A model for e-books


My basic premise is that an e-book is not a book, any more than a samizdat in the old Soviet Union was a book. While the message may remain the same, the medium we use is going to influence the way we deal with the message, the text, and in the long term, the medium will influence the sorts of messages that are conveyed through it, simply because each medium offers new opportunities.

I propose here a model of some of the ways in which an e-book ought to be different from a print book. We need to be wary of just grabbing text and making it machine-readable: that isn't an electronic book, that's a book rendered in a digital medium. My own vision is for e-books that allow trusted third parties to provide optional (free or purchased) add-ons to a basic text, working like hyperlinks. As the purchaser of a bare-bones text, I might choose to have the publisher's illustrations, the author's comments or explanatory notes or third-party comments and links to other books, to maps, to anything that enriches my reading. Proper e-books could look for updates and corrections from the accepted sources.

My offering is intended to provoke comment and improvements. I'm not interested in heavy-handed muppets who simply want to bag the idea and tell me it won't work. I'm looking for people who say "Well, it won't work like that, but if you replaced the grommets with nargles, and added some seven-sided wheels, it might roll. Mind you, you can't get the wood, but plastic would do the job just as well."

I don't truly believe that print-and-paper books will die out, but they might in the future be limited in their use and coverage. Early critics said messenger boys were better than telephones, treating the issue as a simple dichotomy. Today we have phones everywhere but we also have couriers who are modern-day messenger boys. We have radio, TV and movies, all doing well. Competing media don't necessarily wipe each other out: they differentiate, and maybe at some later point they can converge. Here, I want to explore the differences that ought to exist between print books and e-books, because I think we are all barking up the wrong tree.

A bit of media awareness

Let me offer an example from a medium that I haven't used in a dozen years: the overhead projector. When I was a new teacher, most of my colleagues saw the OHP as a sort of blackboard where you didn't have to turn your back on the class, one where the text you wanted the students to copy could be written out in advance. Hey, that was how we thought back then!

The advanced teachers were the ones who treated the OHP as a superior epidiascope, which let you project a page from a book onto a screen (or more often a wall) so students could copy it down. It was all pretty mundane, pretty pedestrian. (And by the way, one early brand of OHP was sold in the 1950s as "The Nebuchadnezzar" because it could be used "to write on walls"!)

Luckily for me, I fell in with some scallywags who wanted to do a great deal more. My friends and playmates in the Educational Resources Association of NSW taught me how to exploit the strengths and the weaknesses of the OHP. We got into all sorts of tricks, using overlays, revelation where bits were peeled off, masking, animation tricks using press studs as swivels, and much more. I had sets of organic chemistry stick-and-ball models that sat on the stage, and I even ran millipedes across the stage to show how their legs work in waves. You can't do that with a mere-smear blackboard!

The relevance of this reminiscence? Simply that the lesson I learned there, of not seeing the OHP as a blackboard or an epidiascope, was one that had to be drummed into me. Once I was converted, though, I'd never go back! Now apply that sort of thinking to books and e-books. Seek out the deficiencies and the strengths and use them toadvantage.

Thinking about a new medium

This page extends an article of mine, published in a recent issue of the ASLA (NSW) Journal, which was more about the future of paper books. This will help to set the scene, but I will then proceed to deal with some of the nuts and bolts of what an e-book system might do, because I believe that our future will contain both traditional print books and also e-books, once we see what they could and should do. Here is a short excerpt:

Our view of the future has always been based on the past. People called locomotives iron horses, cars were horseless carriages, radio was wireless telegraphy, cinema was moving pictures. The future was always named and "understood" in terms of past experience.

Pioneers rarely create the new industry they initiate, mainly because they are too weighed-down by old models, old paradigms and sterile assumptions. Steam-driven airships, Stanley Steamers and steam-driven computers are not common today, but we do have aircraft, motor vehicles and computers. The people who establish a new industry come later, having absorbed the same notions the pioneers have or had, but they subvert those notions.

For about the past decade, I have been playing with variants of the 'half-century rule', which you can see detailed here. No need to go there, though: it basically says that it takes about that long for a new technology to mature to the point where we can see its lasting social effects. The first twenty years belong to the tinkerers, the geeks, the local equivalents of bicycle mechanics. Then a few sharks come along, hoping to own and control the whole technology, but then the visionaries hop on board and take the technology off in unexpected directions.

