The Ebook of My Dreams

We all have our frustrations with ebooks. The problem isn’t just one of print vs electronic or Luddite vs early adopter. Even as I happily consume Kindle books on my iPad and the new Project Muse collection for work, I find that ebooks simply don’t do the things I want them to do – the things the electronic format seems to promise. In an ideal world, what would ebooks do that would make them not a substitute for print books, but better than print books? What features would make ebooks represent a true new step in the evolution of information delivery systems? Here’s what I’d like to see :

Interoperability: Ebooks need to take advantage of the spatial navigability of the electronic environment. For example, the index should not exist separately as an additional PDF file, as many ebook indexes do. Instead, I should be able to click on an entry in the index (say, “deckchairs, rearrangement of”) and be linked to the place(s) in the text where that topic is discussed. With endnotes, it’s frustrating to flip to the end, especially when it’s just a bibliographic citation. Can you give me the information without taking me away from the text? Can I mouse-over and get the information in a pop-up window? How much more work would it take to link up index entries and notes? How much more of an intellectual payoff would we get?

Intertextuality: Does the book cite other books? Journal articles? Blogs? Websites? Well, connect me – not just to bibliographic information that I can port into a link resolver and then cross my fingers. Take me there: right to the page that the author discusses. Make the connectivity that we expect on the web a standard feature of ebooks. Is there an allusion to some other text? Identify the allusion and give me the option of linking to it. But also give me the option of turning off all of the annotations — sometimes I just want to read without interruption. Especially if I’m reading James Joyce.

Sharing: Hey, I just read this great essay in that new collection – it would really help with that project we’re working on. Want to borrow my copy with all my notes?  Great, and you can add your annotations too. When we’re done with work, want to borrow this great new novel I just finished reading? Oh, sorry, I read it on my Kindle. You’ll have to pay $9.99 too.

Device Neutrality: You have a Nook instead of a Kindle? No problem! You don’t have a device at all and you need to borrow one? Sure! You need to put the book on reserve, or use it on your laptop? Be our guest! But most of all, you don’t want to have to download an app just to read a book. Well, neither do I, and in my flying-car, jet-pack, futuristic fantasy world of ebooks, we don’t need to.

Curating: As a bibliographer, I need to acquire for my library the information that will support the research and teaching needs of the faculty and students on my campus. I don’t want a package that has been created by a vendor speculating about the needs of liberal-arts college library collections. I want to buy ebooks for my library just like I buy print books — some on approval, some as firm orders, some through patron-driven acquisitions, some because a new professor has been hired in that subject area, and some because they belong in a collection of record. I don’t want to be told that I can’t have an ebook in my collection because my vendor’s conglomerate competes with its publisher’s conglomerate. If two print books sit happily next to each other on a physical shelf, why can’t they coexist on a virtual shelf?

Can we also decide: eBook? e-book? ebook?

Yes, some of these features do exist already, often as standalone apps. Many of these are features we’ve come to expect from ejournal (eJournal? e-journal?) environments. What ebook features do you dream about?

6 thoughts on “The Ebook of My Dreams”

  1. When I have similar conversations, I tend to get the feeling that people (myself included) really want books to be like websites.

    Most of the attributes, if not all, are attributes of websites.

    Which leads me to think we have hit something of an ebook ceiling, at least conceptually.

    Now it is a matter of replicating what is possible on the web, for a book.

  2. Amen! I have to agree with you on your wish list. In addition to the whole bundling issue you bring up, we also need to know that our digital access rights won’t suddenly be jerked back on the whim of the publisher. I realize that libraries seem to represent a necessary evil to the publishing industry’s profit model, but they really need to understand that the “atoms” model of scarcity is very different from the “bits” model of abundance. There is no reason for ebooks or audiobooks to exist as “single copies.” They need to determine a model that, perhaps, sets a fixed price for the initial copy then adds a reasonable “circulation” charge for each unique patron read, or set a higher initial price with perpetual circulation rights. A perpetual ambiguous lease, regardless of usage, is not the right solution for ebooks.

  3. Thanks for putting it so succinctly! I couldn’t agree more with your suggestions.

    I’d add full integration with POD and, as you sort of imply, an approach to rights-management that isn’t so plainly begrudging of what libraries are and what they exist to do. We’re complicit in this as a profession but we don’t have to be.

    The curmudgeon in me finds it hard not to view this technology primarily in the economies they’re being used to redefine–in favor of vendors at the expense of readers, authors, and in many cases even publishers.

    All that and better format encoding for poetic texts. Line breaks matter!

  4. Laura…this is a great list! My question is how we can get our voices heard by the people at Amazon and BN?

    I have not figured out how to make networks and connections with these companies….and I’m not sure that either is interested in reaching out to people who are working with and thinking about e-books in higher ed.

    Have you (or any of your readers) had any better luck?

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