« Editorial

Why E-Books Should Subscribe to the Holy Trinity of Webiness

E-book publishers, by in large, have remained oblivious to advances in Web browser and platform technology.

Editorial by Anna Lewis, ValoBox

Just when you thought your web browser was sophisticated enough, there are a raft of new announcements from all the big players. Windows 8 is getting a browser specifically designed for touchscreens, Apple is releasing a version of Safari which you can operate with voice commands and Google has released Chrome OS — an operating system designed to work exclusively with web applications. In the battle of the web vs. apps, there are many who believe that the web has won.

Anna Lewis enjoying San Francisco in the sunshine

However, e-books, by and large, remain oblivious to this new webby world. Yes, they work really well in the same way that physical books do (as a discreet, separate, whole piece of content), but the same can’t be said of them as digital products. This is because they don’t subscribe to the holy trinity of “abilities” that the web has to offer…discover-ability, accessibility and share-ability (the fact that these are not all real words should in no way detract from their importance). How to convert e-books into devout followers of this doctrine is something my company has been looking into, and in the process we’ve developed a new product called ValoBox. So here’s a bit of the thinking behind it.


There are some great services online which let you find a book that you know you want to read and add some nice social features once you’ve bought it. But being able to discover books from somewhere other than a bookshop is an obvious advantage of the web. Not only is a recommendation from someone you trust the most compelling factor in book buying, but actually encountering a book in a different context can add a huge amount of value, and make a purchase decision much more likely. Yet when it comes to e-books, we only seem to do half the job. How often do you encounter someone talking about a YouTube video without it being embedded on the web page or in the social network post? Hardly ever. When someone talks about a piece of media on their blog, you can almost guarantee that you’ll be able to watch the video, listen to the song or view the image in a widget embedded alongside their comments. When someone recommends a book online, at best it’s accompanied by a sample, but usually there’s merely a link that takes you elsewhere.

It makes sense to embed books as we do with other media, in the interest of making their content more discoverable. The web offers the opportunity to not only be told about a book, but be able to read it next to comments by an expert, or in the social feed of a trusted curator. You could include it within any online community, which makes that content more relevant and immediately useful. Breaking away from the isolated file format of e-books is crucial to doing this.


ValoBox offers a "pay-as-you-go" service for e-books

Let’s say that you have decided that you like the look of a particular e-book. How does accessing that content compare to accessing other content on the web? When it comes to browsing websites, we are used to being able to access content in one or two clicks. Research into user behaviour revealed that, as a designer, you have seven seconds to engage your user. If they can’t see something they like, they will move on.

Books, in their digital format, are competing with a vast array of free content which is already on the web and accessible through the Google search bar. This means that publishers should be making their content as easy to view as possible in order that the quality and convenience can outweigh their expense. E-books, however, as isolated files, don’t do themselves any favors. To access any of the content within the book (beyond a free sample chapter), you need to go to a different site, log in, purchase the book, download it to your computer or device and then ensure you have the right software to read it. Hardly seven seconds.

So we’ve been asking ourselves how we could make books more accessible? Firstly, by using modern web standards — these are internationally agreed standards designed to make life easy for users and those developing for the web. This would mean that you could access everything through your browser, so there would be no need to download any files or install any software.  In fact Peter Brantley has run a conference specifically on “Books in Browsers” for a few years. [Editorial Note: Read our coverage from last year’s Books in Browsers conference.]

Secondly, we need to lower the relatively high cost of e-books without destroying the revenue model for their creators. In the case of non-fiction, or more specialized content, customers are generally expected to pay at least $50 a time to buy something they may not even need in its entirety. Taking the iTunes model of breaking content up into smaller denominations and enabling quick and easy micro-purchasing, you could make the purchase decision a much easier one, and give better value to your customers. This is a new approach for books but something very much taken for granted with music.


