The Reading World

Gathering knowledge: Esoteric e-book formatting thought problems apropos of something

Last week’s announcement that the IDPF (International Digital Publishing Forum) has opened its ePub maintenance process is tremendously important to the future of books and publishing, regardless of whether you believe books, the artifact made with ink and paper, or publishing, the process of assembling, producing and distributing books for a profit, have bright futures or are destined for the trash heap. Everyone concerned about books and e-books should be paying close attention to the evolution of ePub, because it represents the current best effort at an open standard for the display of text and other information across a variety of e-reader devices.

I’ve spent the past few days studying the existing ePub components to prepare some suggestions for the IDPF. ePub is made up of three components, the Open Publication Structure 2.0, Open Packaging Format 2.0, and Open Container Format 1.0, and is deeply related to related metadata and publishing standards initiatives such as the Dublin Core Metadata Element Set 1.1 and DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) Consortium standards. The result is a series of postings to follow which will offer thought problems that explore the nature of thought, reading, authoring, references, citation and conversation.

Making books useful and accessible to all, including the visual and hearing disabled, is a complex technical undertaking. The ePub and related standards efforts are predicated on the existence of texts which must be delivered to readers, which is precisely the problem one would address if distribution were still the key challenge. Unfortunately, distribution is the easy part of publishing today. In the networked world, ideas arrive in bits and pieces instead of whole units between the covers of a book or in an article from the newspaper. Words are quoted or paraphrased and the enterprising reader can explore the sources to discover what credit to give the fragments of knowledge they find assembled by writers, bloggers, news aggregators and in short messages. Therefore, citable information and the ability to assess ideas in relation to events and previous expressed ideas—in short, whether a newly published adds to or merely repeats previously expressed ideas—are the new hallmarks of value.

In the print era, when moving books, magazines and newspapers around in a timely fashion created value, the reader couldn’t participate, unless

Book and Reading News

A “standard” assumes the features are already set

“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.

The Reading World

Shared annotations in e-books debate heats up

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.