[Originally posted as  a response on the Read 2.0 discussion list]

It’s fair to say that ebooks are here to stay, but it’s also pretty obvious there’s a lot of hot air floating around.

A provocative article from Wired I saw today points out the remaining painful flaws with ebooks. It got some backlash among fans.

The way I read it, the second time through, was not that the basic premise is ebooks should replicate the print world, but they should evolve from the best traits of the print world, and then add some new ones of their own.

I think all of his points are extremely valid criticisms of nagging problems with ebooks as a medium.

1.) They still feel ephemeral. E-ink does something to alleviate this. I place my Kindle on top of my stack of unfinished paperbacks. That’s my reminder there are 5 more unfinished e-books there. Placing my iPad there wouldn’t make as much sense.

2.) The first point leads nicely into the second one, which is why can’t all the lovely Epubs I read in iBooks be available on my Kindle? You have to admit, the selfish segmentation of content according to hardware and/or retailer is one of the stupidest and most annoying problems that the industry is perpetuating.

3.) The margin note problem is in turn related to device segmentation as well. Currently, even in the new Epub 3 spec, the industry is resisting the ability to connect a book to the wider universe of the social web. The ideal container is designed to restrict what we can do with the content and what other data we can bring into it.

4.) Pricing is still a valid concern, and an industry problem. I don’t think anyone on this [Read 2.0] list would dispute that.

5.) On this point, I agree with a fundamental assumption, which is that books, unlike other media, are inherently physical. And I don’t just mean covers and spines and paper. E-ink, remember, has physicality to it. It’s not just light emitted from a screen, it’s light reflecting off of particles. It’s the most natural successor to the printed page. It’s a testament that we can’t discount the value of jackets, spines, and form factors in figuring out where the ebook is headed. The question of whether consumers will continue to want pretty packages for their ebooks has not yet been resolved.

Rather than being superfluous, I think this article raises important concerns in layman’s terms, and it’s refreshing to have it as a backdrop to all the hype. We have a long way to go…

Aaron

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Amazon just announced it would finally begin accepting epubs from publishers, and might, someday soon, make reading them a feature of the Kindle.

I just got a Kindle for the first time, because I sort of had to. I’m not finding myself cuddling it, or having separation anxiety, or developing the kind of co-dependent relationship it seems to engender in most people. I think the pages of the books I read are horrendously ugly on it; I’ll credit it for the crispness of the type, the lack of glare, and the reduced e-ink latency they’ve achieved with the latest model. And it feels good to hold. It’s light and comfortable. Too bad it perpetuates the impression most people have had of ebooks since people started trying to sell them: they’re the ugliest way to read. Way uglier than the Web, even uglier than the Web used to be. And Kindle, unfortunately, does nothing to fix that, except provide the crispest ugly fonts and typography you’ve ever seen (yes, the resolution and ease on the eye exceeds paperbacks, but don’t expect to see Jensen, or Bembo, or Garamond, here. You’re stuck with some poor stepchild font that is undoubtedly the result of Amazon’s notorious over-analytical approach to user-interaction, not the choice of anyone remotely trained in creating something visually appealing on an aesthetic level).

But my biggest gripe is my recent discovery that after dumping most of my DRM-free epub collection onto the device, NONE of them work!

I don’t know why I thought they would. I guess I know too much about Epub — it’s reflowable, it’s not too unlike .mobi, which is the format Amazon uses inside its little DRMed packages, and it’s based on HTML, and I can tell the Kindle reading system is rendering HTML, because I’ve seen tag artifacts occasionally while reading. There’s no good technical reason they couldn’t support epub. But here’s what Bezos has said about it (in a USA today interview last year):

“Q: Why doesn’t Amazon support the popular ‘e-pub’ standard used by your competitors and many libraries?

A: We are innovating so rapidly that having our own standard allows us to incorporate new things at a very rapid rate. For example: Whispersync (which uses wireless connections to sync your place in a book across devices) and changing font sizes.

