February 25, 2016

Behold, the hoverboard of digital reading—or not


Rare footage of an ebook doing a backflip or something

Rare footage of an ebook doing a backflip or something

Orson & Co. is FutureBook‘s “startup of the week”meaning, basically, that the startup’s founders, author Richard Mason and Playstation veteran Kevin McSherry, are the latest adventurers on the publishing industry’s long quest to “fix” the ebook. Mason, in conversation with FutureBook’s Molly Flatt, states that:

Most publishers are exploring digital ideas, but so far all we’ve seen is a series of standalone apps, very few of which have even recouped the cost of being developed from scratch each time. But now it’s time for them to evolve, to become what people imagined ebooks were going to be like, the literary equivalent of the hoverboards that everyone expected the future to bring.

And he’s right—no, not about people wanting anything in any industry that is the equivalent to the hoverboard, that’s wrong—but about the palpable frustration from publishers and developers to make any supposedly great ebook idea actually stick.

Part of the problem here is that the initial selling point of the ebook was convenience. As Mason explains, “Up to now, ebooks have been little more than digital photocopies, dull and uniform experiences with little to recommend them beyond their convenience.”

Yes, in the beginning ebooks were just books on a screen—and that was fine. We like books. Books are great. The perk was that you could take 1,500 of them with you, not just one, and that was perk enough. Plus, you could download the latest book wherever you found a wifi connection. Having an eReader or tablet meant you’d never again be without a book, and that is cool.

But over time, as Mason notes, sales of these “standard” ebooks began to slow. The book, the text of the book, what publishers were selling, was no longer enough. And so it was determined that ebooks needed to do something better than that. This is the nut to crack, and the primary reason for tech’s intervention in publishing.

Anyway, to get back to Mason, what exactly were people imagining ebooks would be like? Were we not content to have an application that responded to our commands and didn’t shut down randomly all the time?

Ultimately, Orson & Co.’s supposedly hoverboard-level ebook app, eLume, doesn’t really seem all that radical. In fact, compared to other digital publishers, whose ebooks are basically video games, eLume doesn’t seem particularly innovative at all. The application emulates the act of reading a book—pages flip, words are on those pages, the pages kinda look sun-worn. there are some pictures—and little else. Yes, the application offers music when music plays in a book, and yes, there are embedded videos, but aren’t we reading on busy buses and subways? Will we wear earbuds all commute long in anticipation of a reference to a song or movie that, when audio or video does play, will likely startle us into public embarrassment? Who knows.

All of this is to say that eLume does seem like a pretty good idea for ebooks (albeit one that may be sustaining some grand illusions about itself) precisely because it isn’t the hoverboard of digital reading. What the hell do readers want with a hoverboard anyway?


Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.