Where is the e in ebooks?

updated Sep 1, 2011
This is a long post, but with many goodies if you are into books:

  1. Basic e-features that enhance the reading experience
  2. How to expand the life span of books
  3. How to help the readers to drive your sales
  4. Powerful sorting and searching
  5. How to encourage book reading with tracking and reminders
  6. Five reasons why ebooks aren’t here yet – or are they?

Ebook lovers usually have these basic reasons for liking ebooks:

  1. You can bring your ebooks along easily on commutes and travels
  2. You save shelf space

They usually don’t mention the core of ebooks, that the they are digital and therefore have more functionalities than printed books. As I pointed out in my previous post, “Early ebooks and why they failed“, already at the beginning of ebooks 20 years ago the main selling point was the enhanced digital functionality. So why are ebooks today still not using much of all these digital features?

One main reason for this is fragmentation. There are numerous user interface designs and no common standard for how these e-features look or work. And conservative book publishers still don’t see the value of user communication, social media communities etc. So most ebooks are just converted print books with no e-functionalities.

What  e-features, you say?

Well, there are a number of smart e-features already in avying degrees in different ebook applications.
For example, see these exemplary video clip examples from the UK publisher Enhanced Editions (scroll down and watch the short videos of each feature).

These are basic functions that should be integrated in all kinds of ebooks:

    1. Notes, being able to write my own notes into the ebook and decide if I want to share them with others, see other’s public notes
    2. Highlighting text
    4. User-selectable fonts, font sizes, background colours (for example light text on dark background for reading in dark rooms)
    5. Online sharing: being able to easily recommend the book to my friends by email, Facebook, Twitter etc
    6. Rate the book online and read both professional and user reviews
    7. Copy quotes from the text
    8. Search for text in the book
    9. Multiple-device support: being able to read it on my laptop, mobile, tablet, and auto-sync where I am in the book
    10. Integrated audio book: Listen to a voice reading the book, for example when you are driving is a feature that is now becoming more common, supported for example in Apple’s iBooks and in applications like these:

A demo of the integrated audiobook function from Enhanced Editions of their ebook novel “The Death of Bunny Munro” as read by the author himself,  Nick Cave (highly recommended ebook!)

Then there is the whole spectrum of more advanced things that enhance certain types of ebook, blurring the distinctions between books, games, learning etc:

  1. Video inserted into the ebook, either illustrating the content or a short talk by the author.
  2. Animations that explain and visualize the content
  3. Interactivity such as game functions, move around in photo panoramas, play sound effects or music, quizzes etc.

But the above is just the first step, there are many more e’s that should be utilized now that we have the online possibilities to improve the reading experience and business of ebooks!

E as in Extended life time

One of the biggest problems in the printed book business is not discussed much, but it is solved by ebooks. Or it could be solved, with a bit of forward thinking!

It’s about shelf life, the short longevity of printed books.

All publications, including books, can be divided in two types

  1. Short life-span, needs to be updated often: non-fiction, user manuals, school books, most management books, travel guides etc
  2. Long life-span: Novels, cook books, some types of reference books etc

E as in Edition updates

Since it is so difficult and expensive to print a revised edition of a paper book and re-distribute it to the readers of the original version, this is never done.

In contrast to printed books, ebooks can easily be updated by the author. This is of course an enormous advantage for  books in the short life-span category described above. This both prolongs the shelf life and increase the value. You can charge more for a business ebook that comes with an offer that it will be updated for free to the buyer.

Also, this opens up a direct communication link with the readers, requiring them to register for the updates and also receiving information about the authors next title etc. So why is this business opportunity still not used?

But we need much smarter search and catalog systems for ebooks, as well as recommendation engines that work across all the publishers, small and big, globally.


E as in Enlighten your friends

Help the readers to drive your sales! Make it very easy to spread the word about an ebook they like. And make it equally easy to receive such a recommendation and act on it by buying the book directly, on the spot, even if you are on a bus.

More on this in my previous post Stories of spreading ebooks


E as in Evolution of storage order

Imagine that you have a number of book shelves in different rooms at home, but you could only put books from one specific publishing house in each book shelf. So to find a book you first have to know the name of the publisher, then in what room and book shelf the book is in. Not very reader-friendly, eh? Well that’s the way it is with ebooks now!

There are numerous methods for organizing the books in your physical book shelf, as described in this funny article in the Guardian, or with this innovative book shelf tree branch. In these book shelves you have a good overview of your books.

Compare this with your collection of ebooks: You cannot search for book titles, authors or content,  and you cannot sort them with tags for different categories.

Your ebook collection is just a database, sitting inside a powerful computer. So technically they should be possible to sort in any way you want!

