“Ultimately, the success or failure of the eBook and eBook reader market is going to depend on establishing a standard format,” writes Tony Bradley at PCWorld. He’s right to the degree that, once a format is ready to make reading on a digital device better, it must become a standard to ensure that readers can access the file on any device and that publishing involves managing as few formats as possible. But there is an assumption in the article that there is a viable format exists on which everyone should agree. We are very far from agreeing what an e-book is, except that, as a subset of that definition, it will display words on a page.
A first-generation standard will scratch only the surface of the problem, addressing the problem of getting words on the digital page. The industry and, more importantly, readers, need more:
- An open annotation system, but one that respects personal privacy by keeping notes meant only for the book’s reader (and, by extension, anyone with their password, their heirs) separate from public notes and conversation embedded in/around a book title.
- A privacy regime enforced at the document level, preventing tracking of personal reading.
- A page-independent reflowing capability, so that ridiculous ideas, such as “books for the Kindle DX,” become the fossils they deserves to be. A book should never be dedicated to a device, though there are some bizarre collectibility plays that might go that way.
- A page-independent citation system so that kids can use an e-book citation in their homework as easily as a scholar.
- And more…. Such as the whole question of how to integrate networking into documents.
The challenge of establishing that first standard, which lets e-books be read on any device, including PCs and smartphones, will be choosing technology that doesn’t shut the door to these additional standard requirements of a book while preserving forward-compatibility.
UPDATE: As I was arguing the other day and in the previous posting, the conform-to-compete trend in e-books is indicative of a wave of destruction. Mike Cane argues an e-book bubble is already well underway and I would not disagree with him, except to point out it is a very small bubble, though one that could unfortunately hobble the market for another half decade if it pops just now. Having published an e-book in 1993, when these things were going to be big, big, big! I have no illusions about how small a market can be. Cane, however, uses his argument to conclude that components of current technology, such as E-Ink, will inevitably fail. He argues this for all the right reasons that e-books don’t do anything spectacularly different than books and often represent less-than-a-book—he’s right that it is a race to the bottom based on price. The individual components could succeed or fail, perhaps not even within the e-book industry.
TeleRead points to a new white paper, “Streamlining Book Metadata Workflow,” from the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which discusses how to make the collection, curation and dissemination of book metadata more efficient. Its an interesting paper, but one that demonstrates a glaring problem with most of the technical discussions surrounding e-books: Readers are not described as “stakeholders” in the metadata process, even though “enabl[ing] readers to identify and acquire books online” is the focus of the paper.
Readers will be the creators of the most important metadata describing books. Period, there is no second-guessing that conclusion, which has been proved again and again in every hypertext environment in human history. Defining the problem of book metadata without treating the reader as the fulcrum of the process is missing the point, which is a common problem in technical discussions of semantic and intellectual work. The problem of coding and building a system is daunting, but made much easier by assuming the final user of the technology will be passive consumers.
The paper is interesting as a discussion of the various existing bibliographical metadata systems used to move books around and inventory them within bookstores and libraries. It is even useful within the publishing and distribution value chain. However, it misses the mark in the most fundamental way possible, by defining the reader out of the metadata workflow.
Follow the Reader has a great series (Part I and Part II) going on sites and services that create communities around books, such as BookGlutton and FlashLight Worthy Books. Discussion, rather than community, is the basic unit of connection, in my opinion. Community evolves from simple functions, such as chat and annotation. The explorations going on now will be immensely helpful to turning the e-book from a replication of the printed page to a vital medium for human intellect, entertainment and interaction.
I’m looking forward to seeing future installments. Well worth your reading time.
Andrew Savikas of O’Reilly’s Tools of Change for Publishing has a very interesting post about the feedback he’s getting from Scribd.com, including email every time a copy of one of his books is sold. This kind of give-and-take allows a very high degree of engagement by the publisher or self-publisher with their audience, something that most booksellers do not think of, let alone build into their sites.
To some degree, bookseller sites need to approach the level of interaction between publishers and bookbuyers that people are increasingly used to in sites like Facebook or Twitter. Reading, however, is deeply associated with privacy, for psychological and political reasons. Auto-subscribing a customer to an author may be too presumptuous but it may be perfectly acceptable for an author or publisher to be auto-subscribed to a reader’s feed, if the reader chooses to disclose it. Then, of course, the challenge is how to use all that information and connectivity to do something meaningful.
Savikas mentions the Digital Sales Report Format, an XML standard for delivering book sales information and David Marlin of MetaComet, who contributed to the standard chimes in to say that it will be the focus on more adoption in coming years. It’s a solid foundation for transparency in bookkeeping, though not a social engagement platform in any sense.
Ultimately, that engagement will take place through the book. It requires more than shared annotations, since some notes and reading need to be kept to the reader, but still be shareable in appropriate situations. Privacy, not total transparency, contributes to thoughtful reading.
I’m pleased to see people talking about the pressing need for shared annotation standards in e-books. This is the keystone of a new reading experience and new models for compensation of authors, publishers and, even, critics of books. I wrote at length about this on ZD before launching this blog. The question I think remains unasked is how do we control access to our annotations? We don’t necessarily want to share all our notes about a book. In fact, we want to be selective when shaping a response to the ideas we read. The solution is more than annotation, but access control (not DRM, but using the same kinds of cryptographic technologies that make DRM work, albeit badly). Here’s what I had to say: Books Entering the Age of Glosses.