The sharks cannot hope to keep up when the smaller fish scatter. When the internet began in 1969, nobody could have predicted that people would use it to book overseas holidays, any more than Frank Whittle could have foreseen how jet engines would power airliners with 500 passengers.

Mind you, aerial carriers with that capacity were anticipated, but they were based on ocean liners, crossed with giant airships. Even back in 1851, Dr William Bland of Sydney's Macquarie Street could anticipate a steam-powered hydrogen balloon that reached London in a mere six weeks. He could anticipate it, he could dream of it, but he couldn't make it happen. Good ideas are never enough.

Predicting the future

Mainz-Gutenberg-1916 (28K)Gutenberg (that's him on the left) just wanted to produce Bibles faster than a scriptorium monk did. He succeeded: with his press, he could produce 180 Bibles in the time it took a penman to produce just one. All the same, he couldn't imagine that just near a museum to him in Mainz, you could but newspapers from all over the world. He couldn't imagine media tycoons, bestseller lists or even public libraries. Somebody had to perceive a new opportunity and then exploit it for those new things to happen. So don't kid yourself that we can predict where e-books will go!

In all probability, whatever anybody proposes about e-books in the next ten years will have little to do with their future, but just as coral polyps build on the skeletons of those who went before, just as old settlements in the Middle East sit on rises (tels) made of the bits of older settlements, so we will build on what went before. If I can start even one or two readers thinking about how they could make better e-books , then I'll be happy.

For those who don't know me, I'm a working writer. I used to be a science teacher, and I mostly write about science and technology. As I set these words down, I have taken a rest from work on a book with the working title Ingenuity. I was going to call it It Seemed Like a Good Idea At the Time, but a check on Goodreads reveals at least 18 works with a title very like that. No matter, the book's at least six months from being sold to a publisher. The main point is that I have been looking at some of the more spectacularly silly products put forward by enthusiasts in the past. That sort of experience makes you incredibly wary!

Try it, and before long, you will find yourself repeating Alan Kay's much-quoted line:
"The best way to predict the future is to invent it." There was more than that, so go to the link, but that's the nub of it.

Can literature be interactive?

If you think I'm going to respond in the negative, you haven't been paying attention to the subtext. In other words, you betcha! Like all good scientists, I study the world through the lenses furnished by Terry Pratchett, so here is the theme for today:

"And in a magical library the books leak and learn from one another . . .
- Terry Pratchett, The Last Continent, p. 32.

I look at my books from time to time, and sometimes I wish that I could add a link from one of them to a later one, throwing in the most recent findings I have made on some issue that I had returned to. It was that sort of thought that probably got me thinking. As a print person, through and through, I tend to think in terms of cross-references, but the sorts of cross-references I put in my earlier books were really just sadly-deprived hypertext, and Vannevar Bush had the same idea, much earlier, with his memex. I recommend in particular the two paragraphs that commence with "The owner of the memex, let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow.", on the fourth page.

The bare-bones e-book is exemplified by Project Gutenberg, which is absolutely brilliant at delivering vanilla-flavoured plain text that is far better than Bush's idea of using microfilm. It isn't very exciting as it stands, but as a base to work from, it's extremely exciting, because it represents the massive and essential task of clearing the ground and putting in the footings for a superlative structure, a stately pleasure dome for lovers of knowledge and ideas. All we have to do is find ways to make it zing.

I want to present three models that might be used to shape a future interactive text. The first two are both books, but they represent a small step in the right direction. They are Dickens of London, by Wolf Mankowitz, which makes any reading of Dickens richer, or Martin Gardner's The Annotated Alice. Mankowitz was a playwright who knew the seamy side of London and was able to interpret the London of Dickens and clarify it for us. Martin Gardner is best known as a setter and sharer of mathematical puzzles in books and Scientific American. That role makes him a fit companion for Lewis Carroll, who was also a mathematician and a setter of puzzles.

Mankowitz wrote a companion book that a reader could reach for when curious about coal-whippers or whatever. True, these days, there are 21,000 hits on "coal whipper" in Google, but it's nice to have the best ones in one place. My third example is Anthony Burgess' Here Comes Everybody, a guide for readers of Finnegans Wake, a book that I first learned about from reading Martin Gardner. Like the Mankowitz book, it stands free of its subject matter. It's a companion book.