With a physical book shelf you have to choose between sorting the books alphabetically, by the title or the autor, or sort them per category. With a data base you should be able to sort your books in all these ways and more!

Here are my current ebook apps in my iPad:

Some of these apps, like Kindle and iBooks,  contain multiple books of many kinds that I have purchased from these ebook stores. Others are independent publishers of niche types of ebooks or services for ebook lovers. And some are for individual ebooks. Can you tell the difference?

Looking at this collection of icons, how do I find a certain book that I have on my iPad? I can certainly not search for an author’s name or a specific word of phrase that I know is inside one of my ebooks, like I can in every other type of document I have on my computer.

So I want a view where I can see and search for all my ebooks, independent of its type or publisher.


E as in Enhanced tracking and reminders

I usually read several books simultaneously, and sometimes forget what book I was reading. With printed books it is somewhat easier: I see it lying on my bedside table. With ebooks, it is very easy to lose track of what books I have started reading. In my screen shot above from my iPad there is no way I can see what books I have started or finished reading.

So how about a clock-type little visual indicator on top of all book icons, showing how much I have read? It would also be nice to have automatic reminders: “Henrik, this is Sunday afternoon and you have 11 unread ebooks and 4 that you have started reading”.

And a function (like Runkeeper) where I can automatically post the reading status of my books in my Facebook and Twitter feeds.


Wired Magazine had an interesting article in June 2011: 5 Reasons Why E-Books Aren’t There Yet.  In the article, the author argues:
“There are some aspects to print book culture that e-books can’t replicate (at least not easily) — yet.”

I agree with some of these reasons, but find others can be fixed now or are already here:

1) An unfinished e-book isn’t a constant reminder to finish reading it.

I also have this problem. But as I say here, it is possible to create smart reminder systems and social media functions that inspire me to finish my books. I have not seen these functions anywhere yet, here is room for innovation!

2) You can’t keep your books all in one place

Yes, indeed, see above!

3) Notes in the margins help you think.

How come the author has missed that this feature has been in ereaders since 1992? Perhaps because it is sometimes not so easy to understand how to use it, we need more intuitive interface designs.

4) E-books are positioned as disposable, but aren’t priced that way.

I agree, but pricing is a complex issue that the market will fix eventually. Interesting that the author compares with library loans, but not with the emerging subscription models. More on this will follow in my upcoming post “Re-think the pricing of ebooks”

5) E-books can’t be used for interior design.

This is not a problem really, just old-fashioned thinking. Like “kerosene lamps are so beautiful that they will never disappear”. We will continue to buy beautiful coffee-table books to decorate our homes. The ebooks we will use to decorate our social media profiles.

This is post #3 in my series on the ebook market and development.

Published by

Henrik Ahlén

I am an advisor and project manager in online and mobile services, mainly in eHealth. I manage development projects from needs analysis and idea generation to service design. See my LinkedIn profile: http://www.linkedin.com/in/mrhenrikahlen

3 thoughts on “Where is the e in ebooks?”

  1. You really pointed at some possibilities for ebooks. Inspiring and interesting. I can’t wait for the future.

    Some comments:

    1. E-features…
    You mention very good should-have-features but are they needed in all ebooks? I fear that if we want too much from ebooks we have to wait for the most important step – the publishing of ebooks in a large scale. Do not give conservative publishers any excuse not to publish a printed book as ebook. A simple conversion from printed to digital is perhaps far from what an ebook can be but far better than not being published as an ebook at all. Today, I can wait a little for good functions if I at least get anything to put in my reader. And if I have no reader I want a reason to buy a reader – which I don’t have if there are too few ebooks to buy.

    Let us have a pocket version of ebooks that above all is easy to produce, easy to distribute, easy to get, easy to read.

    2. E as enhanced and editions…
    Good points!

    3. Enlighted
    Yes, readers will enlighten other readers but also enlighten the writer because we will see writers who let the readers be part of the creative process.

    4. Evolution of order…
    I also look forward to see evolution of order and sorting inside the ebooks. Examples:
    a) Going back in a story and remind myself about specifics in a story.
    b) Just follow one character in a story.
    c) Extended notes.

    5. Enhanced tracking…
    I like that. There’s a lot of possibilities here.

    6. Five reasons…
    4) I do not understand the pricing in Sweden, so I can’t wait to comment your next article.
    5) Agree.

  2. Many interesting thoughts and I think you have nailed down one reason for ebooks not yet making a splash in Sweden: how can I organize and make sure that I can find and read ebooks that I have purchased.

    Kindle has one advantage there, but I think that we should be able to come up with a user interface similar to our traditional bookshelf where you can find ALL titles that you own, regardless of format (app, epub, pdf etc).

    I also like the idea of expanding the ebook beyond words and illustration. Book videos could be one possibility.

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