Other standards over time may incorporate some of these things. But we’re moving very quickly to improve the state of the art. It’s very helpful not to have to wait for some third-party standard to catch up.”

There are so many things wrong and annoying with that answer, that I don’t even want to begin. Epub is reflowable, geared toward systems that let you change the font size, and it’s web-based, the only ebook format to take a step in the direction of connecting itself to the massive database of human activity we call the Web. But because Bezos is so intent on making Amazon so innovative that they can’t support epub, I’m stuck reading my PDFs in a severely reduced page size, or I’m resigned to just buying more books from Amazon.

Which is exactly what he wants me to do.

Damn.

I’ve been using the iBooks app quite a bit on my iPad, and I’ve long hoped for an update which will wipe out that annoying faux-book border around the pages. So I investigated it, and was thrilled to find an easy way to modify iBooks to use a clean white (or sepia) page with no pseudo book border around it. I’m calling this the “clean” theme, although it really just cleans up the two existing themes in iBooks – “default” and “sepia.”

Download it here:

https://github.com/Vaporbook/iBooks-Theme-Clean-Up

You’ll need the OS X desktop application called iPhone Explorer to do this. It’s very much like a Finder window that you can use on your iPad/iPhone — so you can see and change the full filesystem, and not just the media files like iTunes lets you do. Once you have it installed, hook up your iPad and follow the instructions in the README.txt file.

Note: I do include the files to modify the iPhone version as well, but I haven’t tested those. Reports are welcome.

~Aaron

BookGlutton has slowly been moving over to using the ReadSocial API, and to-date stands as its first and only official tester. All of the live chat in the book rooms is now being served up via a service from ReadSocial, which is hosted separately on Amazon’s EC2 service. Eventually that and other services will be available to ReadSocial’s other partners.

But for now, ReadSocial has itself launched another proof-of-concept regarding the many interesting connections they’re making between readers of digital books, and the books themselves. It’s called Readum, and it launched this week. It ties together the largest (and most controversial) cloud-based publishing and reading system, Google Editions, with the largest (and most active) social network, Facebook.

Why couldn’t this be done before? One reason is that Google disables the web browser’s normal ability to select short snippets of text in their web-based e-books, so you couldn’t even copy a passage and share it manually if you wanted to. Secondly, Facebook treats books in a very generic way, which is to say they lump them in with your “Entertainment” interests, making it hard for users to recommend their “liked” books to each other. Now you can jump into the Google edition of any of your “liked” books on Facebook, and share a comment from it back to your feed.

For those who don’t have time or inclination to try it out, here’s a brief video overview:
http://vimeo.com/user6312450/readum

 

And here’s where you can get it (Firefox and Chrome only at the moment):
http://www.readum.com

Enjoy!

Insight on web publishing can be found in the oddest places. Take for example, this fascinating bit of early scientific observation, lucidly and meticulously related:

“Observe what happens when sunbeams are admitted into a building and shed light on its shadowy places. You will see a multitude of tiny particles mingling in a multitude of ways… their dancing is an actual indication of underlying movements of matter that are hidden from our sight… It originates with the atoms which move of themselves [i.e. spontaneously]. Then those small compound bodies that are least removed from the impetus of the atoms are set in motion by the impact of their invisible blows and in turn cannon against slightly larger bodies. So the movement mounts up from the atoms and gradually emerges to the level of our senses, so that those bodies are in motion that we see in sunbeams, moved by blows that remain invisible.”

(from Lucretius‘s  “On the Nature of Things“)

After pondering this passage for some time in the context of digital publishing, I came up with a new project idea. Not that I need any new ideas right now, seeing as how my current projects haven’t been able to repair my shoes yet, or replace my aging laptop. But still, a great idea is a great idea. This passage had me thinking of shedding light on unknowns, and the curation and filtering that we now need in place on the Web. The overarching truth that powers the observation here is that light only penetrates enclosed spaces when the source is properly aligned with an opening.

