Friday, February 8, 2013

Anachronisms and Dysfunctions of eBook Front and Back Matter

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, 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 website) at the end of each and every unglued book – inside the book on the very last page. If the whole point of 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:
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.
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  1. Eric, you seem to be assuming connectivity in the eBook reader. While there are some "always connected" readers, there are others that are not. Would you expect some of the information linked from the new title pages to be included in the eBook package? All of it? None of it?

    1. Good point. It makes sense to include some linked stuff in the ebook package. What's the downside?

  2. Downside is that the included data is static, unless you have a way to update it when the user is online. It also will have dead ends (unlike, say, a Wikipedia page which always links out to something else). But if you design for that (e.g. mainly include info that isn't volatile) then it won't be terribly noticeable.

  3. I think the those readers which are not "always connected" are becoming less of a problem now. I gave an e-reader to my mother who lives in an area where mobile Internet is not available and who doesn't have a computer. However one of the places she regularly eats at has free wi-fi Internet as does her local library.

    I like the idea of changing the title page to a more e-friendly and useful page. I'll be implementing it in our next books.

    1. Big difference between "not always connected" and "never connected". The million or so people reading ebooks on the subway in NYC fall into the first category but not the second.

  4. Good post, showing again that eBooks should offer something very different from pBooks.

    There certainly is an issue about eReader connectibility (and device battery life), but as John says, many more places (at least here in the UK) are now offering free Wifi connections for getting updates.

  5. Generally, a print book has been used as a template for an e-book, a different animal. Maybe the concept of “book” has been superseded due to an online environment. A “book” has a background in commerce and culture—that is, a physical unit to be sold and to be read. But online, much information is free. As for reading, as an e-book evolves more and more toward multi-media, reading skill could be marginalized.

  6. I agree that it's a good idea to intentionally think about front/back matter for ebooks rather than blindly following the print book tradition, but I have a quibble regarding Melinda Thompson's first suggestion:

    "The first page of an unglued book should contain only two things: an unglued logo and a small “what’s this?” link."

    This wouldn't serve any immediate need of the reader, unlike a table of contents, a cover image to set the mood, social media links, or links to recommendation engines. Some reading software already jumps to the start of the main text by default; if we don't want front matter to be ignored, it should be designed with the needs of the reader foremost.

    That's not to say that unglued books shouldn't make it clear how they came to be available for free, since that hopefully would encourage folks to consider contributing to the cause, but having that promotion get in the way of the reading experience, even if only for a moment, seems like it would be counterproductive.

  7. I'd love to see some description of the book in the front matter. If you've got a virtual pile of books to read it'd make it easier to decide which one you'll go for next-much like when choosing a book of a shelf, often you'll re-read the back cover copy to make sure you're in the right frame of mind for that title, without returning to a retailer's description page. I would find this sooooo useful, song as I almost always have several books waiting to be read. Anyone else?

  8. the world has been doing e-books for some time.

    and eric, you've been involved yourself for a while.

    so why are we still discussing basic building blocks?

    why have we seemingly accomplished _nothing_?

    when is everyone gonna finally step up the game?


  9. “Think about the start screen of a DVD. (You DO remember those, don't you?)”: I don’t know what you’re talking about there, and I doubt you do, either. Do you mean the poster feature of the DVD spec? No, I doubt you do.

  10. I have to agree with Janey Burton here. Reproducing some of the jacket copy in the front matter of an eBook would be helpful to me as a reader. A brief author bio and book description could really help to ease me into the experience of reading. While I agree that a lot of the front matter from a print book is utterly unnecessary for an eBook, I find the jump from cover to text a little unnerving. As someone who often reads on a very old Kobo with limited internet connectivity (in places without WiFi), simply linking the pertinent information seems inadequate. Overall I think that this is a fascinating discussion, and think the relationship between a reader and his/her content should be the most important question. How can content best accommodate the consumer experience?