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The Infinite Canvas: Really Big eBooks & What We Might Put in ’Em

More than just a super-sized sheet of digital paper, touchscreen displays invite new kinds of content & reading experiences Next week I’m speaking at the Books in Browsers conference on “the infinite canvas”. When I started chewing on this topic, my thoughts centered on a very literal vision: a super-ginormous sheet for authors to compose on. And while I think there’s some great creative territory to explore in this notion of space spanning endlessly up, down, left, and right, I also think there are a bunch of other ways to define what an infinite canvas is. Not simply a huge piece of virtual paper, but instead an elastic space that does things no print surface could do, no matter how big it is. So, herewith, a quick stab at some non-literal takes on the topic. My version, if you will, of Six Different Ways of Thinking About the Infinite Canvas. Continuously ... Read More

A Look at Links: Help or Hindrance to eBook Readers?

A skeptic's argument against indiscriminate, “lazy linking” Hyperlinks often get marquee billing as one of ebooks’ main advantages over print: an easy way to expand the scope and depth of any document, enriching it—and its readers—with targeted additions. I’ve participated in plenty of ebook development projects in which links are regarded as a kind of bare minimum, enhancement no-brainer. But do hyperlinks always help? Does their presence ever hurt the reading experience? No and sometimes. Let me take a crack at breaking down the downside of linking and review a few alternatives. Defensive Linking Some links read, to me at least, like a kind of defensive gesture on the part of the writer. As proof that he really knows what he’s talking about and is ready to share notes and research to bolster the authority his writing aspires to. But consider how distracting a link-laden sentence like ... Read More

iPad Audit: What My iPad Use Says About the Fire’s Future

Last Wednesday's Kindle Fire unveiling sparked one big question for me: how exactly do I use my iPad? Who knows for sure how the Kindle Fire will do? It's crazy how confident some folks are about who it will kill, maim—or catapult to corporate dominance. The dang thing hasn't even been touched yet by more than its birth parents and a close relative or two. (Me, I got a finger or two on it at last Wednesday's press conference. I can't add anything concrete to what you've probably already read.) But what I can do is offer one man's report, a year and a half in, on how I use my iPad. My goal? Compare and contrast the iPad's talents with what we know the Fire will deliver. From there, maybe there's a conclusion or two to be drawn about how this new tablet matches up against its two main competitors: ... Read More

Pictures & Prose: Making ’Em Work Together

A novel that uses words & illustrations to tell its story offers lessons on integrating media What’s the best way to combine text and pictures?  Most designers—print or digital—try to artfully position both on the same page. Brian Selznick, author and illustrator of The Invention of Hugo Cabret uses a deceptively simple alternative: he devotes an entire spread (that is, two pages side by side) to each of the hundreds of illustrations in this charming and inventive story of a boy living alone in a train station. So it’s: page of text, page of text, drawing spread, page of text, and so on. Now that might sound like a lousy idea, one that could easily impose a page flipping burden on the reader as she flips between pages to see the drawings or, worse, skips right over them. You see this happen all the time in computer books (sorry, O’Reilly!). The ... Read More

Redmond on Reading: Digital Book Design Ideas from Windows 8

Innovative ideas for digital book designers from Microsoft’s “Metro” touchscreen interface Microsoft deserves most of the design criticism it gets. But let’s give them credit when they move in the right direction. What they’ve previewed in Windows 8—especially the Metro touchscreen interface—is really lovely. It’s humane, efficient, and innovative. In fact, I think there’s plenty in it for digital book designers to think about emulating. I whipped out my notepad while watching one of their Build presentations—“8 traits of great Metro style apps”—and jotted down some key takeaways. (Also included are approximate timestamps so you don’t have to sit through the whole 90 minutes.) The best part? Whether or not Microsoft actually ships something that matches their demo, you can benefit from the great thinking they’ve done. Tablet Users’ Posture and Hand Position (16:31) Microsoft did loads of research, hoping to identify how tablet users sat and where they placed their hands ... Read More