So what is the opening?

In my answer to that question, it’s a window on a world of literature outside the realm of what’s available in your standard outlets. It’s a community of editors, in short, who are taking unusual, unpublished works and presenting them for the first time to the world, with a twist: they are all linked, and illuminate each other. In other words, they are not admitted unless they somehow enhance or speak to each other, and the links between them and other media are just as important as the content within each volume. This outlet brings illumination to titles that are otherwise shadowed by disconnected, monochrome systems. Each editor may use it to build community, market a single book, or sell online access to many books. It belongs to all editors, is the publisher for each, and brings all their books into one web of books, accessible through any mobile browser.

That’s the next thing, when I get a chance.

 

Aaron

Photo Attribution: Will Clayton

Happy Birthday, BookGlutton! You were but a glimmer in our eye in Fall of 2006. A few months later, when the two of us started working on you full time (Jan 07), we knew we were doing something exciting – after all, who had heard of social reading then? In the last four years we’ve built a lot. We’ve seen the industry change right before our eyes. We were in private beta when the Kindle came out. The iPhone was brand new. We were early.

Looking at things from a startup perspective, early isn’t always positive. In truth, we would have done better to build less and start later – but then we wouldn’t have experimented as much. We spent a lot of time building for laptops, wishing tablets would finally happen. We had to build our own social network from the ground up because Facebook didn’t have an API (and then pivot when it did). And we had very little to base our interface on…so we made most of the user experience up as we went along.

What we built at BookGlutton includes:

BookGlutton grew to become a huge system, and has given us plenty of opportunities to geek out. Our initial plan was clear: we just set out to build a reading system with social features. As we moved through the process we found that, to do this, we needed to build a social network to use it…and then a publisher’s system, a content repository, etc. Not everything we built has been a resounding success, but we have learned about all the different aspects of digital publishing and where it intersects with the web in unique ways. Buy us a beer sometime…we can talk about it for hours!

    Over the years we’ve seen some cool uses of the site:

  • People in Iceland embedding Dracula with BookGlutton’s widget and reading it together.
  • Teachers in Phoenix using BookGlutton to teach English as a Second Language (ESL).
  • Japanese classrooms using it to read Jane Austen.
  • Grandparents forming groups with grandkids and leaving them notes.
  • NYU students logging on at midnight to meet as a class to prepare for class.
  • Authors embedding the BookGlutton widget on their websites and leaving comments inside for their readers.
  • Soldiers using it to read with people back home.

It’s been a good ride. We recently launched a new user-funnel with some social gaming aspects and tight Facebook integration (yes, I should send a newsletter out about it). With ebooks taking off, more people are starting to see things our way. We’re excited to see where that leads us next. Aaron and I have launched a separate endeavor, ReadSocial, which brings what we’ve learned about social reading to other reading systems. BookGlutton still has great things in store…

Thanks to all the people who’ve used and supported BookGlutton over the years!

-Travis
travis at bookglutton dot com

They’re cutting edge. They’re techy. They’re run by the kind of people we want to drink beer with. We ♥ the Pixel Awards. If you haven’t come across them yet, here’s a snippet from their site:

Established in 2006, The Pixel Awards take a fresh look at the best on the web. We are the cutting-edge website award, annually honoring compelling sites that have shown excellence in web design and development….Any site can enter. Only 24 exceptional sites will win.

BookGlutton has made it down to the final cut – we’re 1 of the 5 finalists in Community. This also puts us in the running for the People’s Champ award. We’d be ever so pleased if you’d vote for us. It only takes a second to go to the site, find the Community option and vote for BookGlutton. You can actually vote for the People’s Champ every day through NOV 30. They’re going to tell us who won in December…and the lucky ones will get this kick*ss trophy.

Vote here >>