It turns out that unlike many other types of “old” media, the physical form of a book provides a really great user experience. A book has a good tactile feel and an easy-to-understand interface that has been around for hundreds (even thousands) of years. Print books are easy on (most) eyes and simple to navigate. So the choice of whether to read digitally or physically, with written words or spoken ones, is now a matter of convenience, access, or preference. Readers have lots of options, which is optimal for a healthy reading environment.
This fall at PRH, we are recognizing two big ebook milestones. In November 2017, Amazon celebrates the tenth anniversary of Kindle and PRH heads into our twentieth year of making the works of our authors available in digital form, as we remember the first ebooks we published, in 1998. It is amazing to think how far we have come in that time, and how much advancement we have seen in both devices to read on and how content can be formatted.
In 1998, the earliest e-readers, the Rocket eBook and the SoftBook Reader (pictured below), were launched. They were the first attempts to bring together written content from books, magazines, and newspapers on dedicated reading devices. Both were about the same size and weight as a hardcover, and held a few hours’ charge and about ten books. Their screens were pixelated, and they had to connect to either a computer or a landline phone to download books. The formatting was extremely simple: text with almost no design elements and no color. Even the first Kindle, introduced in 2007, was pretty basic in terms of what kinds of books and design elements it could support—perfect for simple fiction, but not great for anything fancier.
For publishers and ebook retailers alike, the last ten years have been a flurry of digital projects. We worked on backlist projects to make older books available digitally. We collaborated to develop industry format standards so we could make one ebook file format that could be sold to all the retail partners. We adapted as digital sales expanded with new partners internationally and across marketplaces like library and education. We tested new features like video- and audio-enhanced books, and what it meant to add in interactivity. We adjusted as more devices with new requirements were developed. We learned that the most important way to improve the ebook experience is to figure out how to enhance the story yet not remove the users from their engagement with reading. The best design is one where the content is clean and readable, so the reader forgets the device and becomes completely immersed in the story.
At this point, most platforms provide similar experiences that give e-reading a few advantages over print for basic books. These include features like allowing users to change the body font to one they prefer; to resize the text up or down and allow the book to reflow; and to easily navigate, highlight text, share passages via social media, bookmark pages, and take notes. As reading systems continue to advance, they are making it easier to “flip through” the pages, use fonts and “themes” better suited for digital reading, and give readers more control.
Our own data shows that e-reading is moving more to the devices that people have with them everywhere and every day—to tablets (59 percent) and phones (23 percent), with only about 15 percent still using traditional e-ink readers. That is great news, because it means readers always have a choice among a variety of reading systems and can always have a book—many books!—handy.
As we head into the next generation of digital reading, we’re embracing new challenges that maybe don’t seem so sexy, but are ultimately critical to our goal of making our ebooks available for readers everywhere. Our two big current focuses at PRH right now are formatting and accessibility challenges. Updating our coding methods for ebooks helps us address some of the complex needs of nonfiction books and allows us to take advantage of the variety of sizes, the resolution, and the color support on modern screens to use higher-resolution images and embed fonts where they don’t distract from the main body fonts that the user can control, but can help give the story “style.”
Improving accessibility means coding our files to ensure that those who are print-disabled can use an assistive reading system to read the book and immerse themselves in the story without missing out on anything. Accessibility is important both because many schools, libraries, and government organizations can only purchase content that is accessible and because it makes our stories easier for people to get quickly.
Here are some simple ways we are addressing these needs:
- We need to support a world where a print book reader and an ebook reader can share a common experience. So we now put print book page numbers (“anchors,” as we call them) into our ebooks so that print readers can say “look at page 47” and that reference works to navigate to that same location in the ebook.
- We are tagging content more consistently to allow footnotes to pop up in place, so the reader can quickly check a note and then dive back into the book.
- We are changing the way we tag so that content that is styled bold or italic isn’t spoken at a higher volume for a print-disabled reader and so that the books pause appropriately for space breaks.
- We are including higher-resolution images so that you can pinch and zoom and see detail beyond what you can in print.
As the ebook landscape continues to evolve, PRH remains at the forefront, working closely with industry organizations like the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to ensure that the needs of trade books and their stories are represented as standards get updated and improved. We continue to work through refining our processes for ebook conversion and quality control as we bring together the expertise we have developed making more than fifty thousand books. We work extensively with the engineers and teams of reading-system vendors to continue to push what is developed, based on what our books and authors need for their stories.
Liisa McCloy-Kelley is the VP and Director of Ebook Product Development and Innovation at Penguin Random House.