The Annotated Alice is a sort of parallel text. Here, Carroll's words are integrated with marginal notes that take you through the intricacies, but it doesn't, for example, mention that James Joyce penned the line "One of the most murmurable loose carollaries ever Ellis threw his cookingclass". Not many people would care, but Burgess and Gardner would, and so do I. Keep your eye on that factoid: we'll come back to it. I think it was Gardner who introduced me to that blinding multi-pun, but he must have thought it was out of place in Alice. I don't disagree with that.

The closer the association between the text and marginal or other notes, the better, because you get the chance to flick over to the notes or not, but whose notes will you use? That's the key question, and that's the secret to my own little pet scheme, the one that I'm inching towards. We need to get the notes integrated so they are accessible but not overwhelming. There needs to be some way for the user to tune the stuff that's lurking behind each page, so that the nine-year-old reader of Alice doesn't get bogged down in the sophomoric sophistry and sophistication of James Joyce, Horses for courses and all that!

A taxonomy of notes

I want to outline some types, without suggesting any sort of hierarchy, though I will work more or less from the simpler to the more complicated notes.
       Type of note       
Example and comments in italics
definitionA coal-whipper was a labourer who was employed as part of a gang (usually nine men) to unload coal from ships, using baskets.
explanationSome coal-whippers used a simple pulley and a rope. When a basket of coal was loaded in the hold, the coal whipper would step off the side of the hatchway and use his weight to raise the basket to deck level. In other cases, they used a ladder, climbed five feet (1.5 metres) off the deck and jumped down to the deck.
reviewI think there are two Dickens books that everybody should read before they leave school—preferably without either being a set text. This is one of them, the other is Pickwick Papers.
(This is not a good example, but you get the idea.)
triviaIn Jasper Fforde's 'Tuesday Next' books, there is a dodo called Pickwick.
(This is not a good example, but you get the idea. Maybe I should have used the murmurable loose carollary?)
curiositiesOur picture of prudish Victorians breaks down when it came to winning and moving coal. Miners, both men and women, worked naked or almost naked, and the coal whippers who worked in the hold were also lightly clothed, much to the shock of the middle classes.
(And the extreme curiosity of the average teenager is now aroused. Why not motivate a love of learning through the baser instincts? Remember this one, though, when we come to the metadata question.)
cross-referenceCoal-whippers are mentioned in Dombey and Son, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. The best description is in chapter 54 of Great Expectations.
(In an ideal world, these would be hot-links to the relevant passages in another e-book, and would only show if that link was accessible from the reader being used.)
background referenceThere is a good article on coal-whipping in Chambers Edinburgh Journal, vol XIX, page 171 (1853).
(This raises the question: should we assume that a reader has access to the internet? Perhaps these links could also be suppressed if there is no connection?)
statisticalBy the 1850s, 4 million tons of coal came to London each year. Each whipped basket weighed 1/16 of a ton, making a total of 64 million baskets to be raised by some 2000 coal-whippers.
(The idea here is to leave the reader to engage by calculating the number of baskets each whipper had to raise.)
speculationWhat would coal-whippers do, once they were too old to shovel coal in the hold, or raise the baskets out of the hold?
(Little probes like this seek to get the reader thinking.)
obscureWhen we think of whipping and ships, most of us would think first of floggings dealt out by cruel men like Captain Bligh (who wasn't actually all that cruel), but in fact most of the whipping seen by sailors at sea was when a line was whipped, rather than being spliced at its end. Splicing (a back splice in this case) made a line thicker at the end, and so harder to reeve, or pass, through a block, which is a pulley when it leaves the land. A nautical whip can also be a line which needs to be rove through a block, to allow simple lifts—again using human counter-weights, and making the long-pole explanation of the coal-whip a bit dubious.

The Bible hardly mentions whips, save for a passage in 1 Kings 12:11 " . . . my father hath chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions." All the same, English churches had dog-whippers - one was appointed as late as 1856, according to Cobham Brewer, who cared about such things: this official was responsible for controlling working dogs who accompanied their owners to worship in English churches. The dog-whipper did this using whips and dog-tongs. In the same church, St Luke's Day, October 18, is dog-whipping day, supposedly because a dog once ate a consecrated wafer on this day.

The English seem to have far to much interest in dog-whipping. The French, on the other hand, do not seem to whip dogs at all, but where we would speak of having other fish to fry, a Francophone will have another cat to whip - but to sailors, the whip is a cat. With nine tails.

