The Digital Reader

People Are Weird About Books, and Attempts to “Improve” or “Fix” Books in a Web Browser Prove it

The first thing thing you should know about reading books in a web browser is that far more developers than users are excited about the idea of making a digital book look just like a print book.

I was reminded of this last night when I read about yet another startup that had rediscovered making stories read in a web browser look more book-like.

From FastCo:

Books in their current form are thousands of years old, dating back to the Roman Empire. And even today’s e-books preserve the visual cues of their traditional analog counterparts, with tables of contents, page numbers, and the affordance of “turning the page” by swiping. Reading in your browser, however, has retained little of the charm of reading a book, digital or real.

Now, the New York-based design studio HAWRAF is bringing some of those visual cues to a new digital book platform. In essence, it’s a browser-based e-book. Designed specifically for a new online book called Poetic Computation: Reader by Taeyoon Choi, the platform lets users play around with font, text size, line spacing, and background color. When you click on the footnotes, located in tiny typography to the right of the main text, they overtake the main text so you can get a closer look. Meanwhile, anything you highlight can be exported as a PDF, letting you turn the most relevant parts of the book into a printable file. A “focus mode” blacks out most of the browser, keeping your wandering eyes from getting distracted. It’s the best aspects of reading online, combined with those of an actual book.

The second thing you should know about reading books in a web browser is that it's not exactly a new concept.

Fifty-eleven different developers have executed this idea over the past couple decades. This includes Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo, each of which have released a browser-based reader, Ibis Reader, a few dozen independent developers who released browser extensions, and Safari Books Online, which has been serving up nonfiction books in a web browser since forever.

It's an old idea, and for the most part it hasn't gone anywhere. Two of the The three ebook retailers have shut down their web apps, most of the independent developers have moved on to other projects, and just about the only project that persisted is Safari Books Online - and that stuck around largely because that browser app is the core of their subscription service.

The thing is, readers are indifferent to the idea reading books in a web browser.

Or to be more exact, readers are ambivalent to the obsession that some have with making books in a web browser look exactly like those books would look on paper.

And yes, this focus on vestigial aspects of paper books is an obsession - and a strange one, when you really sit back and think about it.

People spend inordinate amounts of time reading in web browsers, and yet no one insists that Wikipedia would be better if it were formatted like an encyclopedia, no one wants The Atlantic to look more like a magazine, and no one insists news sites should look more like newspapers.

Instead, the trend for web content leans to a clean single column layout (think Instapaper, or Google AMP).

It is only with books that the crazy people start coming out of the woodwork, insisting that the digital books in a web browser have to ape unimportant characteristics of print books.

I have said it before, but it bears repeating.

People are weird about books.