The Evolution of eBooks

What will ebooks look like in the future?

Every new medium has growing pains. At first, the structure tends to mimic whatever is familiar, but over time it expands in to new territory.

For example, movies used to resemble plays—they even had intermissions. Now some movies use CGI, like Avatar, and some movies experiment with structure, like Pulp Fiction. Music and TV shows have changed as well. The invention of synthesizers and drum machines led to the development of new genres such as techno and ambient. I Love Lucy was one of the first shows to use multiple cameras. Now some shows like Game of Thrones are akin to films, while others experiment with format, such as Web Therapy, which only shows characters via iChat and Skype boxes on a computer screen.

Eventually, e-books too will branch out. Publishers started by making all their e-books look as much like their print counterparts as possible. But with the advent of EPUB3, which uses HTML5 and allows video, audio, and Javascript in e-books, the possibilities are endless. E-books, just like movies, music, and TV before it, are evolving.

We’re already seeing some changes, even with semantics. For example, you publish a book, but you launch an e-book. E-books are more similar to the Internet than to traditional books, according to Hugh McGuire in his Tedx Montreal talk, because e-books are already linked to the web, and readers can tap on the screen to open up a browser. Startups such as Mobnotate are expanding on hyperlinks, by adding snippets of text and links to other relevant e-books.

The lengths of e-books are changing. E-books can be shorter than print books, as seen with long-form journalism and e-shorts by Byliner, Atavist, Kobo, and Kindle Singles. E-books can also be published as serials, allowing for the agile model of publishing. Readers now have the chance to give input and help shape the content.

Readers don’t even have to buy the whole e-book. They can buy by chapter, through businesses such as Inkling, or they can buy condensed versions. Citia is a company that extracts key concepts from non-fiction books, adds visual layouts, and repackages content into shorter versions for readers who don’t have enough time to read the whole book.

Digital textbooks are more interactive, with quizzes and self-assessment tools. But text can be more dynamic, either by displaying quiz results or showing average quiz scores. The canvas element of HTML5 also theoretically makes it possible for readers to draw in their e-books. Eventually, even regular e-books will be more interactive and accessible. Enhanced e-books are already taking advantage of video and audio capabilities, but many of these e-books have superfluous content. As e-books evolve, we will see more enhanced e-books with meaningful content, perhaps more travel guides with GPS capabilities, cookbooks with built-in timers, and beautiful visuals that could be described as cinematic.

Enhancements don’t have to be restricted to non-fiction works. Eli Horowitz, Russell Quinn, Matthew Derby, and Kevin Moffett are working on a new type of fiction format through their story, The Silent History. This serialized story about children who can’t speak or understand language will launch in late August and run for one year. Download the app and receive daily updates to the story, or “Testimonials,” as well as “Field Reports” that readers can write themselves. “Field Reports” will only be available when you stand in a specific spot, as shown on a map in the app. Currently there are 300-400 “Field Reports”, and the creators will be able to see when someone downloads a field report, so they will know where in the world people are reading. The idea is to experience the actual place where the story is told.

As for accessibility, readers with poor eyesight can already change font sizes. Children’s books on tablets have read aloud capabilities through media overlays. Apps such as Hello Cupcake have included stop-motion videos—the interactive equivalent of allowing a reader to re-read a complex passage. But in the future, Matt Kelland, founder of Draco Felis, said he thinks there may be more media overlays for adults who are blind. E-books also have the potential to improve the synthetic narration for blind people, using Synthetic Speech Markup Language, or to change fonts or visual cues for dyslexic readers, and add captions in videos for deaf people.

E-books have more metadata. The Atavist, Shelfari, eNotated Classics, and Shmoop are already working with added data. Readers can tap certain areas of the e-book, and summaries of characters, interpretations of passages, and other information will pop-up on the screen. Metadata will continue to become important, not as a means for discoverability, but as a mechanism for easy indexing. BakeSpace is a platform already doing this with their cookbooks. For example, if you searched “chocolate chip cookies,” then BakeSpace would filter its results to show all the books in its database that included “chocolate chip cookies.” Small Demons is another site taking advantage of metadata. Their goal is to index every person, place, or thing mentioned in a book, making it easy to search for particular themes or characters, as well as creating a more tailored book discovery tool.

A number of writers and publishers have made other predictions about the future of e-books. In a few years there may be streaming e-books, where content is not merely packaged and distributed, but instead is more centralized, allowing publishers to easily store supplementary material, such as glossaries and indexes, and publish in a single format. Streaming e-books will also make it possible to easily update and add content, making the e-book a living document.

E-books may become open source. Sites like are working hard to “free” e-books from their copyright, by raising money to pay the author in exchange for giving his or her work a creative commons license. Once freed, anyone can make changes to the e-book and distribute it anywhere.

Kindle expert and e-book analyst Len Edgerly predicts social e-reading will be perfected. Right now sites such as Copia, Inkling, and GoodReads allow users to share what they’re reading with friends. Copia and Inkling take it to the next level, where readers can follow each other if they’re reading the same book, share notes and highlights, start discussions about passages, and star helpful notes.

Bret Victor wrote on his blog Worrydream about active reading, where readers could ask questions and explore different scenarios. Choose-your-own-adventure books are already in the digital space, but for non-fiction books, readers could input certain assumptions and see charts or graphs change to reflect the new data.

Jared Wyatt, software developer, advocates applying adaptive learning to e-books. Adaptive learning is not a new concept, Jared said, citing Knewton, a company that personalizes educational content for students. “With the technology available today, it seems silly that so many companies just put static textbooks into a digital format, add a few ‘interactive’ widgets, and call it good. Creating books that use existing adaptive learning models to accommodate students’ individual learning curves is a logical next step for more effective education.”

The time for merely replicating print books has run its course. E-books are now ready to become their own unique medium and take advantages of all the possibilities digital technologies have to offer.


4 Replies to “The Evolution of eBooks”

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