…or, Why Apple should talk to librarians about iBooks.
What makes me nervous about iBooks, the new eBook app from Apple targeted for their iPad, is not what you might expect. DRM, cost models doesn’t worry me. These are mostly imposed by the publishers, and we saw how this played out in music and MP3′s. It is certainly not that eReaders or the move away from physical books in some way endangers the future of the library. Libraries are about knowledge and facilitation, not artifacts and stuff.
No, what worries me about iBooks is that it is so damn boring. I actually found myself angry and disappointed after the big iPad announcement. I expected so much more. I was a little apprehensive about posting these thoughts because I haven’t actually seen the iBooks software. So for all I know, everything I am about to say is there, but there just wasn’t enough time to talk about them. So if that is the case, Apple, my bad. If not, what were you thinking?!
You have a reputation for reinventing things. The iPod, iPhone, etc were amazing because they did things I always wanted and didn’t know, or they did something I had been doing, and suddenly realized there was a much better way. Cool.
So ebooks… apparently I was missing color and a really cool page turning animation? Really? I still look at the promo video and say to myself, it is like watching a video of someone reading a hardcover book, and calling it digital. I can buy a book with a click of button and download it in real time. Cool, and then it goes on, wait for it, a little wooden bookshelf that can’t show more than 15 or so books? PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE tell me there is more there.
Here’s where talking with a librarian would help. First, we understand that books are inherently social things (to be precise the act of reading, not the books themselves). We pick the next book based on recommendations, or from talking with other folks. Also, we pass them around to stimulate discussions. We highlight them for ourselves and for others. Librarians also understand that you need to arrange these books by something more than title. This is not about Dewey and classifications, it is about people and their bookshelves. I put science fiction together, sure, but I also put together a bunch of books and papers together that I’m reading for a class.
Pardon my bluntness, but after a few centuries can we just go ahead and say that there are better ways to organize books than book shelves!
Also, as an author I am trying to stimulate conversations with my books. These may be conversations within the reader, and/or with a community. What excites me about ebooks is not that they are easier to carry around, but that they are digital documents. Couple that with a digital network, and now we are talking about reinventing reading.
So what should iBooks look like?
With a ubiquitous network connection, not only could I take notes, but bring them up with cited passages online, and send them to colleagues and friends. Imagine if I could do this in real time. In fact, right now I can look up a word in a dictionary as I am reading, but imagine that I am struggling with a passage beyond a simple definition. I could bring in a colleague in real time to work through my confusion. Not by going home, and then into mail, and blah blah blah, but right there in the “book.”
Imagine reading a book on the iPad, and having a conversations with the author, or friends, or co-workers as you are reading? Imagine a device that was more of a social access mechanism through text than a display reader.
Now, ask yourself, in that environment, is an e-book really a book at all? By turning printed text into 1s and 0s, are we not in fact making a much more profound change? Is an e-journal that allows real time per paragraph commenting and annotating the same thing as a printed journal on a screen?
The answer is no.
When we transform books, journals and traditional documents into a digital sphere, we use the terms “book” and “journal” as metaphors. They are book-like, or journal-like. It took centuries for the book as we know it to evolve. Introduction of things like titles, tables of contents, page numbers, glossaries, indexes and such emerged as people discovered new technical and use possibilities for the newly mass-produced bound book. Where once the goal of the printer was to mimic the illuminated manuscripts as closely as possible, now we have a whole new beast with its own conventions.
In fact, almost any book you read today (as in 99.999%) is in fact an electronic document that has been bound to paper. Even if an author hand writes (or draws) out their texts, they are transcribed and laid out as digital items. We maintain the physical form for convenience and to perpetuate a business model centered on items with hard boundaries among other reasons.
Why, for example, do I ever have to finish writing my book? I could release it as I am writing it, and continually add to it, edit and prune it. I could open it up for you to do the same. Is it still a book? Why wait for editions when I could use Wiki-style edit histories? Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of reasons to finish the book, and make editions (citations, version control, etc.), but they are now choices, not rules dictated by the medium.
This is the reinvention we need from eBooks, not pretty pages and a new store. We need a community! You want to reinvent reading? You want the iPad to truly be a revolutionary third product? See reading for what it truly is, a conversation! A conversation that is supported by a text, but open to communities.
Let me scribble in the margins, and have those scribbles appear in real-time on my friend’s copy. Sure, the color pictures will be great, but IM in the margin would be amazing. Make my next book a sort of bibliocast, where, like podcasts, new episodes are automatically downloaded and synced. And throw away the bookshelf and replace it with a table top where I can make piles of “books” I like, and piles of books I hate, and let me share those piles with my social network.
Give me a way in the new bookstore to put together “course packs” of books and materials tied together with a multimedia lecture and an online discussion. Let me show my friends and my students not only what I am reading, but why, and how they are tied together.
I know, I know, if I feel so strongly, I can just write an app to do it…except I can’t. My Objective C is a little, well, non-existent. You want to rock the world of books, give me a Pages iBooks edition (not Pages I can use on the iPad). Make Pages useful for more than pretty report and stuff to print, and make it easy to author amazing social book experiences. You know what, forget pages and word processors, give me Garage Band iBooks edition. Make writing a book an experience that both releases writers from the tyranny of typesetters and galleys, AND allows the curious amateur to come up with the new thing (reanimate HyperCard as HyperPad and stand back).
I love my eBooks. I read on the Kindle, I read on the iPhone, I had a Sony eBook, and before that a Rocket eBook. I actually prefer eBooks for fiction. The iPad will be great to finally be able to read my professional literature and technical work on (please please please let PDF’s work). But it is time for someone with vision to step up and see what eBooks can become, and it is NOT pretty page animations and a faux wood bookshelf.
I feel better.