journey proceeds, could enhance the experience significantly (and I might have spent far less time flipping back and squinting at Tolkien maps as a teenager).

The desire for a multi-media experience isn’t restricted to children, of course. When the distinguished philosopher G. A. Cohen delivered his Valedictory Lecture at the age of 67, he sent his colleagues a CD recording along with the text of the lecture itself, with a note saying, “please don’t read the text except when listening to the CD, because the text is much less funny unspoken.” And who knows what other applications might be found?

As promising as these enhancements are, some caution is in order. Ever since Our Choice, Al Gore’s “first feature-length interactive book” from 2001, there have been predictions about the rise of the interactive book, and these have failed to materialize. What this shows us, I think, is that while there is definitely space for enhancing the reading experience, I don’t think readers necessarily want the core experience itself transformed. As fun as map immersion would be, when it comes to the reading itself I still want uninterrupted text, with the enhancements brought up only when desired, and typically desired rarely. For all the talk about change, I can’t really imagine giving up the experience of sustained reading itself.

The fully interactive text then looks like a false positive, something that seems like an obvious game changer, which instead fizzled out. The ability to rotate a windmill in Our Choice by just blowing on the screen, while a cool party trick, has very little use for readers. And having videos disrupt reading is distracting, especially after the novelty wears off.

But what I wouldn’t dream of suggesting is that the eBook, as it is, is the insurmountable pinnacle of innovation. Nourry is right, the current ebook really is stupid! But at least part of the reason for this languishing is that we’ve been a little too taken with tech capabilities instead of asking whether readers would actually find their experience made better over the long-term. What publishing needs is a tech philosophy which doesn’t allow current reader preferences limit change, but also one which pays attention to where readers actually are with regard to their habits and needs. Luckily, the now burgeoning industry of publishing-specific tech might mean we could have a truly smart eBook sooner than anyone might suspect.

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