Evolution of the Reader Experience (Part II)

Peter Jones Information Ecology, Innovation, Wu Wei

What is “the book” becoming? Will we see the eBook becoming a better delivery of the “reader’s experience?” Or will the printed, bound book continue to deliver a superior interface? In what situations will an eBook outperform the print book? What features will enable the eBook reader to finally excel in supporting a human reader extracting content and understanding meaning?

As this piece grew too long, I broke it into an artificial Part II to avoid subjecting my own readership to the poor reader expeirence of the “insufferably long blog article.” To gain some context otherwise missing here, you might read that piece first. I can wait.

I see print books being on the verge of a disruptive (backlash?) breakthrough. If you want to see creative innovation, not just large-scale platform innovation, look at unbooks, the SmartBook, BookCamp, craft books, and other innovations of the codex book format.

Even the newest eBooks are boring by comparison to print books. While the e-Ink displays have greatly improved readability and thereby mobility,  the display of images, tables, maps, diagrams, and other non-text features remains marginalized. New eBooks have maintained the form and factor of  old eBooks, except with more links (TOC, index, some in-content links).

Publishers have not created significantly better digital content. And authors are not writing for eBooks yet. They have not re-envisioned the Reader Experience (RX? ;).  And the RX should be their responsibility, not Amazon’s.

I agree eBooks are finally coming of age. They have been trying to disrupt us for over 10 years, but they are making inroads into everyday life, and to some extent the university. They are not a transformative experience. They remain damned hard to read onscreen. People continue to balk with every big push of the technology.

Yes, the Kindle is a big deal, but it is expensive, awkward, and geeky. It is also a closed system. It truly remains an early adopter innovation, completely controlled by Amazon. It is evolutionary, not transformative. It does not yet inspire new ways of reading, but it has inspired new ways of browsing and scanning information. Even as Stephen Johnson describes it, it seems to be a better information tool than a book reading experience.

But of course people can read thousands of free eBooks as PDFs on their computer or iPhones today. So, perhaps like the Gutenberg codexes, it will take some time, for the twists and turns of middle-class adoption (families and kids) to reach a real consumer tipping point.

Haven’t We Read This Book Before?

Consider how information scholars have been predicting the future Johnson envisions for about a decade. After tiring of getting it wrong, perhaps, we can see how eBook research has fallen from academic popularity. When Redesign Research conducted a large eBooks research study last year, I conducted the requisite reviews and found the peak of the eBook scholarly literature to be about 2003. And very few actual user behavior studies were being published on eBook use, or even informing us about integrated information behaviors with eBooks .

(So if the old evangelists were actually going to be proven right, but 5 or 10 years later, wouldn’t you expect to hear them coming to the fore about now saying “remember when I said eBooks were the thing in 1999?”) Take a look at the great list of eBook resources available on the Wisconsin Public Library Consortium site. Still unchanged since 2003. Most of the links are dead and they have not updated the page in 5 years perhaps? This is anecdotal, but telling. Go ahead and run your own searches. If you want to see user research evidence from well-informed students and faculty, look for the public report on nextexts.com.

Yes, scholarship drops off when things don’t turn out as planned. Other than JISC’s CIBER studies, information scholars stopped predicting rosy futures by the mid-2000’s. The institutionalization of better working platforms makes the study of behavior using them seem like a trivial problem. The chaos and unpredictability of initial design and adoption is much more interesting and publishable.  The other thing that stops scholarship is commercial success. And eBooks have enjoyed the paradox of both of these conditions.

A few years after 2003, library eBook platforms were greatly improved. But if you have never interacted with these platforms to read a serious text, you may have no idea how difficult it is to navigate scholarly eBooks online. Greatly improved is not the same as “problem solved.”

Much of my critique is meant to inspire different innocation perspectives, a difference in direction and action, and to interfere with the compromised status quo. I am not attempting to tear down the arguments for Google and Kindle, they just happen to be clouding our collective vision.  Their services crowd out other innovations that could take place and may not happen otherwise. Like other writers (with bigger readerships), I aim for liberation, not just commercialization.