Posted on June 10, 2013 in Archive

Why books should have developed APIs years ago


From the beginning, the Internet has been a place for sharing information. At first, it was government communication and academic research. Now it’s tweets, cat GIFs and foodporn. If you prefer, there are more serious things, too, like breaking news articles and acclaimed drama shows. Despite all the information we’re now sharing online, we’ve missed something that should have been a natural step – books developed APIs.

Books, by design, contain information people think is worth sharing, so the net should be natural place to share them. Now, I know, there’s an obvious reason why spreading books online wasn’t possible before: books aren’t digital products.

Music, images and videos all moved into digital production while books remained resolutely physical.

Of course, nowadays, digital books are being produced in greater and greater numbers. But whether you prefer reading in print or digital, you’ve still got the same problem if you want to share anything from the book. All the content is completely locked down.

If I want my friend to hear a song I love, I can link them to it on YouTube or Soundcloud or at the very least they can listen to a snippet of it on iTunes. By contrast, the best I can do to recommend a book is lend them a physical copy or link to its product page on Amazon. Either way, without reading the entire book, my friend is left with nothing to go on except whatever’s written on the back cover, and my enthusiasm.

Book locked in chains

Print books & digital books are both too locked down.

If books had APIs, I could share my favourite passage with my friend, thus giving them a good idea of the style and tone of the book. With appropriate limits on how much I could share at a time, a simple API could really help books spread by word of mouth online. As more titles are published in both print and digital, and publishers rush to digitise their back catalogues, the API would, in effect, work for print books, too.

And that’s just a simple example.

Hugh McGuire, digital publishing’s current champion of book APIs, recently showed off a web version of Dracula, complete with an interactive map of the story. I say Hugh is the current champion of APIs, because the idea has come up before.

In fact, since a fairly simple API can be written for any digital book being rendered in XML or HTML (as most digital books are), you’d think publishers would have done it by now. After all, big publishers have been touting XML-first strategies since 2009.

Publishers have been very focussed on using new technologies to create new products – digital books – but very little has been said about using technology to enhance print products. The great thing about a book API is that it can enhance the reading experience for all readers, regardless of the format they’re reading on.

See below for Hugh McGuire’s talk on book APIs at TEDx.


Headline image courtesy of The Binary Book Series