Digital Books: the problem of a bad inheritance

Posted on April 29th, by Liam in AppBooks, Blog, iPad. Comments Off on Digital Books: the problem of a bad inheritance

Something has been bugging me lately. It seems that in our enthusiasm for digital books we have forgotten that actually reading them is important. Even Apple seem to have forgotten this when they made iBooks for the iPad.

I was disappointed to find that iBooks only give us a choice of 5 fonts, despite presenting books in a way that can only be for reading.

Digital books are failing us. Why? Because they are inheriting their style and presentation from websites.

When I was on dial up and it took a long time to load a single page of a website, I preferred that the images were heavily compressed and didn’t care what font the text was in, just that I could read it right away. But now that I have 3G and spend hours on the internet each day, I am much more demanding. I want the images to be clean, the page to be well laid out, the text easy to read. I want even more from a digital book that resides on my iPhone or iPad.

While it’s nice to look at the pictures, if it’s a ‘reading book’ most of my time is spent looking at the text. But it is so easy for app developers to spend too much time on customising their UI and not enough time on choosing their fonts, tweaking their css, or thinking about the reader.

We can’t get away with this for much longer.

As readers get more familiar with and accepting of digital devices and reading books on them, they will become more demanding. I’m one of those people. I don’t like reading iBooks.

One of the things I love about old books is the fonts they use. But if the digital version of the book is presented in Verdana, much of that appeal is lost.

My favourite books are Cookbooks, and I don’t even like cooking. But when I see the care with which these books are designed and the length to which pre-press companies like Splitting Image go to in order to preserve the integrity of the design and images and present them in the highest quality, I appreciate that the book itself is a work of art that has passed through many hands before I hold it.

I don’t need a digital version to be reproduced in a ‘print font’ or have a beautiful lacquered cover, but I don’t want to be distracted by thinking that the person who designed it has not taken care with their layout and font selection.

Ok, at the moment there are only 109 font styles available on the iPad and about half that on the iPhone. But iBooks only offer us five?

I think the reason there is not more discussion about this yet is that we generally view digital books as an extension of the web. We have low expectations. We’re still caught up with the fact that it’s available to us wherever we are, so we’re prepared to accept a lesser product. When material was presented on the internet we learnt to accept bad layouts, difficult to read text, crappy images and a limited colour palette. And we view digital books as an extension of the web at the moment.

But now we have devices that are more defined. AppBook developers don’t need to build their presentations worrying how that colour will look on a PC running IE or if that font will be on a user’s computer. They also don’t have to worry about file size to the same extent. But the care that is taken in the production of quality books – typesetting, colour proofing, page layout – is generally glossed over in the production of digital books.

The same skills are needed in the design of digital books. The tools are different, the media is more malleable (consider device orientation changes), but the basic principles are the same. We read books. A digital book should be beautifully presented. It is something of value that someone has taken the time to craft, in the same way it is for a printed book. But it doesn’t quite feel the same does it? We view them differently.

If I write a book and publish it on the internet or on a mobile device, am I a published author when anyone can put a book up on Amazon for Kindle? We still legitimise authors by whether or not they’re ‘published’ in hard copy. We’re in the ‘in-between’ space right now. But it won’t be long before more respected authors choose to only publish their works (especially shorter titles) in digital format. We have already seen examples of authors/artists/story-tellers who have discovered that the idea they want to communicate doesn’t really work in printed form and is best produced digitally.

Artists and story-tellers have the opportunity to communicate their ideas in this new creative format. But there are two types of AppBooks. Those that feel like they have are considered in their presentation and are a memorable experience (sometimes because of a creative or gimmicky use of the technology, but sometimes simply because the developer has selected the appropriate elements to use and resisted too many ‘bells and whistles’); and those that have just been ‘slapped together’.

Where is the middle ground? AppBooks seem to be all or nothing. A funky 3D animation of a recreation of a physical book that overpowers the text, or a boring, lifeless white rectangle of html. A morphing of video, music and text to communicate a concept or a simple default-themed thrown together ascii text file.

With the iPad, we work within the confines of a defined size, a lit screen and a large black border. We also have to deal with users for whom the digital book is just one of many on a faux digital bookshelf, or an AppBook represented by a small rounded square icon amongst other brightly coloured icons. We contend with a short attention span. The reader does not select the work from the shelf and go and sit in a chair with it alone. They hold a device – sitting on the couch, riding the bus, waiting for a dentist appointment – and that device holds an entire library of competing books, games, emails, and other apps.

So, when I stop – decide that I don’t want to check my email, fling angry birds at green blobs, take photos, look up my stocks or app surf the pages of my mobile device – and want to read a book, I’d really like that AppBook to be designed in a way that encouraged me to read it and engage with the author’s ideas, as much as possible. If I start to lose interest – despite the engaging story of its writer – because I’m thinking about how the font is out of style, the size is wrong or the menu keeps popping up and suggesting I check out the video section. I’m distracted and no longer interested in engaging with the story.

Just a few of the challenges we face when making AppBooks.

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