Digital Reading: Is It an E-Book or “Just an App”? Comments on Our Choice Give Detailed Feedback

Anne KostickBy Anne Kostick, Partner, Foxpath IND

At the end of April, Push Pop Press released the inaugural title for their new interactive publishing platform—Our Choice, by Al Gore. This enhanced e-book has everything going for it: gorgeous interactive graphics; fun use of finger-manipulation, audio and video (by now a requirement); and, last but never least, the fuel injection that makes a book fly—a famous name and a best-seller legacy.

Last week it was reviewed in David Pogue’s New York Times blog. To say that Pogue liked it is an understatement. “For once, here’s an e-book that really does redefine the net effect of an e-book,” he applauded. “The interactivity, the zooming into graphic elements and the videos aren’t a gimmick. They actually add up to a different experience.”

Naturally, readers pounced. They took issue with Pogue’s evaluation of the object as an e-book, instead of (or more primarily than) an app. They listed the product’s shortcomings, sounding a lot like a primer on usability and demonstrating some of the basic principles outlined last week in this column, and requesting that the product be more e-book like, not more app-like.

Some readers took the opportunity to argue with Gore’s knowledge and information on global warming, getting right into the (gasp!) content of the “book” and apparently ignoring or not even caring about its toy-like “interactive” aspects. Others disputed whether this iOS-only presentation should even be called an e-book.

For an audience that cares about books, and not just about new apps, the quality and content of the remarks give a fine example of user research in its natural habitat. Committed users are telling us what they want and expect in an e-book. Here, disregarding Gore-haters and Apple-haters, were some of the main points:

Critiquing Our Choice as a book

  • This will be great for textbooks; good for learning difficult subjects.
  • Want it as a Kindle/Android/Nook/ whatever platform I’ve already got.
  • It’s not an e-book, and that’s bad. It’s really a portable (but too static) website.
  • There should be an enhanced index.
  • Chapter thumbnails are a bad substitute for a table of contents and useless as navigation.
  • Can’t change the font size (even though a study showed that you won’t learn the material any better; still, many of us need bigger type to read it at all).
  • Can’t seem to do what I have come to expect in e-books (clipping, marking, sharing; a consistency problem)
  • Can’t find it in the iTunes store (discoverability problem)

Critiquing Our Choice as an app

  • No active controls; can’t pause in mid-video; nonstandard video controls.
  • No accessibility for the deaf or hard of hearing.
  • Not clear how to manipulate the pictures, and then it’s not easy enough to do (“concierge approach” problem).
  • Files are too big for a portable device.
  • Too linear (meaning, too traditional book-like).
  • “Interactivity with static content is a dead concept.”
  • No social media integration? By now should be standard.
  • This type of “book” is really a mini-website and should be as dynamic as a website.

The line between a book and “something else” is still in flux; just see how often the word “book” still appears inside quotation marks. We still disagree on what constitutes an immersive experience (is it like reading a text? Or is it like watching a movie?) We will probably forever disagree on what creates a distraction. (Some readers despise sidebars, for example. Or, for another example, and speaking of movies; trying to write this column while they are shooting the next “Spider-Man” film outside my house!)

What we do agree on is that taking a new interactive concept for a test run only leads to more exciting ideas and products, especially if we keep UX in mind. And for next week: What was Sally Field reading on her Kindle between takes?

NOTE: DBW has launched an Editorial Forum on LinkedIn, a sub-group for editors and others working in trade publishing to discuss standards, workflow, best practices, and the general Qs that most print people feel when confronted with terms like “workflow.” The Forum is moderated by Anne Kostick and David B. Schlosser. Anne’s weekly column, Digital Reading, discusses the field of User Experience and explores what it offers to trade publishers.

Anne Kostick is a partner in Foxpath IND, a digital-print-web consulting and services company specializing in the transition to and from traditional content development, management and publishing. She is also the editor in chief of Dulcinea Media, an online publisher in the educational market, and is the current president of Women’s Media Group.

3 thoughts on “Digital Reading: Is It an E-Book or “Just an App”? Comments on Our Choice Give Detailed Feedback

  1. Michael H. Bendall

    I certainly appreciate this article. I have recently looked into writing an ebook series with Kindle. I have researched what is involved to become a published author of regular books, and it seems to me that ebooks are more fun to write and possibly read because the works are straight from the authors. Unless I’ve missed something, there is no one that has to be a part of an editing process telling you of changes in your works that they feel you have to make in order to publish.

    Thank you for a good read. Very informative.

    Michael H. Bendall

  2. Charles Ter Bush

    Fascinating discussion. It’s almost beside the point what it is. As you make clear, there is no consistent dividing line between ebook, enhanced ebook or app. Indeed it a seems as though an app can be one kind of enhanced ebook, once you get to the limits of what you can do using the EPUB format and the functionality provided by e-reader software. It seems that the comments are really tracking back to whether the thing is useful and interesting. This example illustrates some of the principles that Peter Hughes set out in your article of last week. Gore’s group was trying to take “something useful and make it easy to use” in Hughes’ words, but having a bit of trouble with providing a consistent and simple experience.

    This was very helpful to me as I try to explain the new world of book publishing to the lawyers at the ABA.



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