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This week’s O’Reilly Tools of Change should have been called “O’Reilly’s E-reading Conference,” as nearly every square inch of exhibit space and every session dripped of e-books and e-readers. Not that I minded it. After years of watching journals adapt to e-reading patterns, it was striking to see how quickly advances are being made in the transition from print to e-reading of books in nearly all forms (including illustrated and children’s books).

Apple’s iAuthor and Amazon’s Kindle Format 8 (KF8), along with Inkling and a raft of other players, are all driving us very quickly to a point at which content migration and content creation for e-books and e-readers will become both easy and potentially primary. Add that to the rapid adoption of e-reading devices (iOS, Kindle, Nook, and others), and you have apparently unstoppable momentum.

The new tools are addressing some of the persnickety limitations we’ve all seen with e-readers and e-books in general — the inability to format pages beautifully, to include illustrations in a reliable manner, to manage fonts well, and so forth. Now, pop-up, scrolling, integrated, and fixed graphics are all options — but you need the right device. Fortunately, the right devices are here, and many of us have them or are contemplating getting them. The Kindle Fire and the iPad top the list, not necessarily in that order.

The biggest challenge in all this to me doesn’t emanate from the technology sector. The technologists are all over the problem, and they’re building great technology — hardware, OS, and software. The biggest challenge to me will be finding authors and editors capable of taking advantage of all these things in short order. The creative culture will take a while to fill the void being created by such rapid forward progress with devices and software.

One word used during the meeting that was new to me was “skeuomorph,” that tendency to view the future as a metaphor of the present. The concept of a “radio play” was a skeumorph for radio, a transitional concept tying a play to a new technology. You’d never anticipate the “American Top 40” from within the skeuomorph, but the skeuomorph keeps you moving along.

The term “e-book” may be a skeuomorph itself. After all, why would a device capable of connectivity, layered information, multimedia software traversals, and social networking remain a “book”? This sounds like 1990s futurism, but it’s also so close you can touch it now. Maybe those 1990s futurists will be vindicated. After all, the future was there. It just wasn’t uniformly distributed. Now, it’s much more uniformly distributed.

E-reading may ultimately own a completely different experiential realm, one that doesn’t supplant the book but is just different from the book. This is also part of the history of skeuomorphs — the springboard remains pretty much the same while the item launched morphs into something quite different.

Seeing the energy, listening to the customer data, and sensing the creative potential being created at the intersections of e-reading and e-experience — well, it made me want to go and find that new breed of author/creator/talent. I hope they’re out there — if not now, then soon.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


8 Thoughts on "The Approaching Golden Age of Long-form E-content — Coming Soon to a Reader Near You"

I would argue that the biggest issue in this area is a lack of standards and the continually increasing variety of devices. The eBook with movies and music and rotating pictures that I read on the iPad is a different beast from the grey on grey text-only eBook I read on the Kindle Touch. For an author or a publisher looking to fully exploit the new technologies, there’s a serious roadblock in having to develop different versions for different technologies and different file formats. How much can I spend to create an eBook that will only really work on one device?

Jakob Nielsen writes about how this same problem affects Apps in his latest column:
As the number of devices proliferates, as the number of operating systems grow, as those operating systems continue to fork, as the sizes and quality of the screens continue to multiply, we will eventually reach a point where app development becomes overwhelming–you’ll need to create hundreds of versions of your app, each specialized for some small offshoot device.

His solution is that the future lies in mobile websites: design 3 versions, one for big (iPad) screens, one for medium (Kindle Fire) screens and one for small (iPhone/Android Phone/Windows Phone) screens. They all have web browsers that follow standards and this is the closest we’ll get to “write once, run everywhere.”

For the eBook world, it makes one wonder whether the web-based Google Books sort of approach may win out in the end.

Also, on the subject of skeuomorphs, I wrote a bit about them last week, and linked to an article that I think is particularly informative, that skeuomorphs don’t make a new interface easier to use, they merely make the user think it’s easier to use:


To your point, I am hearing that Apple is testing some concepts for a smaller iPad (iPad Mini?) to compete with Kindle Fire. I think its going to get to the point where device specific native apps are going to get too burdensome from a software management standpoint. Not only are the screen sizes different on an ever-growing number of platforms and subplatforms, but new devices will start to differentiate themselves with hardware capabilities that will be leveraged in the SDK as well as potentially dramatic performance differences among competitors (even iPad 1 and 2 are dramatically different in terms of hardware performance)

We as content providers, that are forced to adopt as many of these device branches as possible is to abandon platform specific app development altogether and move toward standardized approaches (like HTML5). I contend that these approaches will be what drives mobile development going forward while the device companies battle out who ‘owns’ the standard (maybe akin to Beta vs. VHS… Bluray vs. HDDVD… etc)

I think there will need to be a situation where users can have a rich experience offline which the current web doesn’t really provide.

I think the word is ‘pernickety’. Scholars should get language right …

Being pernickety, can I please say that not all e-Books are created equal – that they can be really annoying. My library recently purchased an eBook on visualisation. Great content, but PAINFULLY slow to load and scroll through. Normally, with a book like this, I would flip through it to see what sections grabbed me and then focus on those. But this book was not available in print, so we bought the eBook. The format of this eBook did not allow a quick flick – nothing happened quickly – and I finally had to give up on it because its slowness and clunkiness made it fundamentally inaccessible. It was much worse than print because, tantalisingly, the content was there but it took forever to see it. Sad. Obviously standards are needed to ensure this does not happen often or people would be driven away. Also yesterday, I bought an eBook from the Kindle Store. It did not load properly and I was told to remove the item from my device – no instructions on how – or to de-register/re-register my Kindle to see if that fixed the problem. In the end, I returned the purchase and was credited, but I still don’t have the book and I’m nervous about trying again. I’ve never had Kindle problems before. I think eBooks can do things print can’t, but print also does great things – you can easily scan and skim and you get a physical object when you hand over your dosh – not always the case with eBooks! Obviously eBooks are the future – price alone will ensure that – but there are still a lot of bugs and too many formats and the use restrictions – you can’t lend them – are irritating.

Actually both are correct – persnickety, according to the OED, is a “N. Amer. colloq.” of pernickety, a word of Scottish origin, which the OED defines as “Of a person: exacting about details; particular, careful; punctilious; spec. putting excessive emphasis on trivial or minor details; fussy”. So we were both right. I am Australian, so we tend to go with the British form of words rather than American.

One lesson learned from the Gutenberg-e Project at Columbia in experimenting with new forms of the scholarly monograph was the need to create templates, so that not every new e-book project would require a de novo process of technological innovation and design. That project proved financially unsustainable in part because of this failure to standardize. It is one reason, for example, that many scholarly publishers have been using “model” book programs for a while.

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