mozartprojectThat’s what D.B. Hebbard of Talking New Media wonders, in a column that notes in part that we are “still awaiting the next big thing in eBook platforms”. After correctly noting that e-book sales aren’t actually falling, except for those of major publishers who forced their prices up, Hebbard notes that e-books aren’t improving much, either.

The thing is, Hebbard is awfully nonspecific in who he blames. In fact, he explicitly calls out “those in the technology area responsible for improving digital publications.”

So, uh, who is that, exactly? Let’s let Hebbard describe the problem:

Most eBooks, those that represent the vast majority of sales, are pretty bad. But because they are mostly plain text, fonts can be adjusted so that reading is at least not as painful as the typical digital magazine or e-newspaper. Advancements are slow, so slow that many of those who thought they would by now only be reading eBooks have returned to discover the joy of print. And why not, print is great, having 576 years to have perfected the medium.

It is possible to create a great eBook, of course. I always point to The Mozart Project and The World Atlas of Wine as examples of good digital publishing. Both use the iBook Author platform but unless one is reading on a standard size iPad or a Mac, both with have their reading experience degraded by the fact that the publishing platform is less than ideal for creating equally great eBooks for reading on an iPhone, and not at all for reading on a Kindle.

So, let’s look at these books. Both of them are iTunes-only, naturally, and both are nonfiction. The Mozart Project is free right now (to people with OS X or iOS—which includes me, sort of, as I have iBooks on my first-generation iPad and it’s willing to let me try to download the e-book, even though it’s over 1 GB in size, though it then claims I don’t have enough room or outright crashes altogether). The World Atlas of Wine is $25.

But just looking at their descriptive pages in the iBooks catalog is enough to tell a few things. The Mozart Project features “3 hrs of Mozart’s Music,” “25 Specially Filmed Performances, Documentaries, and Demonstrations,” and “8 hrs of Audio Extracts and Panel Discussions.” That’s not an “e-book,” that’s a multimedia project! (I finally managed to get it to open on my iPad, and fiddling with it for a while was more than sufficient to prove me right. It’s a very impressive multimedia project, but it’s not the kind of thing I think of when I think of an “e-book.”)

And the description for The World Atlas of Wine warns that “Books with interactive features may work best on an iOS device,” so that’s another multimedia project. (And one of the reviewers complains that there’s no zoom, so the small text is hard to read on an iPad.)

What’s more, Hebbard even admits that you pretty much need a tablet or computer to read them, and they won’t work at all on the device that is the single most popular e-reader in the world today! Which is actually okay with the people who use that device, because they’re not looking for multimedia tomes full of information for multiple senses—they’re wanting to read one word after another until they get to the end of a story.

This is hardly surprising, given that nonfiction only makes up 22% of daily unit e-book sales and 30% of daily gross dollar e-book sales on Amazon (per the Feb 2014 Author Earnings report). So all these fancy features Hebbard wants are for a category of book that the majority of e-book buyers don’t read.

And that’s not the only problem I have with Hebbard’s premise. If he’s going to claim that “many” would-be e-book readers have returned to print, how about he cite some sources for how many have done so? After all, he said himself earlier that e-book sales weren’t falling except for from publishers who jacked the prices. If so “many” people are giving up e-books, then why aren’t the sales falling?

It’s because the e-books that the majority of people do buy and read—the ones that are just prose words on paper, in chapters that follow one after the other until you get to the end of the story—are amply good enough for people to go right on buying them. Seriously, how is your average best-selling novel any worse on a Kindle than it is on sheets of dead tree? In either format, it’s black words on off-white background—and on the Kindle, you can even make the font bigger, turn it off and come back to it without need of a bookmark, or even (in some cases) have it read aloud to you!

Furthermore, what kind of improvements could you even make to such a book? If you want to talk about paragraph indentation and formatting, justification, hyphenation, font, and all that, okay, fine—but most people won’t even notice the difference, and the lack of such improvements isn’t keeping people from buying those books now. What other changes can you make—to a prose fiction novel, mind—that would make a new convert of someone who hadn’t wanted to read e-books before?

The thing about making improvements that are more suited to non-fiction books is that most people just don’t read non-fiction books—and the e-readers they use now are amply fit for fiction. Unless you get more people suddenly wanting to read the kind of non-fiction e-book that could benefit from such interactivity, there’s just no incentive to go to the trouble and expense of making it possible. For now, people who want to read that kind of interactive thing will just have to get a tablet or PC.

And even if that kind of improvement needed to be made, whose job is it to make it? If anyone’s, it would probably be Amazon’s, given that they’re the ones who sell the lion’s share of e-book readers and the books to go with them. But there’s no incentive for them to do that, because they already sell the lion’s share of e-book readers and the books to go with them.

And why would Apple want to do that? They’re about the only major e-book vendor who already natively supports multi-media e-books on their tablet platform, and they do that already—and they don’t sell those e-books to anyone not using their platform. How could they further “improve” e-books in a way that would work for everyone?

