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June 10 2011

Edits as a storytelling device

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers' project "Breaking the Page, Saving the Reader: A Buyer & Builder's Guide to Digital Books." We'll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead. (Note: This post originally appeared on A New Kind of Book. It's republished with permission.)

By now you've probably seen that crossed-out text style that bloggers use to indicate revisions:

Never, ever Only if you've tried everything else is it okay to give your crying baby a shot of vodka.

While some regard this kind of formatting as overly cutesy, it serves a genuine editorial purpose: either slyly injecting a bit of humor or, for accuracy-minded folks, publicly preserving the revision trail. In a digital book, with just a bit more special sauce added (namely, animation), a live view of such changes could serve a similar role — one that might add an entertaining bit of dynamism to the writing.

In the hands of the right author, the creative possibilities are intriguing. Early passages in a novel could be presented anew to the reader, updated in front of them to incorporate new information. Characters could shine a spotlight on previous exchanges and "edit” or comment on what they said, or what they wanted to say. It'd be like having the ability to re-do a fight with your spouse. Okay, maybe that one's better left imagined. But that's why we've got books! So we can read about crazy people and gauge how closely, or not, they resemble us.

I've run across one example recently where the writer — a video game reviewer — used the effect to underscore the iterative story that awaits anyone who plays "Infinity Blade". You can watch the page in action by visiting it yourself, or get a quick taste by checking out this screencast I recorded.

Infinity Blade review example
In a bit of meta commentary, this video game review shows the iterative nature of the game "Infinity Blade" by altering the review text.

And here's a similar example, created by "Hobo Lobo of Hamelin" author named, um, well, @MrHoatzin is the shy guy's Twitter handle. He's an incredibly talented cartoonist who used the effect in the "Technical Considerations” section of his website.

As always, I'm on the hunt for other examples that use this kind of not-possible-in-print maneuver in a reader-friendly way. Let me know — I'm at peter dot meyers at gmail dot com — if you've seen anything worth checking out.

Webcast: Digital Bookmaking Tools Roundup — Pete Meyers looks at the growing number of digital book tools: what's best, what's easiest to use, and what's worth putting in your book-building toolkit.

Join us on Thursday, June 30, 2011, at 10 am PT
Register for this free webcast


June 03 2011

10 innovative digital books you should know about

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers' project "Breaking the Page, Saving the Reader: A Buyer & Builder's Guide to Digital Books." We'll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead. (Note: This post originally appeared on A New Kind of Book. It's republished with permission.)

A year ago I was knee-deep in iPad apps, sifting for gold among sludge as I combed for Best iPad Apps-worthy entries. My next book has me back in waders, this time looking for innovative, user-friendly digital books. Seems like a shame to wait for the pub date to share my findings.

What follows, then, is an early snapshot of some of the best of what I've seen. You'll no doubt notice a heavy bias towards iPad apps. Partly that's because of my previous research, partly it's because of where developer dollars are flowing. Still, not everyone has the same taste in fruit. Please, please dear reader: help me make this a less Apple-centric list by sending me your suggestions (my contact info is at the end of this post). PR overtures are welcome but, hey, channel the spirit of Twitter: keep the pitches brief and send them in English-major-friendly English, okay?

Cathy's Book

An iPhone app implementation of a print book that, impressively, does loads that can't be done in print: animated renderings of the narrator's sketchbook drawings; voicemail phone clues that contribute to the story; and audio/text mashups that are more than simply a recorded version of what you can read onscreen. The designers have even done a great job of moving between regular text and brief animations. That one's tough to pull off in a way that maintains the "reading line": the storytelling momentum that pulls a reader along from start to finish.

Cathy's Book

Operation Ajax

A "motion comics" version of the CIA's involvement in the 1950s Iranian revolution. Much more than a digital replica of a graphic novel; the action moves within and between panels. Plus, research dossiers are available for all key characters (rotate the iPad from portrait to landscape to see these) for when you want to learn more about the main players.

