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Ebook Enhancements, Take Two: Shorter, Less Sparkly, More Functional

Ebook readers have made their preferences clear. Video extras, background audio, virtual tours of the author’s workspace: No thanks, say buyers. So-called “enhanced ebooks” have generated a reaction similar to New Coke’s reception: a “massive withdrawal of enthusiasm” (so said a Coke exec, in a massive, if admirably clever, bit of truth telling). Is ebook innovation over? Is the finely polished print replica all there is to the digital publishing revolution? Not from where I sit.

I spot five likely areas where we’ll soon see ebooks exceed the appeal of print. These features aren’t meant for every book, nor for every reader (hi Mom!), but this coming wave of utility-driven improvements are exactly the tools that serious readers — with habits shaped and sharpened by their exposure to other kinds of digital media — are looking for.

Start Screen

The table of contents presents a pretty dry and rigid itinerary to a book. Why not showcase, in addition to this traditional list, other points of entry? Why not spotlight noteworthy excerpts and key claims for those of us unwilling to commit a full 20 hours (or however long it takes to read a full book). Some possibilities:

  • Best Bits. A dozen or so book review-worthy passages or anecdotes that are the author’s favorites. Bonus points to designs that emulate magazine cover, print ad, and web design best practices. Think: rotating image galleries (with provocative pullquotes artfully postioned); typographically embellished quotes; and so on.
  • The Gist. A succinct account of the book’s main claims. We see this kind of write-up all the time in book reviews, blog posts, and tweets. Why not include the writer’s own version, giving her a chance to promulgate an authorized depiction of what she’s actually saying.
  • Reading Paths. There are plenty of books whose contents can be read, rewardingly, in piecemeal fashion, out of order, or dipped into and out of. (I worked on one project with behavioral economist Dan Ariely where we “re-cut” his bestseller Predictably Irrational into new topic-themed collections that were not visible in the original table of contents.) It’s not an either/or proposition: you can present a traditional TOC and offer readers new ways of navigating smaller portions drawn from the same material.


It surprises me how often I get as much from an abridged or high-quality second-hand account of a book compared to reading it in full. (I’ve done this exercise no less than a dozen times: starting with an extended review or excerpt in the New York Review of Books, the Times magazine, or Brain Pickings and then reading the full book itself.) There are plenty of times I want the full treatment, but just as often I’m satisfied with a briefer, more compact account. In fact I’ll segment my reading needs one step further: the executive summary edition. Why can’t our ebooks deliver all three of these sizes — short, medium, and long — in one package?

Personal Reading Dashboard

Confession: I do a lousy job of mastering the topics I’m interested in. Books aren’t helping. Surrounded by these rich troves of guidance I skitter around between titles, randomly choosing what to read next, like so many links tapped in a Twitter feed. What I long for is the chance to plan and execute sustained reading journeys — on China, on climate change, on relativity. Topic quests that chip away at what I don’t know. Campaigns to refresh and challenge what I think I understand. What I need is something that no single book can provide. I need a personal reading dashboard — a knowledge-capturing apparatus, purpose-built for organization and retrieval.

My Kindle home screen is a primitive start, but nowhere near the solution. Personal information managers like Evernote and DevonThink come closer. But cordoned off as they are from our books’ meaty innards they require more work to populate than I have time available. What I envision are books that can break apart and travel into some kind of modern, software-powered reading collage, where I can commingle my thoughts with an author’s considered intelligence. Not me as sideline highlighter and note-taker, but with full rights of expression and presence. What I understand and can recapitulate about relativity is every bit as valuable — to me — as Einstein’s own findings.

‘To Go’ Packets

For the clever quip I want to make on Twitter, inside a slideshow presentation at my next conference talk, in an email to my daughter. What I want my books to deliver more seamlessly, less cumbersomely, are grab ’n go portions. Sure, sure: I can, on most ebooks, select a passage and then share to Facebook, then go to my Kindle highlights web page, then copy the text — come on! Seriously? With all the competition for my attention these days, books can’t afford to make sharing the best of themselves so hard.

Find & Organize

The ebook’s “dumb” search oval is a handy aid for quick lookups (when was Francisco first mentioned? why is Bogota so important?). But it’s only a meager start for readers interested in sophisticated queries. The Kindle’s X-Ray feature is a nice step in the right direction. It gives me handy listings of character mentions (check out the first one or two for a memory-jiggling characterization) and key Wikipedia entries for place names and concepts.

But my appetite for more book-specific content slicing and dicing is greater than what Amazon’s algorithms can deliver. In the biographies I read I want to toggle between a traditional narrative account and timeline-style depictions of the subject’s life. Then I want to switch again and see what happened to her in various key locations. I want my 25th anniversary edition of James Gleick’s masterful The Information to be so intelligently structured that I can siphon out just those sections that cover, say, war and cryptography. And for David Byrne’s riveting recent tale of How Music Works (to pick one final random example) I want push-button access to what he has to say about percussive instruments. In other words, I want search that does more than just find keywords.

And once I’ve poked my nose into these filtered subsets I want to be able to set aside — inside the book itself — the excerpts I find most interesting. The current generation of e-reader highlight and note-taking tools is nothing like what I have in mind here. Pinterest is closer to a useful design solution. A personalized roundup, easy to browse, no separation between my expression of interest and the underlying content itself.

Add Less, Do More

Phase one of the ebook revolution is over. We now have high-quality replicas of print books easily available on good-enough reading machines. We got sidetracked in phase two, led astray by how easy those machines made it to add more stuff: videos, audio, in-book social media gewgaws. Time for a reset. Let’s use software smarts to enable new and heretofore unmatched feats of reader-friendly utility. Let’s make our ebooks smarter, faster, better. Let’s start by adding less and instead instrumenting these digital documents so they help us do more.

My forthcoming book — Breaking the Page — is an expanded take on the ideas covered in this post. Interested? Sign up for notification and I’ll let you know when it’s ready — the manuscript is in editorial review, so not much longer!