Research Cycle

  Vol 8|No3|February |2012

Why Innovate?
The eBook is Suddenly a Game Changer

Sample from my first eBook created with iBook AuthorFrom Now On: Best of the Best, available in March of 2012

Sometimes folks are reluctant to change something "When it isn't broken." But that point of view would certainly block plenty of progress. The bicycle wasn't broken when they came up with the automobile, and it still isn't broken, but the car was greeted with great enthusiasm by my father's generation who grew up a bit frustrated with the limitations of bicycles and the horse and buggy.

It is time to ask how the printed book might be improved. For the past decade I have been skeptical about eBooks. They were convenient, but most of the time I found printed books superior. Along came the iPad and some new software from Apple, and I suddenly find eBooks superior for some purposes.

While this article looks at the ways that reading may change, it explores an even more intriguing question. If we love something like printed books like so many of us do, why invest any energy in change? What motivates skeptics to explore the possibilities, place skepticism to the side and ask what is possible? Why bother?

Why did someone invent the automobile? the airplane? but not a better mousetrap or door knob?

What instincts and drives provoke individuals to improve upon something as well loved as the printed book? Is it a thirst? a sense of wonder? Plain curiosity? Some kind of wanderlust? Greed?

Advocates of eBooks have been declaring the death of the printed book for a decade.

These pronouncements have been premature. It probably had something to do with the rather grim look of most eBooks in the early years. The screens were not quite up to the quality of paper books and the text flowed in a boring manner. The main advantage was the convenience of carrying many books without much weight and being able to download them without driving to the bookstore or the library.

Publishers of eBooks were usually traditional book publishers who looked for an easy way to move their books from a print format to an eBook format. Sadly, this approach led to books that were mostly words. They were all about flowing text. Words, words and more words. Almost no page design. Almost no graphics. In order to read across smart phones, Kindles, laptops, iPads, tablets and a host of other readers, the ePub software was all about flow. While it was great to read Moby Dick on your laptop, your smart phone and your tablet, the look of the page was routinely boring. This may be fine for fiction, but limiting for non fiction that would be enhanced by page design

On the left no Kindle as we taxi. My print book is still open. Finally 20 minutes later he can read again.

The man on the flight to Seattle opened up his Kindle when we first sat down and he was enjoying a novel, but soon they told everyone to turn off their electronic devices, so he had to turn off his Kindle while I continued reading my short stories by Alice Munro "Too Much Happiness." I kept thinking that my $25 paper book was superior in some respects as it was 20 minutes before he could continue his reading. Seemed like some strange tortoise and hare story.

In the past year, the airplane use of digital readers has increased dramatically. Perhaps a frequent flier is especially appreciative of light weight libraries. At any rate, there has been a visible and dramatic shift in behaviors.

The Pew Research Center has just issued a report indicating that “tablet and e-book reader ownership nearly doubled over the holiday gift-giving period” across the United States.  Between mid-December and early January, the number of adults with e-readers went from 10 percent to 19 percent. Tablet ownership grew from 10 percent to 19 percent as well. 
"The New Pew Data on E-Readers" January 23, 2012

Screens proliferate as e-readers increase and night flights are all aglow. Some of us with aging eyes find the screen of our tablet superior to a printed book in poor light conditions. A darkened airplane, a pub or a poorly lit hotel room all give the edge to the eBook. For many years folks have asked if you could imagine crawling into bed with a laptop. The answer was usually "No!" but an iPad is not so bad in bed.


The passenger on the left came prepared for his flight with a paper book, a magazine, an iPhone and an iPad (wedged comfortably in between book and magazine). Relying on eBooks on a plane means 20-30 minutes without reading at the beginning and end of each flight.

The passenger on the right seemed happy with his printed book throughout the entire three hour flight from Seattle to Chicago.

With the new IBook Author software, the writer and publisher can place images where they want them and make many artistic choices that will radically improve the appearance of the book.

Magazines like The New Yorker have understood for decades the value of page design and pages that are aesthetically pleasing. They were also quick to develop iPad versions of their magazines that were far superior to most eBooks. Finally we see this capability coming to any writer or publisher willing to sign a contract with Apple and iBook.



A Sudden Dramatic Change in Reading

Thanks to the new IBook Author software from Apple, the experience of reading these eBooks will be dramatically enhanced. Up to this point, the iBooks had an advantage over books read on the Kindle because the reader could select a name, a place, a painting or a movie and enjoy a search menu that would permit a search of the book, a search of Wikipedia or a Google search. This linking to outside resources radically improved the reading experience, especially for non-fiction, as I described in detail last month in my article, "eReading: How is reading changing
with the advent of eBooks?