Lightbox Layout: Serving Up the Right Picture at the Right Point

Innovative layout features for keeping an article's pictures in sync with a reader’s progress I’ve got some seriously mixed opinions about Biblion—the iPad app for browsing the New York Public Library’s 1939 World’s Fair archive. On the one hand, it’s got few peers in rethinking how a document and photo collection can be packaged up in a fun to browse way. On the other hand, the whole design feels like one of my sketchbooks: overflowing with every kind of zany, document design experiment that my caffeine-fueled mind can squirt out. Five minutes or so with this app and I find myself suffering from what might be called document disorientation—an unsettling sense that I don’t quite know where I am, what I’ve read, and how much remains to explore. I don't, in short, find it a soothing or immersive reading experience. But despite all that I’m here to sing Team Biblion’s praises ... Read More

Missing Entry: Whither the eBook Index?

A well designed index can help instrument smarter ebooks, making it easier for readers to find & retrieve info more efficiently Indexers are the offensive linemen of book publishing. No one notices their work until they screw up. The index has been on my mind lately, and not just because I cursed a (print) book for omitting a key word in its lookup list. (Tip: use Amazon’s Search Inside tool as a makeshift index.) I've also been having some enormously instructive exchanges with folks who do serious, in-the-trenches indexing work—special shout out to Jan Wright, Joshua Tallent, and Nancy Humphreys—and who grapple with today’s question: why has the ebook index gone AWOL? I’ll get to some reasons in a moment, but first let’s consider why it is that people use indexes. Looking up a specific term, of course, is the biggie. You’re reading a book on illuminated manuscripts, say, ... Read More

The Pros & Cons of Scrolling

Scrolling’s good for long reads, but for TOCs it can often hide choices from readers Designers of digital books and magazines face an elemental question: to page or to scroll? Might as well ask: Android or iPhone? There is no single correct answer. Here, I’ll chip off a teensy portion of the tussle: some very specific use cases in which it feels like the content itself helps point to the right choice. I think vertical scrolling is good for long magazine articles or even chunks of a lengthy narrative (chapters in a book, for example). The unbroken, flowing layout matches the mental state you engage in when following a writer’s extended argument or story. In the case of magazine apps like Project and Wired, these vertical dives into individual articles contrast nicely with the horizontal swiping required to move between articles; that action, I think, matches the kind of browsing ... Read More

Search Inside eBooks: Why Readers Look & What They’re Finding

Often billed as one of the ebook’s marquee attractions, how well do in-book search tools really work? Not all ebook search monocles are equal. Options range from non-existent (hey, Kobo! if there’s room in the programming budget for virtual reading awards like the Inverted Comma and the BookLover, then it’s time to spring for a search tool, too), to roughly implemented (Nook), and from nicely polished (Kindle, iBooks) to fully instrumented (Inkling). To help make sense of what works versus what doesn’t consider first why readers search. If the title at hand is a reference or how-to book it’s often to look up a specific ingredient or procedure. But those kinds of books aren’t actually selling that well in eBookLand; publishing are turning those titles into apps. Instead, ebook fans are gobbling up narrative—fiction and non-fiction alike. Those titles all top the charts and so it’s worth refining that earlier question: ... Read More

“I Don’t Know”: eBook Design Questions I’m Trying to Answer

Now that I’m well into this book-writing project—Breaking the Page—one thing’s clear: the questions I’m jotting down as I write are sometimes as interesting as any answers I, or anyone else for that matter, has come up with. Put another way: we who work on the forefront of the transition from print to screen should operate with a certain mindfulness that frequently we have, um, no idea of what we’re doing. And that in addition to experimenting vigorously we should bear in mind that the simple act of saying I don’t know sometimes is the best way to figure where we need to turn our attention. So, with that in mind, what follows are some of the questions I’ve been chewing on and plan on tackling in my book. What kinds of new forms will digital books lead to? The prevailing “shape” of a print book is linear. The writer writes 384 ... Read More