eBooks – remediation or a new fronteir?

A few years back I interviewed at Penguin for a position in their very small ebook division. They were looking into designing a deluxe ebook that could be rolled out like a high-end edition. At that point, eBooks were in common usage with multiple devices designed specifically for eBooks as well as software applications for laptops and tablets. The design question wasn’t, “what should an eBook look like?” but, “how do we expand the book?” Though I didn’t get the job, it’s still something I think about as the years go by and the deluxe ebook fails to materialize outside of a handful of Amazon search results. What are the challenges and what ways of thinking about eBooks might be worth exploring?

Andrew Piper argues in, Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times, that there is a different embodied experience to reading online or even on an eReader when compared to the codex book. There is a weight, heft, smell and texture to physical books as well as the slow repetition which comes with turning pages.  Piper links the pleasures of reading to the feeling of holding, hypothesizing that holding a book gives readers the sense that all human knowledge is in their literal grasp. He further extrapolates that into humanity’s love of miniaturization: the process of making something huge approachable. Somehow, in all this talk about miniaturization, Piper misses the point that this is also happening with digital computational devices.

Piper’s thesis is that the pleasures of books can not be found in their digital representation, a bias he arrives at despite outlining affordances that, for the most part, are not confined to the codex book. In creating eBooks, designers paid close attention to simulating and expanding the affordances of books. We could take, for example, Piper’s beloved page. In an eBook, text is presented only to the extent that it fits on the screen without scrolling. This presentation subdivides the text into approachable and discrete units to replicate the feeling of pages. If I am reading a book on an eReader, which has a mid-sized screen, the text fills the digital display and provides margins. When I read the same book on my phone, the text still only fills the screen,  I simply see fewer words and have more “pages” to move through via a simulated “flip” that comes from touching the edge of the screen. Additionally the text is shown on a simple uncluttered display so as not to distract from process of reading. One affordance of books, the ability to look quickly and see how much content a reader has left, is not possible on the flat screen which can only display part of the text at any time (in a readable format). As quantified data, the text of the eBook only displays the amount of text that fulfills human design principles (like scale). This contrasts with the codex book’s continuous form. To make up for this lack, a new affordance in the form of a sliding gauge, not unlike what appears when playing a video fie or listening to an audio file, can be called up to visually represent the reader’s progress. (Interestingly, in older formats of sound and video there was no easy way to check your progress, but this is an expected affordance – and therefore constraint – of the digital format).

Figure 1: Screen Shot of an eBook displayed on an iPhone using the Nook application

The digital format also provides brand new affordances. The codex book had discreet units  in the form of pages and words and chapters as well as a table of contents and potentially an index to assist in navigation. However, strings of words were not searchable as they are in the digital format. Additionally, notes can also be added or interesting passages marked, using a layering technique, so that the underlying form is not permanently altered as it would in it’s analog form.

Other affordances and constraints of eBooks come from their mediation. Ebooks are read on tablets, phones, and computers – our metamediums – the book itself is a combination of display software (Nook, Kindle, ect.) and digitized text which has been grouped to be displayed in a certain order and in a certain style. The text of the book is obtained (legally) by sending a request on the metamedium to a book distribution company who sends the digitized packets of data back to the device to be displayed on a pixelated screen. If the user has the display software on multiple devices, the book can be read on these different devices. A device can also access any of the books available to the reader. However, digital rights management software, often included in eBooks, as well as proprietary display software that is designed to only display books from proprietary formats, makes the legal sharing of eBooks extremely difficult. These constraints however, are not native to the digital format but are instead the result of corporate practices and legislation.

This brings me back to my question, what would a Deluxe eBook look like? What other affordances might be unlocked due to the eBooks digital format and the ability of the metamediums to simulate other media. In my search for Deluxe eBooks, I saw found two, one for a Ken Burns eBook and one for Dolly Parton that seemed like easy cases for creating mixed media projects. Both artists work in non-text media, so the addition of video and audio content to the ebook, easily done with a metamedium that can support different data formats, makes sense. Mixed media projects like picture books could also benefit from the use of animation in addition to text. However, in long form fiction and non-fiction books, other media formats might be considered distracting to the pleasures of reading. If you were reading a book and suddenly animations began to move on the page it might pull you out of the moment. Outside of mixed media, what could be offered that might enhance the cognitive work being done while reading?

Figure 2: Screenshot of the Google results of “Deluxe eBook edition)

One idea would be hypertext and the ability to link to rich sources of information if the reader was inclined. If a recipe was mentioned, linked text could bring the reader to that information, which while not necessary to the story, might be of interest. Playlists and other tie in media could be available to turn on or off. These versions of Deluxe eBooks would not be dissimilar to new editions which include additional prefaces or introductions which provide additional context. More expansive changes to eBooks, however, could be possible through modifications to the book display software.

Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg’s describe a metamedium as “a machine … designed in a way that any owner could mold and channel its power to his own needs,” (Kay and Goldberg 1977). Display software is designed in a way that limits readers power to manipulate the text of the books they read, rather than allowing the reader to take advantage of the affordance of the metamedium. While readers can layer comments over the text, they do not have a way to share these comments with other readers on the platform. Text can be copied, but it cannot be cut or edited to create personalized versions of the story/narrative. Pictures and art that the reader has created or thinks are relevant, can not be inserted. There are a myriad of ways the needs of the reader could be channeled into a more interactive relationship with their books, behaviors that are demonstrated in many fan cultures. There is wealth of possibility if books are understood not as totalized objects, like the codex book, but as digitally fluid. As Manovich describes in his principle of variability, “a new media is not something fixed once and for all, but something that can exist in different, potentially infinite versions” (Manovich 2002). 

Works Cited

Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg, “Personal Dynamic Media,” First published 1977. As reprinted in The New Media Reader, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, 93–108. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003.

Andrew Piper, 2013. Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times, Chicago; London;: University of Chicago Press.

Lev Manovich, 2002. The Language of New Media, 1st MIT Press pbk. ed. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.