Amazon and Kindle will have no choice but to match this searching capability in future products, and they will also be forced to match the book design software that Apple has introduced, as the old approach of dumping text indiscriminately onto pages without any page design and graphics will fail to satisfy a public raised on vivid imagery.

The book of the future will offer great images as well as links to resources, movies, music and a reading experience vastly different from that offered to readers in 1911.

iBook Author

Because of this software, the book producer suddenly has the capacity to enhance the free flowing text of yesterday, creating a learning experience that is enriched by graphics and other resources that make reading more pleasurable and comprehension deeper. The text dominated book of the past relied upon the reader's imagination to fill in the pictures and images. The author gave us clues to the visual world but if we wanted to see Baudelaire's face, it was a long walk to the encyclopedia or a drive to the library.

As mentioned earlier, this enhancement may prove more attractive and valuable when reading a non-fiction book about Americans in Paris in the 1850s than when reading a novel like Ondaatje's English Patient or Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, but one's appreciation of such novels would grow if one could supplement the authors' amazing descriptions with paintings and photographs of those locations under wartime conditions and before them.

While I found reading both of the above novels superior to any of the films made, the desert shots in the English Patient film were extraordinary and easily surpassed the capacity of my imagination to team with the author's words. In contrast, the several movies made of The Sun Also Rises were mostly disappointing visually. We have all had the experience of being disappointed by a movie's depiction of a character or an event.

See the trailer for the English Patient.

With the iBook links like the one above will be possible while reading the novel.

In the case of histories, textbooks, travel books, cookbooks and art collections, the iBook software will be a great advantage. Using the old ePub software, the publishers of David McCollough's The Greater Journey included the same images printed in the paper version, but failed to locate the images where they belonged in the text. The images were clustered together in several spots far removed from the paragraphs that referred to them. This age old print convention caused by printing costs was maintained, in part, because the ePub software could not anchor images where they belonged like most modern page design programs such as Adobe's InDesign. If you export a draft from InDesign to ePub, the results were hugely disappointing.

Why Innovate

As promised at the outset of this article, a major goal is to explore the issue of why some people might elect to fix the book (or any other thing) even when it is not broken.

Those publishers who simply moved their text over to ePub from their printed books were not innovating. They were going along with the fad — following suit. The innovators in this case were the software designers who were dissatisfied with ePub and wanted to offer readers books with great page design. Another group of innovators will be those who see the potential of this new software and push it past its announced limits. Introduced as software to make textbooks, iBook Author is capable of much more than that.

In addition to the benefits mentioned earlier for the readers, the eBook can cut costs drastically for both publisher and customer.

Start with an end to shipping costs! Until recently, one of my books cost $13.95 USD to ship to Australia, New Zealand and other nations. About a third of my sales originate in those two countries, so when the USPS raised the shipping rate to $17.95 in one swift move, I feared that my sales to both countries would plummet.

But the eBook means these same customers can now download a copy of my next book without any shipping costs — a truly green, energy saving step. In another step toward cost savings, when I send the eBook over to iBook, there are no printing costs, no inventory, and no storage fees. Likewise, when a customer buys the book, Apple gets a share of the proceeds but handles all the charges and order fulfillment. Eliminating these costs means I can probably charge $ 15 USD per book instead of $20. For the customer in the USA the cost drops from $25 to $15. For the customer in other countries, the cost drops from $37.95 to $15!

But why bother to do a eBook from scratch using the new software? Why not just export the files from InDesign and accept the shoddy appearance?

The answer is somewhat simple. It's a matter of pride to explore the frontier — but to do so without falling prey to the fashions and fads that often undermine quality. There is delight in fashioning pages that draw gasps of delight. After years of skepticism, there is joy in the eBook's coming of age.

Ten years ago I wrote with enthusiasm about the eBook's potential but I saw few products that genuinely explored the potential for a better kind of reading experience.

The New (Electronic) Book (2000)

But just you wait!
When they figure out how to charge credit cards without security problems and when some big players like GNN, AOL and Simon and Schuster put dollars behind quality eBook development, we are going to see some blockbuster productions. The early eBooks are generally poor distant cousins of hard copy books. The huge WWW burgeoning market for eBooks will only emerge when true eBooks arrive.

The day has finally come!



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