The process of digitizing a printed book involves much more than the conversion of ink on paper to bits in a file. Functional aspects of the book must be mapped to digital equivalents. Thus we have tables of contents and indices turning into hyperlinks and spine files, page numbers that beget location anchors and progress indicators.
The terms of art for this stuff are front matter and back matter. I'll cover the many dysfunctions of ebook copyright pages in another article, but let's step back for a moment. What is this stuff for for, anyway?
A good example is the bastard title (or half title) page. This a page, usually printed with only the book's title, that precedes the title page in the book. When dinosaurs roamed the earth, the function of the bastard title was to identify and physically protect the paper text block until it was bound. Sort of like the tissue paper they still put in fancy wedding invitations. I daresay that ebooks do not require any such protection. It is utterly without use in an ebook. Begone!
Next, consider the title page. It typically displays the book's title, author, and the publisher.
In a print book, the title page is a declaration of bookiness. You don't have title pages in magazines or newspapers. The title page says "get, ready, here comes a book, so go find a comfy chair."
But a digital book needs something different. It needs a start page. Think about the start screen of a DVD. (You DO remember those, don't you?) Now think a bit more generally. Modern ebooks share their underlying technology with websites, so why not convert the title page of a book into a home page for the book, with the sort of utilities you expect on a home page?
If all we do is replicate the functions of a print book, then we haven't done our 21st century thinking very thoroughly. What kinds of things might an author or publisher want on their book's home page? The ability to share via social networks? Definitely! Probably a channel for conversation. A way to connect to other books from the author and/or publisher? Yes please! Maybe even a usage tracker.
From my perspective, thinking about what our Creative-Commons licences editions should look like, there are a number of front-matter and back-matter tweaks needed. We add lists of supporters, for example. One of the author-publishers participating in Unglue.it, Melinda Thompson (support her book here), had these great suggestions:
The first page of an unglued book should contain only two things: an unglued logo and a small “what’s this?” link. Initially, “unglued” won’t mean anything to anybody, but over time they will learn what it means as some people click the “what’s this?” link and learn more. Once a person clicks on the “what’s this?” link they’d get a very short menu with things listed like: What is an Unglued Book, Rights, How to Share this Book, Supporters, etc. And behind that short menu could be all the details you want.
I would love to see a share button (like you have on the Unglue.it website) at the end of each and every unglued book – inside the book on the very last page. If the whole point of unglue.it is to give books to the world, then people should be easily able to do that from a technological perspective. People should be able to download an unglued book for free and then, technologically, the book should really be free and easy to share effortlessly via email, Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and other social media websites. And, from your branding perspective, people should be able to easily tell your story on your behalf. People should literally, easily be able to give an unglued book to the world.
But it's not just unglued books that need work. Let's look at the book Book: A Futurist's Manifesto, by Hugh McGuire and Brian O'Leary, which is a very interesting collection, by the way.
Here's what it looks like in iBooks. (It's the version released in 2011, though a later version is labeled the first edition.)
Thankfully, these futurists have axed the 18th century bastard title, but the title page itself looks lost. There's not even the customary publisher name.
Here's the PDF embed from scribd:
Book: A Futurist's Manifesto; A Collection of Essays from the Bleeding Edge of Publishing by O'Reilly Media, Inc.The title page is dressed up a bit, but hey, it's pdf.
Now take a look at the booky part of the book's homepage, first on O'Reilly's website :
And then on Pressbooks, where it really IS a website.
You can see that this browser version has started down the road to rethinking the front matter.
Look at these homepage captures and think about how many of these functions would work just fine inside an ebook, on an ebook reader intermittently detached from the web. Take out the "buy" buttons, and you have a decent start page for the book. Or leave in some buy buttons if you want to sell print copies or you want to upsell to a deluxe version.
So how do we proceed? These things work better if readers don't have to learn different UIs for every ebook they read, but at the same time, there's no need to leave users in the previous century. Maybe book designers could share their start page designs for everyone's benefit. Wouldn't that be nice? Have you seen an innovative start page on an ebook? What else would you like to see on a book's start page?
Update 4/10/13: Suw Charman-Anderson has a great follow-up post.