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

The Reading World

A bizarre obsession with “turning pages”

One of the strangest design caveats in e-books and online publishing is the need to reproduce the experience of turning a page as one would with paper. The fixation on creating the simulacrum of a paper page has held sway since the earliest days of electronic reading. E-magazine platform Zinio, for example, made the page-turning features in its reader the hallmark of its claim to reproduce the experience of reading a paper magazine.

Now, TechCrunch reports that Google will introduce “Flipper,” a page-turning feature, for Google News as a way of improving the user experience.

It all reminds me of the 50-year period following Gutenburg when, because printers had no better idea how to make a book, they simply imitated the designs of scribal manuscripts. Aldus Manutius had to come along and shake things up to kick-start the real evolution of reading and authorship, since most of the aping of scribal books led to folio-sized, un-attributed (except for mostly dead authors, who sometimes were deemed to have earned their billing) copies of a small set of acceptable books and lots of copies of The Bible and prayer books.

We may return to the scrolling page, which most of our ancestors found more pleasing than the codex-style page until the Dark Ages. We may not, choosing varying modes of access to text, and the “page-turn” may be an essential feature people can choose to turn off in favor of scrolling or something else. But the digital turning of pages isn’t an innovation, just imitation of a physical quality of printed works, without a solid design rationale, unless breeding familiarity is really the only challenge. It isn’t.

The Reading World

Circa 1994: Electronic Books—Eight Years and Going Strong?

This is a sidebar I published in Digital Media: A Seybold Report in August 1994 about where the electronic publishing market had come in its short life and where it might be going. You’ll see we’ve come a long way and, in many ways, hardly progressed at all since the mid-Nineties. — M.R.

More than six million “copies” of Franklin Electronic Publishers Inc.’s electronic books have move through the consumer channels. Franklin issued its first title, a dictionary, as an embedded document in a small inexpensive handheld  device in 1986. Franklin’s books have never come in the prettiest covers, they are made to fit a niche at the lowest possible price.

“If you look at what has transpired ofer the last three years,” same Michael Strange, executive vice president of Franklin, “we were the only company that focused on the content, not the technology.” Indeed, Franklin has positioned itself as a publisher rather than a computer company. Despite the fact that it has introduced several significant storage capabilities to the mass market, Franklin has found it’s better to talk about what in its high-capacity memory modules—from Bibles to extensive dictionaries of foreign phrases—than the modules themselves.

The company’s handhelds have followed a pedestrian design philosophy that combines a keyboard with a low-resolution one-, three- and 10-line LCD screen that displays only text. In the past couple of years, Franklin has added audio and communications capabilities to its devices. For example, it’s now possible to download data from a PC to a Franklin electronic book device or make a Franklin dictionary speak in Stephen Hawking’s digital voice.

More than 50 Franklin titles are available today. The company’s content includes several versions of The Bible, the Concise Columbia Dictionary, a series of “Language Master” translators, and, a complete statistical record of Major League Baseball pitching and hitting. Prices range from about $40 for spelling assistants to $350 for translators with speech synthesis features.

A hit title generates sales of 100,000 to several hundred thousand units, according to Strange. “We are truly following more of a paradigm of a publisher with a back list and a main list,” he said. This allows Franklin to sustain less popular titles, which sell between 40,000 and 60,000 copies.

By and large, Franklin’s success was built on two markets: Business and