The Future of User-Centric Ebooks

Article ImageMany content experts have often complained about ebook publishers that, unfortunately, don't often take full advantage of the technology and instead simply deliver static, electronic versions of an existing book. To many, this seems like a wasted opportunity to offer more value to readers, but others are starting to offer suggestions on how to improve the experience.

In fact, Swets--a provider of content management solutions for publishers and libraries--tackled the idea in a blog post titled "Redesigning Ebooks Around the User." "Instead of just giving someone a PDF to read, which is basically a picture of a paper book, it's about making the paper book able to interact with the learner or user," explains Marie Turek, product manager of ebooks/Mendeley at Swets.

"We can see from usage that people are starting to expect different things from their ebooks," adds Turek. "So by designing a book outside of the normal printing flow, and thinking of it from the beginning as an electronic tool or interactive piece of information would completely change the way that books are built, the way authors are picked, the way devices are thought about."

Textbooks, which are updated more frequently and offer a variety of learning materials to students, are especially ripe for the kinds of enhancements critics have long suggested ebooks should incorporate. "So you could have additional educational support material or videos ... or you could have the students read up until a certain point and take a small quiz, and if they didn't capture enough information the program will help them go back to the points they missed," says Turek.

In fact, in many ways, textbooks are ahead of the game with companies providing platforms to create these kinds of user-centric experiences. In February, Kno, Inc. announced Advance, an interactive learning platform that enables publishers and authors to turn a flat file or PDF into an interactive ebook. Editors and authors can add videos, audio, websites, 3D objects, calculators, or simulations to their books-and when they add new elements, those will be pushed to users already using the book. Kno's tools also allow publishers to make the exercises and assignments in their books interactive-even reporting grades back to the student user.

User-centered ebooks can also be beneficial for medical professionals, notes Turek. "There are already lots of reference tools on the market for the medical profession but imagine an interactive reference tool which takes that to another level," says Turek. "For instance, by uploading CAT scans the surgeon can practice surgery. Or, a patient's entire history is analyzed through a tool and even compared to family histories ... or [there could] even [be] a social aspect to research that connects experienced doctors to the searching doctor."

So, what can the average publisher do to make their ebooks more user-friendly? One factor to consider is digital rights management (DRM). Jeremy Greenfield, editorial director of F+W Media, Inc.'s Digital Book World, notes that most publishers sell their books with DRM. The reasons why are "complicated." He explains, "There is the belief in the industry, that has not been fully studied, that if your book has DRM it helps prevent piracy and ultimately will help you sell more books rather than people downloading them for free."

Some publishers, however, have moved away from certain kinds of DRM, according to Greenfield. "One of the largest publishers, Macmillan, is now selling some of its books DRM free," he continues.

Another major issue, says Greenfield, is that authors and agents are "very much in favor of DRM." He adds, "We just did a survey of about 5,000 authors and we are coming out with a report-‘What Authors Want: Understanding Authors in the Era of Self-Publishing.' And when we talked to authors about DRM, about half of them are in favor of strengthening it or leaving it alone. The reason why I think is partially the belief that it helps prevent piracy."

The Swets blog post also touches on searchability, noting that "this is the essence of all things digital, and all the more crucial in a learning environment. If the search is not robust or intelligent, it will have severe consequences for the content's utility."

One book maker with a robust search option is Inkling, which makes interactive books for iPhones, iPads, and the web. According to Greenfield, Inkling is "basically turning Google into a storefront." He explains, "Inkling, which is one of the more visible and larger publishers and distributors of how-to content-textbooks and cookbooks and things like that-has just made a huge announcement that all of its content is available as searchable on Google."

Greenfield feels that all ebook publishers should work on better designs for their products. "I would say there is a wide range of quality when it comes to how ebooks are laid out. Should everyone work on better design? Absolutely; I think that's something that would benefit any player in the industry," he observes.

All in all, as the publishing industry continues to evolve, Turek says she thinks the conventional publishing workflows will change along with it. "I think as the publishing industry changes the idea of having an idea, sending it to your publisher for review, and at the end figuring out how to digitize it, that sort of traditional workflow will almost become backwards. Instead, you'll have an idea and it will automatically come to the author's ... brain about how to make it interactive from the beginning. You pick different formats for the book-instead of picking PDF you would pick ePub3; you pick up designers, artists and all would be involved in creating a book from the beginning."

Though Turek says Swets' idea of the user-centric ebook is not about increasing sales, she did concede increased sales could be a byproduct. "People want to have new technology; they want to have things that are tailor made for them," she says. "Of course, people want to have technology help them-whether that's helping them have more fun or helping them learn better it doesn't matter."

("EBook" image courtesy of Shutterstock.)