Operation Ajax iPad book app

Music: An Appreciation (an Inkling textbook)

Some very cool annotated musical scores here let students read captions, listen to the recording, and see what parts of the score are being commented on as the music plays.

Music: An Appreciation (an Inkling textbook)

iBirdPro HD

A digital version of the traditional field guide. Great search feature lets you select one of a half dozen characteristics you're interested in (Size, Habitat, Color, etc.) and then input particular values (big, Hawaii, red, etc.). Very neat way to search through 1,000 or so bird profiles and winnow down the list to match the ones that meet your criteria. Another to-be-expected but quite well done feature: recordings of all the various birds.

The Civil War Today

A history of the Civil War presented as a collection of "you are there" archives (diary entries, newspaper articles, photos). Each day over a 500ish day timeframe, a new day's worth of archival material is released. Your relationship to the book therefore plays out across the same time span as the war itself did. Layout is also innovative: the whole thing is done up as a 19th century style newspaper rather than a book's traditional table of contents.

The Civil War Today

NYPL Biblion

Interesting effort from the NY Public Library to present a collection of everything they've got on the 1939 World's Fair. At heart it's simply browsable articles, photos, and other source material from the library's archives. But there's a couple of innovative (and, for my money, slightly overdone) navigation and presentation features. For example, rather than a text-only table of contents they've identified a half dozen or so themes and constructed a 3D-ish wall of icons you can browse through to explore each of these groups.

NYPL Biblion

Glo Bible

Bible reading app with some nifty features, including a zoomable book view that lets you go from a high-level view of all the books in the Old/New testament, down one magnification level to a view of one book (say, Exodus) and all its chapters, and, finally, down to page-view level. In other words: it's a great way to switch quickly from birdseye- to page-view level.

Glo Bible iPad app


Another Bible reading app. Filled with some powerful reader aids: lots of links within the text between different books; pop-up definitions of archaic terms; text comparisons (so you can see how the text varies between different translations); cross-reference previews (brief glimpse of the referenced text so you can see what the link is pointing towards before clicking it); and a dual-pane reading view so you can have multiple texts onscreen at the same time (e.g. the Bible and some commentary).

Logos Bible Software iPad app

Virtual History ROMA

A collection of historical essays, photos, and illustrations that offer a multimedia history of Rome. Particularly innovative features include: Overlays (move a slider and watch how a marsh in Rome changed from, say, 10 A.D. to the Colosseum in 72 A.D.) and virtual reality views (called "Bubble" views) that you can explore by moving your iPad around to pan across the scene.

Virtual History ROMA iPad app

Welcome to Pine Point

Okay, here's proof that the best action isn't happening only on the iPad. A digital book released earlier this spring, this one's web-based (and Flash-based, to boot). It combines video, text, and audio to tell the story of what happened to a town abandoned by the Canadian government. All in all, it's a really powerful tale and incredibly thoughtful integration of all the different media elements.

Welcome to Pine Point

What's crossed your radar? I'd love to hear; email me at peter dot meyers at gmail dot com.

Webcast: Digital Bookmaking Tools Roundup — Pete Meyers looks at the growing number of digital book tools: what's best, what's easiest to use, and what's worth putting in your book-building toolkit.

Join us on Thursday, June 30, 2011, at 10 am PT
Register for this free webcast


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May 26 2011

Part book, part film, part website

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers' project "Breaking the Page, Saving the Reader: A Buyer & Builder's Guide to Digital Books." We'll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead. (Note: This post originally appeared on A New Kind of Book. It's republished with permission.)

I've been writing about and helping create digital books for about 15 years now and I don't think I've seen anything as innovative, as well executed, and as plain lovely to look at as "Welcome to Pine Point." No disrespect to the great work done by teams at Push Pop (Our Choice), Touch Press (The Elements), or Potion (NYPL Biblion), but all those projects take the print page as the starting point and ask: how can we best recreate that reading experience onscreen?

"Pine Point," instead, is an example of something that couldn't exist in any other medium. Its creators describe it as "part book, part film, part website," which sounds about right; it mixes audio, video, still photos, prose, and movable images to tell the story of a Canadian town that was abandoned, and then demolished, in the late 1980s. But as most people reading this blog know: that multimedia stew's been cooked before.

