Leaving The Book Behind

A trend that took me by surprise at Books in Browsers was how indebted to the book most browser-based eReaders are. Prime example: all the ebook readers that were demoed at the conference had artifacts like pages, page flipping, and book covers. The books that were displayed within these readers were literally embedded in the browser – each reader was this little self-contained bit of javascript, CSS and HTML5, and that was to be inserted into a webpage or a rendering engine the same way one would embed a Youtube video, or a Slideshare presentation.

I’m not convinced that this is necessary, or even advisable. I will admit, however, that I came to BiB with the notion that books would literally be in the browser – that the form of the book is the webpage, and the controls for reading the book were the browser’s controls; not some arbitrary chrome that you had to include for it to work.

Is the browser a good reader?

I think browsers as a reading interface work just fine, and that people today are used to reading things in a web browser. Much of surfing is text, after all. And I think that you can and should leverage this behaviour when designing for a browser-based book reading experience.

Think about it: when you have embeddable content like the Monocle reader, you’re constrained by the fact that you must read in a container within a container. It isn’t a website, which means that there’s a layer of abstraction that the reader must get used to.

Why not have that content live as a webpage? The user doesn’t have to relearn anything. The controls are intuitive: one link forward for the next chapter, and one link backwards for the chapter before. The user behaviour for using browsers, for clicking links to advance (and scrolling to read) have existed for more than a decade now. There’s no need to reference the model of the book when reading behaviour already exists for the webpage.

The exception to this, of course, is the mobile experience. The majority of mobile phones have terrible web interfaces. And so it may make sense to serve something like the Monocle reader when you’re in a mobile device like the iPad, or the iPhone.

I’m biased, of course – web fiction exists primarily in web page form, and experience has shown us that this is highly readable in the context of a computer browser. But a strong mobile reading experience for the form may still be lacking. And that’s where these new readers come in handy.

For the rest – I’d argue that webpages work just fine.

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Category: Design
  • http://tkbr.ccsp.sfu.ca/tkbr John Maxwell

    Thank you for saying all this. The page-turners inside web pages always seem like the wrong direction to me.

    Look at Instapaper and like-minded tools. They’re aiming at making the content more visible, and they don’t need page-swiping effects to do so.

    Interestingly, Instapaper on an iPhone is pretty much an identical reading experience to Kobo, Kindle, Stanza, etc. At 3.5 inches, you simply can’t have too much container showing.

    But you’re absolutely right… the mobile reading environment seems poised for an innovative idea that will take it forward… we haven’t quite seen it yet.

  • http://www.humanparade.com P Dugan

    I think you’re on to something.

    Stone tablets –> temple/church walls –> scrolls –> books (novels)… –> browser???

    Not really the same thing and begging different forms of writing since each “writing surface” is physically different. I’ve been considering “ebooks” not books at all and especially not novels. They are something else that requires a different form of writing.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @bowerbird: Are books in the browsers necessary? Brewster Kahle made a longer argument, but that’s in video form, so here’s Craig Mod’s: http://craigmod.com/satellite/open_ebooks/

    And as for all your other arguments: thank you for taking the time to explain your thoughts. But you’re at Novelr right now. We’ve had 4 years worth of experience in making the book work in a web page. So … we’ll see.

    @John: I think the mobile reading environment is served pretty well by the current slew of eReaders, to be honest. What it’s lacking – and a lot of smart people are thinking about this and working on it; see James Bridle’s Open Bookmarks project – is an inability to aggregate the experience, or to give life to the comments and notes in the margins of a book. The current ebook community calls this ‘marginalia’.

    @P Dugan: I like saying this, because there’s so little we know: we’ll see. ;-)

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    We’ll see.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    If you’re right. Or if you’re wrong. Or if we’re both wrong.

    You must understand – I am interested in what you have to say (my bet too is that we’ll have to have a mobile app for this web fiction thing, parallel to whatever browser-based reading component we have). But I come from a place where I can actually implement the things I’m talking about – I just fire up an editor, and I code out an implementation, and then I run some tests. I’ve been talking about these things for four years now, and I realize that while that has gotten me closer to the truth, it hasn’t gotten me that close. And it’s wasted quite a bit of time.

    So while it’s an attractive option to argue with you – I’d much rather go code it out, and see what happens. You could be right, I don’t know. We’ll have to see.

    There’s also the fact I’m not sure where you’re coming from. I mean, there’s no link in your name that I can follow – but you sound like a smart guy. Do you have projects you can show us, or that we can talk about? Do you data to back up your claims? Or perhaps some code that’s lying around in a github repository?

    Talk is cheap. Hence the we’ll see.

  • http://www.humanparade.com P Dugan

    I like the “we’ll see”.

    It makes me want to test my theories in the real world. Have some guts and put my money where my mouth is.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Note: all bowerbird comments are now to be marked as spam. See http://www.gnutenberg.de/pgtei/0.5/examples/bowerbird/poo.html for more information.

    bowerbird is a troll; stay clear.

  • http://www.gotoofareast.com Alternatim

    Here are some really far out examples of electronic literature: http://www.boingboing.net/2011/02/10/electronic-literatur.html

    …but, I too am partial to the browser. That’s how I’ve chosen to present my own book, The Future History of Travel, in good ‘ole familiar blog format, check it out: http://gotoofareast.com/tfhot.

    I think the page turning effect is a nostalgic now, but it may seem archaic later. Sort of how folders are starting to feel obsolete in the age of modular computing.