At last we have got to the beating whip, as in horse-whipping an editor, and the same origin gives us the party whip in English-style Parliaments. This is somebody who plays the role of a whipper-in. In the art of fox-hunting, a whipper-in, keeps the hounds on the straight and narrow. The party whip keeps the other members in line, and can even issue a three-line whip.

The word relates to a German word wippe, meaning a quick movement or a leap - which takes us straight to the coal-whip, or to the Dutch wippen, which means swing or leap: the Dutch bird known to the English as a wagtail, for example, is a wipstaart. Most uses of whip seem to be more to do with fast movement, as in the fast movement of a whip's tip as it cracks, which is very fast indeed. In fact, if the physicists are to be believed, the tip actually exceeds the speed of sound, and causes a small sonic boom. Luckily coal whips did not travel that fast, or the coal would be launched skyward, and take a full minute to come back down again.
(This is an extreme case that I prepared earlier, but there's no reason why the notes shouldn't be as prolix as this, so long as the reader can treat them as a dodgeable option.)

PoetryThe Wreck of the Barque "Lynton"
(Yes, I know it's terrible. There's a reason for putting it here. See the metadata section below.)
(Masochists should see this link as well!)

The providers

This is where the element of collaboration comes in, and also the need for filtering, and I have adopted Twitter as my model. As a reader, I should be able to decide that I want to follow the ABC, my school, NASA, the State Library of NSW and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (of which I am a member because AAAS is the publisher of Science journal), as well as wanting to follow a couple of dozen friends and colleagues. Anybody could post notes, but unless you have listed the provider as trusted, you won't see their notes. Of course, if I'm looking for material to support the e-book text of Finnegans Wake that I am reading, I may need to go online and see who is offering, and perhaps sample their wares. I probably need the option to load in the selected notes modules. to make my reading independent of being online.

There would be one compulsory notes set that you need to accept, where it is available. This would involve any notes provided by the author, which should be strictly limited to corrections and updates of changed data or later events. The author would need to be barred from answering any criticisms, although there would need to be some recourse to deal with spiteful or stupid notes. This is a fraught area, and needs more thought. Or maybe it's a thought area that needs more fraught.

The budding Rupert Murdochs may have noted that there is a commercial angle here: you may be able to sell your notes or receive donations by some form of micropay system, but there would be nothing to stop other people putting their notes up for free. They just need to be on a server where they can be recognised as notes for a uniquely identified book in a fixed and standard format, because when it comes to attaching the notes, we will need a stable platform or the screws will all fall out.

Schools might provide their own notes add-on, free to their students, but students could also prepare notes and share them. Literature would meet Philip Davis and Reuben Hersh's vision for computer art:

"It should look not towards Rembrandt, but towards Verdi's 'Aïda'. Not just the classical 'Aïda', but an 'Aïda' with the audience singing along and scrambling onto the backs of the elephants on stage. Chaos? No. Total theatre."

And something close to total engagement as well!

The metadata

First up, we need the type of note this is, as in the table above. By default, each note would have the same metadata as the one before, saving you from re-entering everything every time.

Remember the naked coal miners? Some people won't want to even think about that (even when the kids see far worse on 'Big Brother'), so there would need to be a G, M and AO rating system: remember that adults will be using this as well. Three levels of filtering on Web content works fine, and until I see otherwise, I would rather see the providers rate their own stuff, with perhaps a simple system of warning then barring anybody who gets stupid and crude, or who maliciously posts in appropriate material with a low classification. Two strikes and you're out would tend to work (more thought needed here). I would argue that providers need a real email address to register: if you're using Hotmail, you don't rate, something like that. The limitation to those using paid-for accounts that are linked to a credit card and an address will rule out 90% of the trolls and hoons.

More importantly, there is a need for an age suitability estimate. Not a raunch measure, just a level of discourse measure, with no barring of willing out-of-age readers, but offering fair advice.

Then I would have a series of subject metadata that could be added. That means somebody can decide to suppress anything from my shaky/flaky theology, but take my maths and science. If I write poetry like William McGonagall, you would be well-advised to suppress those verses. Once you realise that I tend to add bizarre verses with no discernible merit, you should really elect not to take any stuff from me that has poetry as its subject—or you might just see that a note comes from me, and is a poem.

It would be important to allow notes to be labelled as more than one kind, so as to fit in things like statistical trivia.

I think there are probably a number of others that could be added here, but the principle should be that the fields would generally not be obligatory.