Title page for Welcome to Pine Point
Title page for Welcome to Pine Point. Click to enlarge

So why is "Pine Point" such a success?

Quality, for starters. The team behind this project — Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons, aka The Goggles — have sweated the details on how to integrate all those various media elements in a viewer-friendly way, one that immerses the audience in the story. A story that, not incidentally, touches on themes (abandonment, aging, environmentalism) moving enough to reward the time it takes — about 30 minutes — to watch it.

I'll highlight below some features that make the work especially noteworthy, but I urge you to have a look for yourself. It's Flash, so no go for Apple's mobile gadgets. But, please, don't let that scare you off. And, hey, one other suggestion: don't try gulping this one down between meetings or while on a conference call. Wake up early one of these days or watch after the kids have gone to bed. Like any great book, it rewards attention and suffers from skimming.

Creator-led reading path

The impulse to hand over navigational control to readers in a digital book is considerable. After all, the web gave us the thrill of wandering across its endless terrain ...and who hasn't delighted in that? But books are different. Part of their appeal — especially those that tell stories — is how they offer a "sit-back" experience for readers. We follow, entranced, the author's tale; our only job as audience is turning the page. Tarting up a story with links to Wikipedia, "enhancements" that launch other apps, and anything else that requires the reader to decide what to explore — none of these things are in and of themselves bad; they just don't induce that magical feeling of losing yourself in a book.

And what you get when viewing "Pine Point" is exactly that. Thanks to the authors' decisions on what not to include, on how to arrange this picture next to that bit of prose, on how to compose a tightly scripted narrative ... they've betrayed every 21st century notion of reader-as-director and in exchange given us something precious: a polished vision that only happens when an artist labors and creates.

Now, that doesn't mean there are no bells, whistles and clickable lures in this work (more on those baubles in a moment); but the viewer is only invited to explore in ways that, to me, matched how my eye might linger on a rich and complexly designed print page.

Reader-controlled pacing

Movies proceed at whatever pace the director decides. A book, by contrast, puts the reader in charge of pacing. You can pause at any point to digest some surprising revelation, or re-read a passage that didn't quite register or moved you deeply. "Pine Point," it's true, is a kind of book/film/website hybrid. But where it feels most "book-like" to me is the way it's been designed to let the reader determine the speed at which he moves through the material.

Minimal interactivity

Everything, in other words, is not clickable — only the stuff that benefits from reader inspection (e.g. playing a video, click-turning a platter of buttons to explore what's on their backside). For everything else, the designers have made the great choice to minimize distraction and user anxiety by not littering the screen with "Hey!, Yo! Click me!" options.

Webcast: Digital Bookmaking Tools Roundup — Pete Meyers looks at the growing number of digital book tools: what's best, what's easiest to use, and what's worth putting in your book-building toolkit.

Join us on Thursday, June 30, 2011, at 10 am PT
Register for this free webcast


You know how, in a great movie, the score becomes part of the film in a way that's practically inseparable from the visuals and whatever the actors are saying? You don't notice the music because it's blended with all those other elements. Meanwhile the quality (even if you know nothing about sound design) matches the rest of what's onscreen. That's what you get in "Pine Point": a serious, contemplative, mood-setting score (courtesy of The Besnard Lakes). It's mesmerizing.

Video headshots

So maybe The Goggles guys didn't come up with this one on their own. I've seen it done elsewhere on the web and football fans will recognize it from the player/stat profiles in most big time games: the headshot that's not a still, but rather uses video. The effect is as instructive as it is unsettling: you watch the person and it's not exactly that they're squirming, but their face moves — an eye twitches or wanders; a finger comes up to scratch the face; lips get wetted. All told, you learn something more, something different, in these video portraits than you do in a normal headshot.

Custom-drawn UI

There's a definite visual theme — call it something like Nostalgic Scrapbook — throughout this work. And by spending the extra time to hand craft control elements ("page next" and "Go" buttons, menu trees, and so on), the designers have made sure that no visual intrusions occur, as would be the case if the stock Adobe controls were visible.

