After several years of booming ebook sales, there have been recent signs of a marketplace slowdown. Conversations with ebook readers indicate some lack of satisfaction. Although in the USA ebook penetration has reached about 40 percent of the whole book market, and as stated there are signs that growth has slowed significantly, in Europe penetration is about 10 percent, and in some countries far less than this.
In other words, while we can certainly argue that quite a large section of the public are voting in favor of ebooks, it appears the initial enthusiasm has largely diminished (particularly in countries with a rich technological tradition such as the USA). The halt in market development illustrates the gap between market segments, and also apparently disappointment with the experience of using today’s old-fashioned ebook technology.
Many discussions with ebook consumers indicate that one of the main problems is the limited user experience, even when compared to their printed counterparts. This is in addition to the subject of ease of reading from a digital screen as opposed to a sheet of paper, an important subject that I will touch on in a future article.
There are several factors involved in the limited user experience, but when we come to analyze them, we should start with a brief reminder of an important fact: The ebook ecosystem seems to have forgotten that all books are not the same… They are very different in size, design and the nature of their use.
Hundreds of years of experience and practice of designing books have led to high standards of graphic design, typography, printing processes and even paper quality and suitability that constitute real art. We have all experienced the intimate pleasure of reading a good short novel or non-fiction work, while we also enjoy the stimulating experience of consulting a large format cookbook, encyclopedia or photography book printed on high quality paper.
The differences between the various types of books and user experiences are expressed not only in their design, but also in how they are read and used. Consider, for example, reference books, textbooks, technical literature, leisure reading, guides and encyclopedias. We read some of them continuously, while in the case of others, we dip in and jump among topics as we wish. Novels occupy us for a relatively short time while others are referred to again and again for many years (e.g., cookbooks, rich, visual photography books, etc.) We are all familiar with these and other differences. In other words, the experience provided by a book is based not only on its actual text, but on the whole package, including design, paper and cover.
This complex whole appears to disappear when we look at a contemporary ebook. Yes, there are the advantages of the digital package and portability, but at first glance all the books look the same, and most of the original design features are almost completely absent. There is no difference between the works of different authors or publishers. They all look like an endless collection of scrolling text.
Of course, this does not mean that we have to copy this idea exactly in the digital world, with a separate device for each kind of book… In order to fix the experience, it appears that we just have to create a completely different user experience, adjusted for each type of book, an experience that correctly exploits the capabilities of the new media and the wealth of reading devices currently available. Above all, we need to create a user experience that expresses not only the content, but also the unique way each book is used.
In addition, we must remember that readers are not the only players in the game. There are also authors and publishers. To create the ebook of the future we need technology and business platforms to create and market the finished products. Naturally, stakeholders have a strong interest in developing products that will appeal to their customers, but there are also business factors to be considered.
The platforms that enable publishers to create accessible ebooks are significantly lagging behind what is acceptable elsewhere on the web. Here are a few examples:
To sum up, the quality ebook experience must convey to the reader the benefits of a digital product and not a simpler, cheaper, static version of a print book that’s merely presented on a digital device. At the same time, the future ebook concept must faithfully serve not only the reader but also the interests of the publisher, by means of a new generation of technology and marketing platforms that will open up a new world of business opportunities.