Attaching the notes

Just as we have HTML which provides a standard structure ti underlying web pages, there will need to be hypertext standards here, but we need to begin with the premise that nobody should be doing the equivalent of typing COPY CON PROGRAM.EXE. In other words, we need a simple application that let's you highlight a portion of text in the file. You then select make note, type or paste in the text of your note, check the metadata fields, have the name of the file, your user name and the position of the link recorded, and save the note, then move on to the next.

There may need to be a system that allows, say, a library to approach a number of notes-providers to allow their notes to be combined. This need not be a problem for most providers if mousing over a link brings a pop-up that indicates the bare bones of the note: provider, age suitability, date created, type of note, subject matter. I have no ready solution for the situation where three different note providers have all provided a note on the word 'threnody', but Google Earth manages multiple photos of a single vantage point.

The muppets who kill ideas

The people who make a new technology zing are the subversive visionaries who have a light-globe moment, seeing how an existing technology can be used differently, like Matthew Boulton's vision of what a steam engine was. People like the creator of the first "killer app", Dan Bricklin, who saw a financial model being worked on a blackboard, and saw that a single change in a marginal value required a whole row or column to be recalculated, along with any dependent cells.

"I could do that with a computer," he thought, and Visicalc was conceived. It was the first electronic spreadsheet, a killer application that brought personal computers onto managers' desks.

Managers and bureaucrats have always reminded me of penguins, standing on an ice floe, waiting for some other penguin to dive in first. The penguins know the risk that a sea leopard or a killer whale is lurking, waiting for a feed, but they want to eat, not be eaten. So they stand there, getting cold feet, just like managers and bureaucrats.

Where e-books are concerned, publishers are also penguins (and not just those with avian colophons, either). They are very good at bringing together authors, illustrators, editors and designers, and they are good at printing and distributing the sort of thick square book that we scriveners delight to hold in our trembling hands. Electronically, they are lost.

The publishers stand on the edge of their metaphorical ice floe, waiting for somebody else to jump first. They dither and worry about hacker-proof DRM, they look at the existing e-books, mostly out-of-copyright classics, either as text, as HTML or as PDF files, and they yawn. Nothing to be alarmed about here, they say: e-books are dated, poorly designed, proofed and edited. Stop worrying, the penguins tell each other.

Back to the top (for those who just jumped to here)

One day, a killer app will emerge like a voracious killer whale, and munch all the penguins. The killer app will bring e-books to life, injecting new value, new values, new capabilities, making the e-book a force to be reckoned with. Librarians and readers will take to it, but the more knowing will nod keenly at each other and say "it's a book, Jim, but not as we know it." Then they will sigh with relief, knowing that there remains a place for the thick square book that hefts nicely in the hand.

So what might the killer app look like? Any e-book that just presents pages is selling-out its readers. Perhaps e-books will use poet Mark O'Connor's ReadRight (now pro-NOUNCE-it), where the reader can select a level of text mark-up and colour coding to help them read. That would be a good start, and it's in no way an impediment to the sorts of annotation I'm suggesting here.

So as I said at the start, I believe that, in the future, print and e-books will also co-exist. We have not yet been able to assess the impact of Print On Demand machines, delivering niche market books like Goldfish of the Gobi Desert and otherwise out-of-print works. I am, however, inclined to class the Kindle as a shark product, because it only takes Amazon products and won't read PDF files. Or it couldn't: I'm sure that somebody at Amazon is, even now, planning to open the next release of the Kindle to third-party suppliers and open-source bits and pieces.

I'm inclined to distrust "market forces" as a determinant, because in so many cases, there are fat cats out there, trying to manipulate those forces, but when it comes to long-term changes in technology, we plebeians in the market-place carry quite a clout. Me, I'm just a market-place agitator, trying to get a crowd surging along.

Now what've I forgotten?

This file is http://members.ozemail.com.au/~macinnis/writing/ebooksfuture.htm and it was created by Peter Macinnis who freely permits linking to it, and encourages pillaging of the key ideas. Credit would be appreciated, but it is not a necessary condition if you are a sufficiently low sort of person.

It was started in May 2009, written in November 2009 and Mk I was launched on November 11, 2009.

If you email me at macinnis at ozemail.com.au, you will reach a spam trap, but be read, eventually. If you put my first name in front of that address, you will reach me direct. This low-tech solution is to make email harvesting difficult.

The home page of this set is here.

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