Graceful integration of text and images

This one rarely get done well, in my opinion. And you don't have to be a typography geek to notice what's easy to botch: as prose, pictures, and video mingle in digital books there's a certain amateur quality to things like font selection and positioning. What the "Pine Point" designers have done right is settled on a thematically consistent font, crafted a nice background for each phrase (to ensure visibility on the widely ranging videos and pix upon which the text is superimposed), and laid each block down with line breaks and alignment that's suggestive of the poetry that this writing aspires to. It's wonderful to read, it's lovely to look at, and it meshes perfectly with the visuals that accompany it.

Text and images integrated harmoniously
Text and images integrated harmoniously. Click to enlarge

Looping videos

If a page appears with a video queued up and waiting, readers need to lean forward and press play. That leads to the problem I touched on earlier: audiences like authors to "drive"; they're used to not having to make any decisions beyond turning the page. But then there's the flipside risk: if you present a viewer with a video on auto-start: a) if it's annoying you're gonna alienate the viewer, and b) what do you do when the video stops?

There's a kind of fluid continuity — a momentum — to books that can easily get disrupted if you reach the end of, say, a one-minute video and it just shuts off. So the "Pine Point" creators make the risky but ultimately successful decision to play their videos in an endless loop. What you'll notice, though, if you look closely at the start/restart seams, is the care they've taken to choose these points for maximum continuity. The effect of these video loops is that they contribute to the work's overall mesmerizing quality ... you can linger on a page and even forget you're seeing the same thing over and over.

Beautiful writing

From start to finish: it's spare, finely crafted, and consistent with the elegiac visual tone. Lovely.

Exploration encouraged ... within limits

I know, I know: I just got finished writing about how reader-controlled exploration is poison to the book-reading experience. But we're talking about a web-based book here for pete's sake, so maybe a teensy bit of well-crafted, carefully selected, and browsing-within-close-boundaries is ok? Okay. One of the best instances can be found in the Shelf Life section. It's a grid of looping videos, each of which you can click to play.

Grid of continuously looping videos
Grid of continuously looping videos. Click to enlarge

You'll see how smoothly the play action is when you switch between videos: no lag, no jarring audio break ... the sound of one gently gives way to the sound of the next. No pop-up window or different media player launches to break the spell of the book that you're within. It's all perfectly immersive.

Side-by-side videos

For example: the opening frame of the What's Weird section. It's a comparison between 1987 (left) and 2009 (right).

Grid of continuously looping videos
Side-by-side videos showing before-and-after scenes of Pine Point. Click to enlarge

It's a powerful way of depicting before and after, with the left video underscoring the point that life was teeming back then and the right side showing how, today, it's a desolate and abandoned site.

Source document integration

This one's also in the What's Weird section, about four screens in. (Okay, I've done enough gushing to lodge one complaint: they need to come up with a better way to cite individual pages.) Here we see memos from the government announcing the town's closing. Without any annotations these documents contain too much text to focus on what's important. The solution? Highlight the key points in yellow so the viewer can home in on the key points.

Grid of continuously looping videos
Key passages highlighted in yellow. Click to enlarge

Enough telling. Go, watch it yourself. See what digital books can do that can't be done in print and still satisfy that reading experience that all of us book fans crave.

P.S.: Just learned a bit more about The Goggles' production partners in this effort: the interactive division of the National Film Board of Canada. Looks like they've got a bunch of neat projects on their site.


May 19 2011

What ebook designers can learn from Bible-reading software

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers' project "Breaking the Page, Saving the Reader: A Buyer & Builder's Guide to Digital Books." We'll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead. (Note: This post originally appeared on A New Kind of Book. It's republished with permission.)

