E-books: a Medium in Progress

Kane Hsieh Oct 31, 2012 Back to blog

E-books will never replace paper books. But they don’t have to.

Comparing books to e-books is like comparing mechanical watches to digital watches, or manual cars to automatic cars. No one doubts the convenience, reach, and flexibility of the e-book format, but it will never convincingly replicate the experience of a paper book – nor does it need to. E-books are a fundamentally new medium, stuck in an awkward growing stage.

The problem with e-books as they exist now is the lack of user experience innovation. Like the first television shows that only played grainy recordings of theater shows, the e-book is a new medium that has yet to see any true innovation, and resorts to imitating an old medium. This is obvious in skeuomorphic visual cues of e-book apps. Designers have tried incredibly hard to mimic the page-turns and sound effects of a real book, but these ersatz interactions satisfy a bibliophile as much as a picture of water satisfies a man in the desert.

There is no reason I need to turn fake pages. If I’m using a computer to read, I should be able to leverage the connectivity and processing power of that computer to augment my reading experience: e-books should allow me to read on an infinite sheet, or I should be able to double blink to scroll. I should be able to practice language immersion by replacing words and phrases in my favorite books with other languages, or highlight sections to send to Quora or Mechanical Turk for analysis. There are endless possibilities for e-books to make reading more accessible and immersvie than ever, but as long as e-books try to be paper books, they will remain stuck in an uncanny valley of disappointment.

You’re not fooling anyone. Souce: apple.com

Another misstep in the growth of e-books was the complete incompatability of previous libraries. People who have amassed libraries of paper books over many years were left behind by e-book distributors. Unlike music or photographs, there is no way to migrate an old book library into a new one. Over the past decade, I’ve been able to convert my tapes to CDs, my CDs to MP3s, and now import my MP3s into Spotify and listen to music over the cloud. Yet, if I want to read my favorite books on my Nexus 7, I have to pay for a separate e-book version, assuming one even exists.

It makes sense to have a third tier of book: paper + digital access. I am more than willing to pay a little extra for a book if it means that I have a copy for my library shelves and I can read it on a tablet on the subway. Amazon in particular is well positioned to implement this pricing structure. Better yet, why not a subscription service? $20/mo for all the books I can read? Unfortunately, as of now, the only options for paper book fans that want to use e-books for convenience are to pay twice, or maintain two disjoint book libraries. Like its content, e-book pricing models cling to the past.

The full potential of e-books lies in its digital nature. Distribution costs are zero. The paradigm of a “book” – a chunk of a few hundred pages of writing, is no longer necessary to be cost effective. Authors can distribute serialized portions of stories on a regular basis, and reach millions of readers instantly. All the things that made the internet culture grow – memes, viral content, instant sharing – can be leveraged by writers of e-books. Authors, no longer dependent on publishers, are afforded previously unheard of flexibility with story telling. A novella can seamlessly grow into a thousand page epic, one chapter a week, urged by a growing fan base. Small steps in this direction are being made by companies such as Plympton, but it would be unwise to underestimate the potential for new sources of content through the democratization of publication.

So e-books, stop trying to be paper books; break free of the page and the book paradigms and realize your potential as a fully digital medium. As for me, and readers like me, you will never replace our beloved paper books – but if done correctly, I will be proud to own a library of e-books. Until then, I only use you to avoid carrying books like IQ84 in my backpack.