Ruminations on ebooks, part 2

In part one of this rumination, I talked about the possibility of including vital non-text content within an ebook and how this seemed like a fantastic development to me. I also talked about the possibility of interconnected texts that could be cross-referenced and connected, perhaps creating virtual webs or maps that traced ideas through various sources. Now that I’m deeper into the process of actually creating ebooks (and more specifically, ibooks), I feel that I can say a little bit more about the possibilities and challenges of the medium.

First, let me start by saying that I still think the idea of linking across books (especially in classic texts) is a fantastic idea. I keep thinking of how meaningful it would be to read a version of the Federalist Papers that links to their many philosophical allusions, or how rewarding it would be to read the Lockean phrase that inspired Jefferson with a single click. I’m not sure how one would go about creating such a repository of linked documents, or how exactly it would work, but I think it would be a fantastic advancement.

Second, introducing non-text content into books is very exciting. We’ve been doing this for awhile, obviously, but were limited to images, maps, and the like. The most exciting part for me is using audio and video that previously had to be consigned to a ride-along CD with the book. As the technology develops, especially with HTML5, I have no doubt that small programs of many kinds will be included within these books. Think of how nice it would be to have a flashcard program embedded in your Spanish book, or perhaps an equation editor in your statistics text – that is just the tip of the iceberg, in my opinion.

Ebooks are also democratizing content creation in ways that are truly exciting. Several professors I know are putting together materials for their students to use in classes, bypassing expensive textbooks that the professors and students dislike, and including content that normal textbooks wouldn’t be able to include. The entire process puts professors back directly into the knowledge creation and dissemination process, rather than forcing them to teach around a textbook they didn’t write and don’t particularly like.

The problems with these more advanced ebooks, however, are a noticeable lack of cross-platform compatibility. Apple, as usual, is out in front of the curve with iBooks Author. It’s an easy-to-use piece of software that allows almost anyone to create good looking ebooks with advanced functionality. But the books are only readable on an iPad. The new epub standard is supposed to include features akin to iBooks Author through the implementation of html5, but I have yet to see any books or any epub readers that fully support the new standard.

It seems important to realize, though, that there is a distinction between textbooks and other books that may make the former more amenable to the kind of innovation Apple is producing. Integrated study guides really only make sense for textbooks, whereas novels are clearly more about the words on the page. There are exceptions to this, of course, like collections of photography, travel books, or books about music (to name only a few examples), but it seems to me that Apple is clearly upsetting the terms of textbook publishing more than the publishing for all types of books. We’ll have to wait and see, though – perhaps adding a soundtrack to a novel is the next big thing…

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2 thoughts on “Ruminations on ebooks, part 2

  1. Nice post. Have you looked at a combination of either a wordpress powered site or wiki, and a longform reader like Pocket? It enables you to create ebook text, embed video, and enable students to read mobile friendly text with the embedded video included. Oh yes, and you can access it via any device, not just iOS. It really annoys me that iBooks Author is only accessible via the iPad. Very short sighted.

    • Thanks for the tip on Pocket – that’s a very interesting concept. I’ll have to play around with it. About iBooks on the iPad: I totally agree, but you can see where they’re coming from. They want to sell iPads. There has been quite a bit of movement toward 1-to-1 adoption, especially in K-12 schools, and I think Apple is really working to establish itself in this market. In a certain sense I think the higher ed market is an afterthought for Apple right now because of the device-agnostic stance of most higher ed institutions. But time will tell – if the rumors about an iPad mini are true, perhaps we’ll have a second option at a lower price point.

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