by Cindie Geddes.
An ebook is more than a digital representation of a print book. Let me take that back; an ebook CAN be more than a digital representation of a print book. Sure, you can take the same file you’re going to use for your print book, run it through any of a number of conversion programs and call it done. Nothing wrong with that.
I would argue, though, that at a minimum, readers deserve a linkable table of contents and some hyperlinked web pages (the author’s, the publisher’s, the cover artist’s, the designer’s). In some books, novels especially, that’s all that’s needed. The experience is all about the words — uninterrupted.
But sometimes readers want more.
Recently, we worked on two books that allowed us to look at how readers would realistically interact with the information the authors were trying to convey. One book was fiction, one nonfiction, but neither was simple. In stepping back and analyzing how readers might want to explore the content, we came up with different ways to format the books.
Stars: Original Stories Based on the Songs of Janis Ian (edited by Janis Ian and Mike Resnick)
Stars is an anthology filled to bursting with short stories by some of the biggest names in science fiction and fantasy. Each story is based on a Janis Ian song. So, points of interest included: 1) the stories, 2) the authors, and 3) the songs. Some readers would be coming to the anthology because they love sf/fantasy, some because they love Janis, and some because they love music. Some because they love all three. (Others might just stumble upon the cool cover — designed by Theresa Rose, based on art by Malt — or because they are curious why there even IS an anthology of science fiction/fantasy stories based on the music of a famous folk singer, but for the purposes of designing the inner workings of the ebook, we decided to focus on the top three attractions.)
A linked Table of Contents allows the reader to jump to any story, or the reader can simply read from beginning to end. At the end of each story is a link back to the Table of Contents, allowing the reader to choose a new story rather than just go to the next in line (though the reader can certainly do that too).
The authors are not just a draw but also part of the reading experience. Some readers will go to the Table of Contents and just jump to the stories by their favorite authors first. But it’s also fun to read about the authors before or after reading a story by that author. Or just read about all the authors in an anthology at one time. So we have the usual list of authors with their bios at the end of the book but hyperlink to each author from each story. For ease of jumping, we link back to each story at the end of each bio.
Finally, the songs of Janis Ian were the original inspiration for the anthology. Each author used the lyrics of one of her songs as a jumping-off point for a story. So we also hyperlinked out to Janis’s website, where readers can listen to the songs that inspired the writers to begin with.
All this linking allows the reader to jump around and read the book in the order he or she wants. It’s sort of what we figured a reader might do with a print book: thumb through, skim an author bio, go back to the story by that author, but also with Janis’s music playing in the background. We wanted to recreate that reader experience, streamline it, focus it, and then repeat it for 30 stories, 31 authors and 29 songs.
Or the reader can ignore it all and just read from the beginning straight to the end.
Butt Out: A Compassionate Guide to Helping Yourself Quit Smoking (by David Antonuccio, PhD)
The original print version of this book was a two-sided book designed to be shared by a smoker and a smoker’s partner. The smoker could read about how to quit smoking and hand the book to his or her partner, who could flip it over and read about how to help the smoker quit smoking. This was not a form that seemed immediately conducive to ebooks. But we stumbled upon a possible solution when we remembered those old choose-your-own-adventure games and figured we could apply that same sort of thinking to an ebook. From there the idea was simple:
We have an ebook that starts with introductory material, and then offers the reader the choice: for information tailored to the smoker, click on one spot to read more, and for information tailored to someone supporting a smoker trying to quit, click somewhere else. Each click takes the reader down a separate path, basically just skipping over the chunk of information that applies only to the other.
Since we know there will be readers who really only want the information for the person quitting smoking or only the information for the support person, and since most of the work would already be done, we also decided to offer two mini books of just that specialized information. This way we can cater to those three audiences — smokers only, support people only, partners in the quitting process — and keep the price low for readers. What we ended up with are one “big” book with two paths and two “small” books, each with single paths.
Again, we tried to recreate the reader experience of skipping over the parts he or she didn’t want/need to read, but we modernized it by letting both readerships follow the same path until the divergence.
While our formatting for these two books in many ways tried to mimic how readers of print books interact with book content, we also used the specific strengths of ereaders to enhance the experience. But in the end, content is king. The format, be it links or the absence thereof, is there to serve the content. Each book is different in content; therefore each book will vary in design. Figuring out how best to marry those two elements — form and content — well, that’s where the fun is for the likes of us.