Plenty of people open the Bible for inspiration. Today, I'm turning to this all-time bestseller for ideas on how to create better ebooks. I've been kicking the tires on two reading systems — Logos Bible Software and Glo Bible — both of which are packed with reader-friendly ebook features. Let's jump right in:

Reading plans

Anyone tackling a big topic (the Bible, Ulysses, CSS, whatever) faces huge, morale-draining amounts of material. Commitment is tough to maintain. Publishers can help by splitting the reading load into small, easy to conquer segments. Glo, for example, lets you set up a schedule built around what you want to read (just the New Testament, for instance, or the whole Bible), or how much time you want to spend each day.

Glo reading plan

Logos does the same and lets you export the schedule to your computer's calendar, complete with pre-programmed auto-reminders.

A related idea, similar to the reading suggestions found at the end of textbook chapters: offer guidance on what to read outside of the book in hand. For example: blog posts, Twitter feeds, web articles, and so on. In an age of information overload a curated, guided path is what many overwhelmed readers would welcome.

Inline footnotes & cross reference previews

Great reading experiences happen when we lose ourselves in the text, forget the online world's blinking lures, and submit to the text's "flow." Any interruption — from a nearby toddler meltdown to time spent flipping to the back of a book to consult an endnote — disrupts this state. No advice here regarding screaming kids, but ebooks can end the attention-jarring chore of footnote lookups. Check out, for example, Logos' tap-and-you-see-it, tap-and-it's-gone implementation:

Tappable footnotes in Logos

The idea here is pretty straightforward: embed foot- and endnotes "behind" the body text, in a ready and waiting manner, just a tap away whenever the reader needs 'em.

Most current e-reading systems instead follow the cumbersome path established by print books: force the reader to flip to another section of the book, read the note, and then flip back. (Even books that use sidenotes — commonly seen in Shakespeare's plays — disrupt our mental groove by forcing us to move from main text to margin.) Making the notes available and hideable at a tap lets us preserve our reading momentum and summon help only when we need it.

And what about those "cross reference previews" I mentioned in the header? Check out how that works in Logos:

Cross reference previews in Logos

The first tap gets you the number of the related passage; the second tap summons the first line of the referenced section. And if that snippet proves interesting enough, the "Jump to reference" link awaits for you to head over to the new section. Nice.

Analytic aids

This one's similar to footnotes, but amps up the kinds and degree of guidance a really good book can offer its readers. Think of this type of supplemental info as a friendly teacher, waiting in the virtual margins, ready to offer commentary, explication, and reading extras. Logos' iPad app, for example, offers an incredibly rich "Passage Guide" customized to whatever section you're currently reading. It's stocked with all sorts of help: links to specific passages in other books (ready to read — not just marketing teasers); cross references to related Biblical passages; and image collections.

The passage guide in Logos

Bundled books

There's lots of chatter in future-of-the-book circles about the day when — Google and Judge Chin willing — all books will be connected via hyperlinks to each other. While that tectonic battle progresses, Logos has built a smaller version of this vision that just might be more useful. Namely, they've put together a mini-network of related books: dozens of titles that any serious Biblical student would love. It's a hand-picked, rights-cleared little library of translations, commentary, and historical background. Now, the real payoff comes when you see how Logos integrates the collection. It isn't just supplying a "dumb" pile of related books. Instead, they've done things like let you display multiple translations in line-by-line layout, read two books in adjacent panes, and created hyperlinks between significant parts of the collection.

Logos' mini library

Rich-page layout

Where Logos bundles other books, Glo surrounds the pages of its Bibles (six different editions available) with smaller but no less helpful supplements. Each page comes nicely designed with an easily hideable collection of notes (yours, other people's), background essays, and art and photos. The fact you can hide this stuff is great; it's there to investigate when you need it, and outta sight when you want to focus.

Rich page layout in Glo

The notes I mentioned are themselves noteworthy. Glo has partnered with a popular Bible reading website called YouVersion, which lets Bible fans post their own commentary on specific passages. All that stuff is now available, if you like, as you read. Especially with a subject like Bible studies, which generally attracts a collection of likeminded individuals with a passion for the topic, the idea of publicly viewable notes is powerful. This is precisely what's missing in Amazon's laudable but not-yet-there "publicly visible notes" feature. Most of us don't care what the world at large thinks about, say, James Gleick's latest book, "The Information." But, man, would it be useful if I could view the marginalia of people I respected or who'd demonstrated a commitment to the topic.

