Electronic publishing, usability, and a free lunch

(This article first appeared on IBM developerWorks.)

Peter Seebach ([mailto:crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net] crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net)

Freelance writer

September 2002

Publishers who want to create an electronic book have to choose: try to protect it against piracy or make it usable. In this article, I contrast the extremes of the philosophy and argue for open standards and accessible data in electronic data products. The impact of these decisions on usability is also considered.

Understanding electronic books

The basic idea of electronic books is simple. An electronic book is just like a real book, except that you can only read it on a screen, and it's much cheaper to produce. Electronic books, in theory, partake of all of the advantages of electronic media - convenient random access, searching, annotation, and other likely features. However, in practice, many books are limited by the qualities of the applications used to view them.

Because of these limitations, most electronic books are released in fairly standardized formats, such as Adobe's PDF format, HTML, or a fairly simple subset of the RTF file format used for exchanging word processor documents. The books released in these formats can be viewed on a variety of systems, and will generally take full advantage of local capabilities, such as screen resolution.

Getting it all wrong

I recently bought a CD which contained some reference books for use with a roleplaying game. In theory, they should have been nice, standard documents. In practice, they weren't. The installer (on a Windows system) simply ran, installing everything to a predetermined location. The installer doesn't ask whether or not that's what you want, and you can't choose what to install; it just installs everything.

Once the material is installed, it starts getting ugly. None of the books are in any kind of standard format; instead, you have to use a special browser program. This program won't run unless the CD is still in the drive, even though it just chewed up 260 megabytes of disk space. The worst, however, is yet to come.

The program runs at 640x480 pixels. You can't change this. On my laptop, the program actually suppresses the normal pixel expansion, so it runs in a window with perhaps a 7" diagonal - smaller than any screen in living memory. It uses animated transitions showing blocks of marble sliding in front of the interface, then sliding out to reveal a different interface, whenever you try to select a different feature. It even has grinding-rock sound effects! The actual display of the books is only about 2/3 of the 640x480 screen, using some custom interface. You can't specify page numbers in any obvious way. And, since it's a 640x480 screen, the text is blocky and ugly. Of course, it isn't antialiased.

And that's it. That's all you can do. There's no way to switch to Acrobat, or a web browser, or anything else. You can't take the data and turn it into something useful. The key here is that all of the usability problems hinge on the original decision to use a specialized format that restricts access.

Getting it right

Now for a contrast. Baen Books has been giving away some electronic books for some time, because they feel it helps them sell their primary product - paper books. In practice, this means their primary goal is making the content accessible to their users.

They are releasing a CD in the near future, which will be bundled with a hardcover novel. What's on the CD? The complete text of all the previous novels in the series, plus a few related books and anthologies, all in a handful of different formats, guaranteeing that anyone with a computer that can manage any kind of formatted text should be able to read them.

The end result? People who don't normally buy novels in hardcover are saying that this will be the one they do buy in hardcover. And, of course, as they work their way through the rest of the series, many of them will buy the other books. But most important is that, if you get this CD, you won't have to run a special installer or use a particular program to read the books; you will be able to choose how you want to display them.

Jim Baen kindly responded to my email asking him why they'd selected open standards and formats: "Because not only are our readers, in the main, not thieves, but because there is nothing there that is stealable." His point is an interesting one: there's not much point in stealing paperback books -- they are pretty cheap -- and you couldn't print out the text for less than it would cost to buy the book. The only people who could possibly be "stealing" are the ones who, for whatever reason, end up not wanting the books and they wouldn't have bought the books anyway.

Different markets?

A brief digression: Many people will point out the difficulty of applying the same theory for promoting the sale of books in one market or genre as in another. We do have one data point: textbooks, unlike paperbacks, are not cheap and are not read for entertainment. Yet apparently, Charles Vest of MIT has observed that sales of MIT press textbooks go up when the book's complete text is made available online. Therefore, the underlying theory seems to still apply.

In the end, the piracy concerns are probably a moot point; anyone who really desperately wants free copies of any of the books under discussion can certainly get them through any of a dozen file sharing networks. Therefore, users primarily wanting a free copy is not really an issue; who should be considered are the users who are quite willing to pay for a copy, but want a usable copy.

Usability wins again

Usability, then, is where you will find that the selection of format matters the most. A standard file format, such as HTML, gives the user control over things like screen resolution and display size. A proprietary browser may not provide such control. The books Baen is giving away (or selling, in some cases) are being designed to be maximally useful to the user, so that the books will be read.

In general, standard formats can be perused while using other programs. This makes it very easy for the user to interact with his computer in a normal way. A product that prevents you from using other products is not being very friendly.


If you really want users to be able to use a document, provide it in multiple, standard, formats. PDF can be nice, but it's really only ideally suited to reproduction of a physical text; otherwise, the arbitrary page divisions get in the user's way. RTF is a good bet, because most word processors can read it. HTML is often the most convenient for the user, although you lose a lot of typesetting control.

And, if you are absolutely forced to use a special viewer, make sure it runs in a normal, resizeable window, just like everything else. Don't make it take over the screen.

This week's action item: Next time you need to look something up in a book, save your work and close every other program you're using. Don't reopen them until you're done with the book. Annoying, isn't it?


About the author

author Peter Seebach has been having trouble navigating through badly designed pages since before frames and JavaScript existed. He continues to believe that, some day, pages will be designed to be usable, rather than being designed to look impressive. You can reach him at [mailto:crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net] crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net.