Why Ebooks? Why Not Browsers/Feed Readers?

(first published on teleread ).

Bar Camp TexasI’m preparing a little talk at BarCamp Texas about e-books and their impact on publishing. I’m going to talk about workflows, commercial possibilities and marketing strategies.

However, the question always arises: why e-books? Why not RSS Readers or Avantgo or surfing content via wifi? This is an obvious question, and I’ve heard answers on teleread and other places, but I’d like to hear what people think at this point of time. What distinguishes the ebook experience from (let’s say) the PDA web surfing experience?

Here are some rough notes I’m compiling. Feel free to add your thoughts (and relevant links).

Ebook Advantages

Offline Reading. Is this really an issue? My city of Houston is planning an ambitious plan to extend municipal wi-fi to most of the city. It’s conceivable that I’ll never be stranded again.

But e-books reduce performance and network congestion issues. And there will always be places with lots of interference or no telephone polls. No one likes to think that sites get hacked or URL’s go dead or websites become slashdotted or websites stop paying their webhosting bills or get sued. Maybe a page you’re downloading has 600 comments attached to it as a result of a security hole in the web application. Does the reader really want to download all that?

These things happen, and it reminds us that relying on net access to obtain content creates a series of external dependencies beyond a reader’s control.

Easier Asset Management. Even if you could slurp up a website’s content, chances are there’s multiple web pages and various graphics (which may not be optimized for portable reading devices). An e-book is one binary file. That’s it.

Better Battery Life . My ebookwise lasted for a good 10 hours, and recharged in no time at all. I’ve been told that the Sony Reader and other e-ink devices can also run for comparable periods. Laptops require almost constant recharging and can become quite warm on the lap. Unlike laptops, single purpose devices like ebook readers don’t require powerful processing power or energy, making them more practical for everyday use and longer reading periods.

Better Indices and Table of Contents. Books and e-books start with an organized sitemap (to use webspeak) which serves as a starting point for navigation. This is where e-books differ from p-books. In many p-books you start at the TOC and never return to it again. Browser/Avantgo/RSS Readers are mainly organized by chronology, which often obscures valuable posts from the reader. Providing site organization is beyond an RSS reader’s intended purpose. However, blogs can incorporate some basic TOC structure on the main page. Just not easily. (For an example, see how to do it on blogger.com ). How do you search a website? Often you use the site’s search engine (which inevitably is run by google and may include sections of the website not relevant to you).

Digital Rights Management (DRM)/Security. Ok, let’s forget for a moment the dangers/irritations of DRM. This is one feature you’re probably not going to encounter on slurped webpages or RSS feeds (not yet anyway). If implemented well and fairly, the prospect of actually making money could trigger more people to create content for it. An ebook is something you expect to pay for. A web novel is something you expect for free.

Easier Conversions with Source Material. Ok, a plucker e-book you created by hand may work for your current generation of readers. But what happens in 10 years when the reader software is no longer supported? Converting from one binary file to another is not a trivial task. But if the content owner/publisher has everything in TEI-Lite or Docbook source(for example), it’s much easier to convert to later binary formats that emerge. Normally the user doesn’t touch this source material. However, keeping content in a “raw” format reduces the necessity of having to “reheat” content that has already been “cooked.”

Ebooks keep you focused (or trapped).
There I said it. When we surf blogs, we frequently follow links without ever returning to the original page. That’s the nature of websurfing. But an e-book brings focus to the reading experience. You read this, and then you read that. You are not distracted by hundreds of links which may be interesting (though not crucial to the overall reading experience). Samuel Johnson wrote that “Nothing concentrates the mind of a man more than the knowledge he will be executed in the morning.” Or an e-book without the usual pointless distractions.

(Focus is important for certain kinds of content: fiction, poetry, tutorials, study guides, self-improvement, history, spirituality/philosophy and to some extent social sciences).

The possibility of a uniform reading/multimedia experience.
Macromedia recognized early on that, despite its proprietary nature, the flash player allowed content creators to create for a single platform. With websurfing, you deal with different browsers, different resolutions, different character encoding. On e-book software, you have a greater deal of certainty that if something works on Adobe Acrobat (for example), it’s going to work regardless of OS or hardware. (Support for advanced multimedia features is another story). The cumbersome thing about websurfing is dealing with security problems/plug-ins/bad design and features which don’t work in portable devices.

Vertical orientation rather than horizontal orientation. This is a more familiar experience to readers and prevents too much side-to-side head motion.

Advantages of the Browser/feed reader

A familiar interface. Browser Behavior is similar across platforms. On the other hand, many features are just not relevant to portable devices. Stylesheets for many websites were not designed with portable readers in mind.

No special tools needed. Because weblogs are built upon RSS, almost anything can be sucked into the user’s PDA. There is no need for special conversion/file generation tools for reading. (This comes at the expense of performance).

Seamless integration of content with other web content. If your content references something on the WWW, gosh darn it, someone can get there with a click of a button. And that’s good.

Access to HTML source. Browsers let users download the HTML and images. This could be useful for users wanting to create derivative works or trying to copy/imitate a certain effect.

(Possibly) better/more metadata. HTML source often contain information about licensing, DC metadata and the source of the webpage.

Ability to print/Copy/Paste What kinds of excerpts would a person normally like to copy or paste? Recipes, instructional manuals, code samples, diagrams. With normal books, you could always make xeroxes if necessary to share with friends. How do you deal with fair use in ebook readers? Because of DRM, this feature will be difficult to implement in ebooks securely and easily. At least with reading in the browser (either as an HTML page or a flash viewer), you always have the option to do a Print Screen. This problem could be solved by allowing users of a Sony Reader limiting ability to print from viewer software on their PC. On the other hand, considering the power of today’s OCRs, there’s always going to be the issue of allowing print capability while crippling clipboard/screenshot grabbing for OCR.

Excellent editors/creation tools. By now users are familiar with web forms and clipboards and hyperlinks. Many blogging tools make writing just a matter of writing stuff and pressing the Submit button. Once the template is made, the user rarely needs to mess with code or do special things to individual pages. (Here’s a list of some desktop blog editors by Larry Hendrick). E=book creation tools are still a little geeky and require a knowledge of styles, whether they be in Open Office or Docbook/CSS. It’s quite possible that web forms may provide clean and more ontologically descriptive output code than a lone desktop app or a company CMS (often at a fraction of the price).

Access to comments. Aside from dotreader , web surfing (but not RSS readers) let you view comments. Actually, that may not always be a good thing given the huge amount of spam out there today. Downloading 5 comments is fine; downloading 1000+ is not. I suspect dotreader gives granular control over the visibility of annotations.

Version Control/Access to “Latest Version.” Actually because ebooks are only a single file, it is easier to manage versions (both from the standpoint of author as well as reader). On the other hand, you have no guarantee that ebook you are reading is in fact the canonical version. People can and do revise webpages continuously. (In fact, I am typing this paragraph a full week after I first posted the article!) If you are connecting to a network to read a page or website, you don’t have to worry about finding the latest version; you can feel reasonably certain the version you are reading is the latest and greatest. For writers, that means you can release content more quickly (knowing full well that you may be making substantial revisions over time). Web novels are constantly evolving, while ebook editions become fossilized the moment they are available.

So what else distinguishes the two types of reading experiences? Which differences are likely to become more significant over time?

Robert Nagle (aka idiotprogrammer) writes fiction under various pseudonyms. He lives in Houston.