Zoomable text & objects

No, I'm not talking about some feature that lets you bump up the font to granny-friendly dimensions. What Glo offers is a service that serious readers of non-fiction will love: the ability to telescope in from a birdseye view of an entire book ...

Glo Bible: the highest zoom view

down to a specific section level ...

Glo Bible: the 2nd highest zoom view

and end up in a particular passage ...

Glo Bible: the page view

Some readers won't give a fig for this feature. But for those of us whose brains need to switch between macro and micro views, the ability to switch from big picture to up-close detail is a great learning aid. The iPad's touchscreen makes the whole process a delight; you tap to move between levels. That makes it easy to sniff around at the highest level and then swoop in when you decide what you want to read.

Glo's zoomable objects are equally impressive. No mere pinching and spreading here. What they've done for many of their multimedia objects is stitched together hugely detailed composites — virtually stacked collections that let you view, say, a church and then zoom into its various nooks and crannies. Check out the path you can trace (by tapping, of course) an astonishing six levels down into this church:

Six different image zoom levels in Glo Bible

If you can believe it, I've just scratched the surface of what Logos and Glo do. The PC-based versions of each program — both of which are available in stripped-down freebie and souped-up premium editions — are plenty worth checking out, as are the iPad editions.


May 12 2011

3 ways to improve ebook note taking

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers' project "Breaking the Page, Saving the Reader: A Buyer & Builder's Guide to Digital Books." We'll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead. (Note: This post originally appeared on A New Kind of Book. It's republished with permission.)

Is anyone happy with today's ebook note-taking tools? I'm talking about what you get with Kindle, Nook, iBooks, and so on. You can highlight passages and add notes, but that's pretty much where things start and stop.

Think about how limited that is, compared to what you can do in a print book:

  • Jot notes anywhere you like (e.g. blank pages in the back) to keep track of your overall reaction to the book.
  • Highlight non-contiguous phrases on a page, editing out all the boring bits and spotlighting the author's best points.
  • Draw arrows, circles, and all manner of geometric curlicues, reminding you of how this section here relates to that point over there.
  • Construct simple diagrams (e.g. tree-like structures), if you're the type who likes to think about ideas in terms of hierarchies.
  • Easily review all this stuff by flipping through the pages of a book.

None of that's possible on any mainstream ebook reading system today.

So here are some suggestions, which, incidentally, I think would be perfect for an eager-to-experiment underdog (Kobo, are you listening?). Add a beefed up note-taking system similar to what I describe below and soon, I bet, you'll get more business from serious readers.

Offer pen-like and other rich media markup tools

You'd be able, for example, to draw a big bracket around a chunk of text and then an arrow from there to another spot. (Bonus points if you could write directly on the arrow, as many of us do when scrawling notes by hand.) Highlighting non-contiguous passages would, finally, be possible. Heck, why not let readers also record audio- or video notes? We improve memory and interpretation the more we annotate material in personalized ways. Talk about interactive books.

Offer a way to attach a note at either the chapter- or book-level

This one's a no-brainer. Plus, it's dead-simple to implement and would help note-taking nerds do what they love: keep track of thoughts that relate to large chunks of text (as opposed to the current systems, which limit notes to whatever sentence or passage has been highlighted).

Provide a passage-quoting bulletin board

Think of this as a personalized mash-up tool, one that lets you grab bits as you read, add notes to them, and then assemble the whole shebang on a kind of virtual corkboard. This idea directly addresses why serious note-takers mark up their text: to add personalized commentary in order to make the original text more meaningful, and more memorable to them. That's where the real value in, say, a business book lies: not simply what Malcolm Gladwell has to say, but what he makes you think about your own business and how you might implement his takeaways.

