When was the first time you read something long on a digital screen? Well, most likely it was an article or an essay that started as cursory research and you became engrossed. But what if we say something really long. Like a thesis, or a novel? I would bet that you haven’t done it at all. It’s just not comfortable enough, and so you fork out for the paper and ink.
Well, I would suggest that this is about to change. Contrary to popular opinion, I think e-books/e-readers don’t really make much sense and might be on their way out. We are at a tipping point where the benefits of e-readers, like the Kindle, are eclipsed by tablets which can provide a comfortable long-form reading experience, as well as a whole host of other rich content. They will become the minidisk of the literary world: at first they made sense but are only really half a step of progress toward integration of the web and extended reading experiences.
What do e-readers offer us that could not be achieved through a responsive web design, a payment gateway and a publisher? Previously, they have been good for travel, they helped standardise the reading experience and they occasionally offer rich content otherwise not available in novel form (I hear J.R.R Tolkien sings to you in The Lord of the Rings). The latter is not a concern for in-browser models of reading as fresh web-standards are frequently rolled out across the net and, as for content, there is nothing that e-books currently offer which cannot be found online. It seems to me that only the former is a hurdle that in-browser models might struggle to manage: the ability to travel. Lets be honest though, the internet is pretty much everywhere these days, and there are ways around saving too. Take Instapaper for example: a read-later service that can save websites for consumption in your own time with an app that you can take with you wherever you go. It standardises content for you in a neat, responsive format that looks great on your mobile too.
There are also classy, well-designed self-publishing platforms springing up all over the web. They are free to use, exceptionally well thought out and are going to change the way we think of reading long-form on the internet. Take Medium for example, which is a dream to use. Its a new platform which already does a great job of standardising the reading experience, while also creating a much more social and personal interface with Twitter integration, inline commenting and estimated reading times.
There is incentive too for publishers to escape the restrictions and commissions of e-book platforms like iBooks to draw traffic away from external sources to their own websites. This might then generate more profit through cross-pollinated interests.
One concern is that this could lead to a less integrated approach, where every publisher is creating their own system, but I think the opposite would eventually emerge. Once standardized, it would mean less duplication as content would be available straight from the source and an e-reader would not have to be designed. For a while now, it has been possible to provide separate CSS stylesheets purely for printing purposes – so why not, where appropriate, make accommodations for extended reading purposes?
So it seems to me that, with the advent of responsive web design and the comfort and availability of tablet devices, now would be a great time for publishers to take steps toward providing their own in-browser models for reading long-form content. This would have to be more than just a simpler design, but a completely new environment for reading that accounts for social engagement, saving progress and cross-polinating content. Just make sure it’s tailor made for comfort and gives your readers the treats they deserve for trying something new and going straight to the source.
What do you think about reading and researching on the web? How can it be improved? We’d love to hear your thoughts about e-books too in the comments below, or on Twitter.