Posted on November 25, 2013 in Archive

Opening up ebooks is an important concept


Guardian Books announced last month that it was going “from closed to open” – which Nick Sidwell, the author of the article announcing this fact, seems to think is the first time ever that a publisher will be publishing short snippets and info about ebooks aside from the full publications, in order to draw more readers in. Sure, the way that Guardian Books is doing it is slightly different, but this is in no way a new concept.

The article, “Opening a Closed Book”, is on FutureBook, if you’re interested in reading it. Personally I think this piece makes a very good attempt at puffing up Guardian Books as a revolutionary publisher that gives readers unprecedented access to ebooks. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Publishing these snippets as “edited extracts of every ebook in the series, now and in the future” is not a new idea. Lots of publishers do it! I’d love to know what makes Guardian Books so confident in their own belief that they are shaking up the industry.

Sidwell also says they will be presented as short feature articles that can be read on their own. Sure, creating short feature articles from these snippets is a novel idea (pun intended), but what if these articles are so satisfying (or more likelyunsatisfying) that readers don’t feel the need to go further, and don’t purchase the ebook? All they are potentially doing is setting themselves up as unprofitable short story publishers.

Have these people not heard of the blurbs found on book jackets or on the online book description? From what I’ve read, there is nothing revolutionary to be found here. There are many things that Guardian Books could be doing with their Guardian Shorts series if they want to change the game of digital publishing. Opening up ebooks means more than just pushing snippets onto the Internet.

For example, they could try the concept of APIs for books, Hugh McGuire’s vision for the future of ebooks. What McGuire is proposing is a scary concept for many, which is unsurprising. There is the potential for books to be melded with the Internet, which most publishers ignore because they only view ebooks as another way to read books – not as an entirely new experience. Surely if a phone can also function as a cinema, we can expand our horizons for new ways to look at ebooks?

We’ve definitely explored the new ways in which ebooks are functioning in previous blogs, but I think this is one of the most exciting concepts seen yet for the future of ebooks. In the current state of digital publishing, you cannot “link” to certain points in an ebook like chapters or paragraphs from outside the ebook (known as ‘deep linking’), because it’s rather like a closed circuit system – no one can link in (without paying) or out of an ebook. Copying and pasting is also almost always impossible. And why is this? Because it’s not linked to the Internet. An ebook is it’s own little impenetrable world.

Liquid State - Tweet screenshot about ebooks

The tweet that started it all: this post from Hugh McGuire is what prompted the whole discussion on the connection between the Internet and ebooks.

There’s no reason why an ebook couldn’t be connected to the Internet. Essentially the EPUB format for ebooks is, according to McGuire (I quote because my technological knowledge only goes so far), “really just a website, written in XHTML, with a few special characteristics, and wrapped up… so that it doesn’t appear to be a website, and so that it’s harder to do the things with an ebook that one expects to be able to do with a website. EPUB is really a way to build a website without letting readers or publishers know it.” So at least from this we can say the groundwork for linking ebooks to the Internet is already being put down, though many don’t yet realise it.

An API for books is the other interesting concept McGuire introduces. API stands for “application programming interface”, and it assists in specifying how some software components should interact, so that companies and their developers can “build tools and services on top of their underlying databases and services.” Basically, it works so that software can be built upon by different people and still run efficiently. One example would be Google Maps having an API that allows geolocation services to run Google Maps alongside their own niche data in order to serve their business needs, like American urban guide Yelp.

Publishers could potentially use this technology to supplement books with links to media or information relevant to the story. Other authors or developers could also use this technology to build upon the original reading experience and enrich or edit it in ways that hadn’t occurred to the original author. It doesn’t necessarily have to be promotional material, but links that complement the genre or plot. As an example, historiography is a particular genre where this could be enormously useful. Of course, if the publishing industry were to open itself up to this kind of thing, inevitably a portion of the links available within an ebook would consist of promotional material for other books by the same publisher. At the very least though, metadata could be used to great advantage if ebooks were better connected. Regardless of in-house advertising though, strong consideration should be given to the possibility of this being included in the future of digital publishing. The Internet can be found pretty much everywhere nowadays – why not in ebooks as well?