New Era for e-Books

z_p37-New-eraJust last night, I finished thriller writer Ward Larsen’s book, Passenger 19, about an investigation into a plane crash in Colombia. It was a bit surreal, coming a few weeks after the actual crash in Colombia of a Lamia Airlines BAE 146 Avro RJ85 airliner carrying a Brazilian football team (The book has been written before this tragedy occurred).

I read this absorbing thriller on a screen – the E-Ink screen of my beloved Amazon Kindle Voyage. But, I was not limited to this device – I could read it on my iPad and iPhone with the Amazon app. Each device seamlessly knew where I had paused earlier on another device, no bookmark needed.

Regardless of the device, I missed several things. I would have loved to see an interactive map of Colombia pinpointing the crash site and other locations, pictures of the aircraft in question, an interview with the author, a bit of an interactive/video insight into how an air crash investigation is handled and other relevant material.

Regardless, there are several advantages of e-books. You do not need to cut trees and manufacture paper, around 3,000 books will fit in the average e-reader or tablet, all your books can be stored on the cloud and downloaded, buying a book is instantaneous – no computer needed, and it is really convenient to carry in your bag.

But, there are many limitations too. No e-book can give you that real book ‘feel’ on an emotional level, there is no universal e-book standard, formatting is a hit and miss affair and colour e-books are still hard to come by.

Poets have been especially frustrated by e-book formatting, which leaves some of their work out of sync. You can read some colour e-books on tablets, but it is still a work in progress. But, things are changing for the better.

Just imagine a chemistry book with a pop-up periodic table of the elements for instant reference, a sucrose molecule that rotates under your fingertips to show its 3D structure, a video demonstration of chemical procedures, a chat box to message the professor and a built-in quiz that directs you to any subjects you did not understand. It will be updated continuously, so it won’t go out of date.

This kind of e-book will be possible, thanks to the World Wide Web Consortium’s absorption of the International Digital Publishing Forum, keepers of the E-Pub e-book standard.

The merger means e-books are going to be much smarter thanks to a deeper embrace of web technology. While it is already simple for web browsers to show videos and offer quizzes, it is well beyond the e-books that you read on Amazon Kindle or similar device.

This will change in the coming years as e-books play a bigger role on your laptop or tablet and colour comes to dedicated e-book readers. Colour e-ink displays have already been developed, which can be expected to feature in consumer devices in a couple of years.

Bringing the organization that creates the standards for HTML (the most recent iteration of which is HTML5) into the book publishing fold should help bring the code behind e-books in-line with what consumers currently expect from digital content: a robust multi-media experience that looks good on every platform, be it an e-reader, the web, or an app.

Specific efforts include packaging text and other material into a self-contained booklike entity rather than the web’s more typically sprawling construction. There is also an effort to improve formatting in terms of layout, typography and hyphenation.

The biggest market for the new e-book format will be textbooks which incorporate a lot of colour pictures, graphics and illustrations. Digital textbooks are already a hot item – publishers such as VitalSource sell 18 million digital titles a year.

Incorporating video and other interactive content will boost the e-book market massively. Eighty-seven percent of college students in the USA alone said, they think interactive textbooks will help them learn better, according to a 2016 Wakefield Research survey of 500 students.

The new e-book package could contain much more than what a human reads or even needs. That could be as basic as search terms to help you find the right related book on Google or Amazon, or it could be as sophisticated as the underlying data accompanying a scientific paper. At the end of the day, the convergence of the web and books will inevitably make the notion of a book more nebulous. It will still be a book, but not as you know it.

To cap it all, real “dead-tree” books, magazines and newspapers could also feature interactive content and videos one day, as seen in the Tom Cruise movie Minority Report, thanks to advances in electronic paper which can bend and fold. Some newspapers already do a close approximation with QR codes that can be scanned. They are also experimenting with Augmented Reality (AR) applications.

When the e-book revolution began, some predicted the death of the physical book. This brings to mind how some people predicted the death of the printed newspaper in just 20 years way back in 1994, when newspapers first began to appear on the web. We are now well into 2017 and the printed newspaper shows no sign of going extinct, at least for the moment.

The same could roughly apply to books – we just love physical books. As someone said, “you just cannot curl up with an e-reader in bed”. That kind of intimacy with the printed word is only possible with physical books. Advances in recycling means that your physical book could have obtained 60 percent or more of its paper from recycling and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) sustainable forests.

With ultra low-priced e-books disappearing from Amazon and elsewhere due to pricing disputes, many e-books are now actually more expensive than their physical counterparts. Add “free shipping worldwide” from sites such as the Amazon-owned Book Depository, and the e-book advantage in terms of price vanishes.

The only gratification left is instant delivery of the e-book, but some sites will actually deliver your physical book within a day. Surely, you can afford to wait one day for a book to arrive ?

Worldwide, e-book sales are showing a downward trend. In the US alone, Paperback books grew 7.5% to US$ 1.62 billion in 2016 over 2015, Hardback books grew 4.1% to US$ 1.73 billion, Downloaded audio grew 29.6% to US$ 199.2 million and eBooks were DOWN 18.7% to US$ 877.1 million. That is still a substantial number, but look at the other interesting statistic – audio book sales are growing.

Yes, many people are too busy to read either printed or e-books – they would rather have someone read the book to them – in the car, in the gym, in bed or even in the office.

Amazon already offers the option of seamlessly moving back and forth between the narration and reading on many e-books and this could become a bigger trend. We will continue to read books, but the way we do that will keep evolving.

Author: Pramod de Silva
Twitter: @Pramod_Silva


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