I mentioned above that, as a potential reader, you should be able to find a book embedded on any website like a YouTube video. The obvious implication is that, as someone who has read the content, you should be able to share the book yourself. In the world of social media, this means that you are often doing the job of marketing or promotion for the publisher. While actual word of mouth is difficult to track and measure, the web offers the opportunity to identify the people and websites which are the most powerful advocates of particular books, and reward them. This is also one of the features we have built into ValoBox with 25% of any sale going to the recommender.

But there’s a second even more exciting element to the potential of the web. If you deliver the content in a way that is web standard, then you can open it up to other developers to mash it up with other services to deliver new, innovative services to readers. For our development team, the APIs provided by Twitter, Facebook and Amazon have proved invaluable so building an open API into our system was fundamental.

At a time when everyone is contemplating the future of the book and formulating their digital strategy it is vital that publishers don’t under value the most powerful content ecosystem that has ever existed…the web.

DISCUSS: The Web vs. Apps for E-books, Which Will Win?

[Editorial Note: Some grammar corrected after initial publication.]

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  1. Posted July 10, 2012 at 4:41 am | Permalink

    Great thought leadership for the industry. Unfortunately YouTube is not a great revenue model for publishers to aspire to.

  2. Posted July 10, 2012 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    As a counter-notion in the web versus apps debate, I would like to highlight this well argued article by Aaron Brethorst on why native apps beat web apps on iPhone and iPad and that this is a major reasons part why Facebook’s mobile experience has been poor.

    There is no right or wrong here, no magic bullet. Every native app draws heavily on web technology, rather the decision is on a case by case basis what elements should be “native” and which should be browser based. Online connectivity and social interactions now pervade EVERYTHING.


  3. Richard Morrow
    Posted July 10, 2012 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    Interesting conceptually, but it sounds a bit like a deadend intellectually- a page only may appeal to some students, but it turns them into robots at the end of robots. Not to mention the commercial reality expressed by Lisa.

  4. Marilyn Jaye Lewis
    Posted July 10, 2012 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    As an author and a blogger, I think this is an excellent idea –an extremely handy way to self-promote books & generate immediate sales. As long as payment is as quick & effortless as Amazon’s 1-click. And as long as the API element lets a reader immediately access it through mobile, tablet, Mac or PC — whichever device is handiest at any particular moment. Wonderful marketing & PR tool for authors.

  5. Posted July 10, 2012 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Terrific article, Anna! Despite the interesting points raised by folks who disagree with you I also believe a web approach is the future. mobi and EPUB simply reflect the current state of the industry and, of course, are already built upon HTML. HTML5 though, and the rich capabilities it offers, is where I see us heading. Why be forced to wait for standards committees and app vendors (with their walled gardens) to support all the richness that HTML5 has to offer when you can take advantage of it today in a browser?

  6. Posted July 10, 2012 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    I can see the value for academic texts or other non-fiction. What about fiction?

  7. Paula Tague
    Posted July 10, 2012 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Sorry, but I am immediately turned off in the first two paragraphs when a person who is writing for writers can’t write. It’s by and large, not “by in large” and “Apple are” is just plain wrong in anyone’s book. I hate to be a pain, but we can’t bemoan the poor quality of new work if we aren’t producing good quality work ourselves.

  8. Edward Nawotka
    Posted July 10, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    @Paula, yes, that was sloppy editing on my part. It has been fixed. Thank you.

  9. Kevin Franco
    Posted July 11, 2012 at 12:24 am | Permalink

    Browser based readers are excellent at controlling content, serving it up in serial format to subscribed users. In developing our transmedia project in 2010, we created a browser based reader – it offered a far better reading experience for multi-media than the iPad (through a reading app) could. I think browser based readers are the future too, they answer so many of today’s problems including what is probably the ultimate solution for libraries and lending. Unfortunately, we’ve got some legacy devices standing in the way of a quick implementation.

  10. Posted July 11, 2012 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the article, very interesting. I would like to point out that in paragraph 2, the word discreet should be spelled discrete, as meaning separate or self-contained.

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