As with so many digital tools, this feature could deliver plenty more value than its analog equivalent. Specifically, this tool would let a reader quickly "grab" chunks (think: something like a header or sub-header within a chapter) and then post them on this virtual notepad. Each of these idea snapshots could be circled, repositioned, enlarged (great for emphasizing relative importance), annotated ... really, whatever you might do to encode these reminders with the sort of personalized info we drum up when taking notes. Here's a quick-and-dirty sketch that gives you the gist of what one of these guys might look like:

Marginalia diagram

Each of these headers (written by the reader, auto-generated by one of those text-summarizing utilities, or pulled from a passage's nearby headers) would, on tap, expand to reveal the full text "beneath" the blurb, as well as any notes you'd made.

What kinds of note-taking tools would you like to see added to your digital books?

Associated photo on home and category pages: Marginalia by Cat Sidh, on Flickr


May 04 2011

Skimming on the digital side

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers' project "Breaking the Page, Saving the Reader: A Buyer & Builder's Guide to Digital Books." We'll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead. (Note: This post originally appeared on A New Kind of Book. It's republished with permission.)

The iPad and other touchscreen devices seem perfect for replicating the page flip. After all, one of the first gestures users "get" is the swipe: it's intuitive, it's quick, it's fun. And despite the power packed into today's tablets, virtual page flipping isn't as useful as its print counterpart. For starters, paging speed is noticeably slower than what you get with a wet pointer finger and the latest issue of, say, People.

A bigger problem lies with a common digital publishing culprit: trying to faithfully replicate all the "features" of print. A regular magazine has pages, the thinking goes, so by golly we're gonna reproduce pages in the digital edition. Lotsa problems with that approach, but for this post let's tackle the "filmstrip"-style page-browser found in many e-magazines. Consider Fortune's, for example:

Fortune's Page Viewer icons
The "Page Viewer" icons are too small to deliver useful info

What the average eye can easily decipher in each of these thumbnails is close to, approximately, zero. And once you decide you don't want to read, say, the article about Twitter, why the heck do you have to page through each of the article's other unhelpful icons? The system, in other words, replicates the act of browsing without delivering its essential benefit. You get none of the come-hither signals that are easy to spot on a print page: headlines, pull quotes, pictures, sidebars, and so on.

App designers, my suggestion: don't throw the browser out with the bath water. Instead, a little redesign can satisfy the reader's desire to skim quickly and dive in when something looks worthwhile. A few suggestions:

One icon per article is sufficient

Print-based page flipping is how we readers solve what is, at heart, an information architecture problem: most magazines order their contents in a way that doesn't match our preferred reading path. So we flip to find the juiciest, most satisfying bits. In an app, then, swiping through page icons isn't the best way to aid that quest.

How about, instead, article representations—let's call ‘em blurbs—that quickly convey what the piece is about? Something, in other words, like what you get in a table of contents (e.g. title + quick summary). Wired, for example, uses a horizontally-scrolling system:

Wired's horizontally scrolling TOC
Wired magazine's horizontally scrolling TOC is pretty useful

A useful blurb at the top of the screen lets you know what the article or ad is about. And the size of the replica that hangs below the blurb signals the length of what you're in for. Nice.

Similar options exist, many of which don't require the creation of new material. How about, for example, bundling up and making swipeable each article's nut graf and a great pullquote? Or the article's best art (an image, say) with the title super-imposed using compelling typography? (The Bold Italic magazine, a current events guide to San Francisco, sorta/kinda does this in their app.) Or even simply reproducing the article's title page with the headline's font bumped up for easier viewing.

No need to replicate the trim size of the printed page

The current approach in most page browsers is to offer up page miniatures that replicate the aspect ratio of the print magazine's dimensions. Why? Probably because designers wish to replicate the experience of reading the print edition. (Not to mention the fact that thumbnails are easy to generate.) But the essential service readers are looking for has nothing to do with trim size; it's about quickly scanning big chunks of info and deciding where to spend our reading time.

That purpose can be better served by making the scannable units large enough to deliver meaningful info. So bump up the thumbnail to, say, a rectangle and give that headline it contains more room to breathe; you can even, then, include an image. Even better: have the blurb container's size reflect the importance of the article within the magazine. A jumbo rectangle, for example, could be used to showcase an important feature while a smaller square would indicate a shorter piece. Here's a quick example:

multi-shaped article example
Click to enlarge.