Barnes & Noble? Kobo? Google? None of them seem to have shown a whole lot of interest in multimedia e-books; they’re just trying to get by and sell the regular kind, and not even doing so well at that themselves.

And even though there are companies out there that are trying to fiddle around with interactivity, multimedia, augmented reality, and other ways of inventing a “next generation” of e-book, they all suffer from the same “if you build it, they will come” fallacy—even if they succeed in creating something new, there’s no guarantee anyone will want it, because everyone’s happy with their fiction e-books that are plenty good enough to be getting on with.

So, whose job is it to “improve” e-books? Anyone who cares enough to that can get it to stick, I suppose. I think that there’s something like a “Peter principle” at work for e-books, though—they only get improved until they’re good enough, and then there’s no need to improve them any further because they’re already selling like hotcakes. I don’t see that changing in the immediate future, do you?

(Found via The Passive Voice.)


  1. I remember when they tried this sort of thing back in the ’90s, when ‘multimedia’ was the big buzz word. I looked at a few of these kind of things on my Packard-Hell computer, but wasn’t at all impressed. I don’t really remember any specific disks. Part of the problem was the monitors of the time. My first experience with e-reading was trying to read a Larry Niven novella on a CRT monitor. I think my head still aches from that.

  2. I would add that a lot of non-fiction ebooks are also just words on a page, and they also are perfectly fine to read on an ereader. Not every non-fiction book needs illustration, diagrams or photos, let alone interactivity, to convey the information in the book.

  3. If that World Atlas of Wine doesn’t let me smell and/or taste the wines, it’s just not what I’m looking for in a multimedia presentation. Seriously, sometimes an animation will enhance the work when explaining a concept, but when I’m reading a book, I’m not interested in watching a bunch of talking heads blather for 8 hours. I can understand listening to some of Mozart’s music when the text is discussing it, just as I might expect to see a copy of a painting if an art book is discussing it. I’m perfectly fine with my ebook reader presenting the same text and illustrations as a paper book, nothing more.

  4. Chris Meadows said, “… but it’s not the kind of thing I think of when I think of an ‘e-book.’)” So, Chris, what do you think of when you think of an e-book?
    As for the question in the lede, I think that the answer is obvious. It’s the artist who is responsible for improving the medium they use. In this case, it’s the author who is responsible for improving the eBook as a medium of expression. Technical innovators can make all sorts of things possible but only authors can make effective use of those innovations as they strive to bring their message to an audience. It’s what authors use to good effect that will persist and advance the medium. No doubt that will entail many trials and many errors.

  5. I have a Google Play subscription, so if I want to hear any particular piece of Mozart at any time I can do so. Why should I pay again to have the same bits of Mozart — but a much smaller selection — attached to a book? Particularly one I have to download in its entirety before I can start reading it?

    I can understand short extracts to illustrate musical points, but that’s about it, and that can be done with short snippets of MIDI; it doesn’t require embedding vast chunks of multimedia.

  6. Quote from Hebberd: “And why not, print is great, having 576 years to have perfected the medium.”

    He needs to take a look at the first movable type book, the Gutenberg Bible. It is absolutely, utterly gorgeous. And there was a good reason for that. Gutenberg took as his model the beautiful, hand-lettered illustrated Bibles of his day.

    The same principle is true for improving ebooks. We’re long overdue for those setting the standards to take as their model the best that print books can do. Once that’s accomplished and adaptable for all display sizes, then moving on to add digital-only improvements makes sense. Unfortunately, the epub developers have gotten that backwards, focusing on multi-media first and leaving even the basic principles of good text layout neglected. Not good.

    There’s actually a marvelous illustration of how reflowable-type ebooks should be done. It’s a software app that’s been around since the 1980s—Adobe’s Framemaker. It’s designed to manage lengthy documents such as aircraft manuals at Boeing. Think thousands of pages that have to be just right or a plane crashes. What makes is a useful model for digital is that it’s designed to reflow text intelligently as changes are made. That’s very similar to text reflowing for different displays.

    If a couple of paragraphs need to be added on page 197, Framemaker will handle the reflow from that point on, even it that means changes hundreds of pages later. Widows and orphans, the bane of ebooks, never appear. Graphics don’t result in weird page breaks. When a tech writer inserts a graphic, he can specify where he wants it, for instance on the top right of the next page. Change the page size, something common with digital, and again everything reflows, with intelligent page breaks and graphic placements. The software itself is smart enough to ensure that the instructions of the person laying out the book are followed. It can even handle conditional text and different languages in the same document. And keep in mind this product is some thirty years old. From Wikipedia:

    “At this point, FrameMaker was considered an extraordinary product for its day, enabling authors to produce highly structured documents with relative ease, but also giving users a great deal of typographical control in a reasonably intuitive and totally WYSIWYG way. The output documents could be of very high typographical quality.

    When you’re planning the future, it always helps to learn from the past.

    –Mike Perry

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