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