Expand and reveal

Apple has added a neat-o feature to its iPad Photos app. You've probably seen it: you spread your fingers over any photo stack icon to temporarily reveal the other pictures beneath it. If you did the same for each browsable icon representing an article, you'd give article browsers a chance to peek at individual pages before committing. Another option: let users control the size of the page-browsing icons. Popular Mechanics uses this approach.

Popular Mechanics' sizing handle
The sizing handle on the right lets readers adjust the page icons' size (click to enlarge).

See those little icon-size controls (the four stacked lines on the right side of the page browser)? You can drag them up or down to change the size from jumbo to skinny mini.

Got any examples you like of digital page-browsing solutions? Let me know (peter.meyers AT gmail DOT com) and I'll add them right here.


April 28 2011

What's new? Alerting readers to ebook revisions

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers' project "Breaking the Page, Saving the Reader: A Buyer & Builder's Guide to Digital Books." We'll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead. (Note: This post originally appeared on A New Kind of Book. It's republished with permission.)

Ebooks, in theory, should be easy to change. After all, a huge print book drawback — stale text sitting on a shelf — no longer constrains digital editions of textbooks, fast-moving tech topics, or a biography of Charlie Sheen.

But between theory and reality stand two big challenges:

  • Getting the changes to readers who've already downloaded an ebook file
  • Spotlighting what's changed, so folks don't have to hunt for the meaningful fresh bits

The bottleneck blame lies with those who control the e-reading systems: Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, etc. None of them make it easy for publishers to push out updates to ebook buyers. (Amazon does have a primitive change-notification system, but it seems mainly geared toward correcting errors. In the three years I've been buying lots of Kindle books, I've never received an update notice.) It's not that the technology doesn't exist: Apple's got a great system for alerting app owners that changes are available and even gives developers a great way to list important changes.

The Updates section on an iPad makes it easy to see what's changed in each app.

Why can't we have something similar for ebooks?

I think it's a huge problem waiting to be solved. Plenty of publishers, including mine, have taken the first step by offering free downloads each time an author makes a big change to an ebook file. But what's missing is a convenient, reader-friendly system that lets everyone know what's new. Currently, you have to grab and install the revised edition and then figure out where the changes are. What a hassle.

Computer book publisher The Pragmatic Programmers has a solution that points in the right direction: “release notes” at the beginning of each revision they release. (No surprise, given that programmers for decades have had to figure out ways of alerting customers what's changed in their software.) It's an improvement, but the Pragmatic's system seems particularly geared toward their “Beta Books” program, in which authors release drafts as they write; the release notes consequently read like a long list of items the author is knocking off his “to do” list as he works toward the finish line. And you still have to deal with downloading the new file and importing it into whatever e-reading system you use. No fun.

Sports blog SB Nation takes a similar approach, but sidesteps the distribution hassle since they publish on the web. Their StoryStream system treats each article as a kind of continuously updated blog post, complete with header labels for “Original Story,” “Major Updates,” and then a big collection of all the posts with minor updates — all listed in a long-page scroll. Changes can be viewed either by visiting the website or signing up for an RSS feed. Here's one example.

But I think what's needed is something that's more tightly integrated into the book reading experience. Something that puts a nicer polish on the change tracking and offers the equivalent of bumping into an author on the street and asking: “So, Herman, what's new in your book?”

Below, I've sketched up one design idea that combines three features: a simple bullet list highlighting key updates; a video message from the author, giving him or her a chance to talk about what's most important; and a combo treemap-style/heat map that offers a quick look at where big changes were made.

What's New
A design sketch for a system that would let readers know what's changed in an ebook.

I'd love to hear thoughts from others about how they'd like to see this problem solved. My contact info is here. I'm in the early planning stages for my next book and I'm eager to incorporate any reader-friendly solutions — especially ones that can be implemented in ePub (vs. an app or a web-based book).


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