Can you really read a book on the Apple Watch?

reading ebooks on apple watch?We have many options when it comes to ebook reading, and the Apple Watch might be the most surprising option of all — the 1.5 inch screen makes it quite a challenge, to say the least.

As the Digital Reader (“Glose Update v1.5 Adds Speed-Reading on the Apple Watch“) notes, apps such as Glose utilize RSVP (rapid serial visual presentation, a speed reading technique which involves flashing words on the screen in rapid succession) to make the most of some fairly limited design constraints when it comes to reading experience on the Apple Watch. To be fair — the Apple Watch is much more accurately thought of as a fashion accessory or complementary piece of technology, but we can’t help but at least entertain the thought of whether it could also function as a reading device.

Maybe more important of a question: would anyone really want to read anything longer than a text message or tweet on something attached to their wrist? Probably not. Teleread, in a post from a few years ago (“Is the Smartwatch Trend Heralding a New Type of E-Reader?” adds a few useful thoughts, noting that the smallest of book sizes were generally three by two inches, which is tiny. Would reading on a screen half of that size really be realistic?

9to5Mac (“eBook app for Apple Watch shows what not to do with watch apps“) is less enthusiastic about the usability of ebook reading on the Apple Watch, citing form factor, ebook formatting, and battery life as the primary concerns — and I’m inclined to agree.

apple watch ebook app

Which isn’t to say that things couldn’t change in the future. But for now, reading ebooks on an Apple Watch doesn’t really seem to be much of a thing — screen size and very limited navigation are the very real limitations for any kind of sustained reading experience. If you’re interested in checking out the speed reading approach to ebook reading on the Apple Watch, the Wear Reader app is worth a look.

MacGuffin, Short Reads, and Reading Analytics

Question: can data about how books are read in turn influence the way in which books are written? The Guardian (“The new platform luring readers into short fiction“), leads off by observing how short fiction has remained a relatively unpopular e-reading genre while others have taken off. Now, we see more and more self-publishing options such as MacGuffin focusing upon short fiction, poetry, public domain works, and “#fiveminutereads” to try and catch our collective e-reading attention spans. However, the part that caught my attention was MacGuffin’s focus upon reading analytics

Macguffin Analytics Reading“The subtle joke in MacGuffin’s name – tricking busy online readers into spending time with fiction through interaction and ease-of-use – might also point to its most interesting feature. Alongside every story published are its open analytics, visible to both author and readers. Mercilessly, these detail the exact number of people who have opened a story, and the number of people who actually finish it. They even display a chart of exactly when each reader stopped reading: which, while painful, does give writers the chance to test their narrative structure. Whether this will prove a digital innovation too far for more sensitive writers remains to be seen, but if MacGuffin does take off, mining this data for insights into human attention might be one of the smartest things any publisher has done in some time.”

Ok, I might have contributed towards the dropout out rate on a couple of stories while I was poking around their website. The combining of reader analytics and audio soundtracks is kind of a neat experiment (while we’re on the subject, check out this post for more on books and soundtracks).

I’m curious to see if having more data and information about readers’ habits will have an influence upon the way in which books are produced. And another thing to think about, from the authors’ and publishers’ perspective: how much does dropout rate really matter? Are there other metrics that could determine a books’ success? (This reminds me of an earlier post on the Hawking Index, too).

The Bookseller (“Jim Hinks: Reader analytics as a self-editing tool“) has a great interview with useful insights about what MacGuffin is all about. He makes some good observations about how devices might affect our reading consumption habits, now and in the future:

“Literature in audio form is certainly on the ascent. Audiobook sales are rising; 4G coverage is improving and getting cheaper for consumers. I suspect that one of the reasons publishers, at least, are so keen on audio is it seems relatively future-proof. Consumption of digital literature is largely device-led, after all. As Amazon added more functionality to Kindles, transforming them from vanilla readers into tablets, ebook sales started to level off — why read capital-L literature when you have social media, YouTube and Netflix? But whatever wearable devices come on-stream in the next few years, it’s difficult to foresee a time when we won’t want listen to stuff while keeping our eyes free to do other stuff (even in our driverless cars).”

The drop out graphs are pretty rudimentary data at this point, but it’s a pretty cool idea. The future of book reading might be full of these kinds of insights which simply didn’t exist five or ten years ago:

Macguffin Analytics Reading Drop Off“During the beta test, we found that most stories and poems typically have a lot of drop-outs right at the start of the text or audio (sometimes over 50% during the first 10% of a story or poem). It seemed readers were scanning the first few lines of text, or listening to a few seconds of audio, then deciding it wasn’t for them. … It seems this simply reflects the way we browse literature, whether digitally, or picking up a book in a bookstore: scanning the first few lines, then deciding it’s not for us, and moving on to something else. The really useful drop-out stats for authors seem to come after that initial bedding-in phase, where you’ve won the reader’s confidence, only to loose it again with a misstep in plotting or pacing or tone.”

 Check out the MacGuffin website for more of the nuts and bolts of their reader analytics (the parts about writing and reading drop out rate are very interesting!) Also worth a look: a Twitter conversation with MacGuffin on reader analytics from a couple of months ago.

Ebooks and Fonts

3046678-inline-3046678-slide-s-5-the-kindle-finally-gets-some-typography-that-doesnt-suckCo.Design (“The Kindle Finally Gets Typography That Doesn’t Suck“) had an interesting article that caught my attention, which provides a design-focused, nuanced look at one of the more unnoticed aspects of e-reading: fonts.*

So it there any importance, other than cosmetic, that can be attached to Amazon’s newly designed Bookerly font (and improved typesetting layout engine) for Kindle? Maybe:

“No matter what screen you’re on, Bookerly was designed from the ground-up to be even more readable that Caecilia. According to Amazon’s internal tests, that means it’s about 2% easier on the eye. That may seem like a small improvement, but spread that 2% across millions of Kindle users and billions of pages of e-reading, and it all starts to add up.”

google play books literataHey, 2%, over a year’s worth of e-reading is a big deal! I think. Probably. The transition between print and digital is still an ever-ongoing process and this quote from Amazon was on point:

“In e-books, you have this tension, between the purity of a book’s layout as it was envisioned in print, and the flexibility that e-reading brings to a customer, by allowing you to increase font size, read books across multiple devices, and so on … It’s a tension between the beautiful but static nature of print, and the dynamism of digital. We’re trying to strike a balance between those two things.”

Google took a different approach with their Literata font for Google Play Books. If typography porn is your thing, you’ll really want to check out the WSJ article (“E-Books Get a Makeover“) for the font comparisons.

And for a counterpoint, Digital Book World, “Fonts and Nonsense: What Bookerly and Literata Get Wrong” takes a more measured response about the limitations with typesetting limitations inherent in the ebook format:

“But apart from these typographical infelicities borne of shoddy decision-making under hardware constraints, there’s the more broadly problematic idea that one font will work well for every single kind of ebook.

This notion really just throws book design out the window by dispensing with any halfway nuanced appreciation of the content—something that should make any author or publisher recoil as well. Just as all print books are not typeset in the same font, so their digital counterparts should be afforded the same basic considerations.”

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*Speaking of fonts, here’s something to file under Fun Trivia, also from Co.Design, “Are Some Fonts More Believable Than Others?

“The results: For every 1,000 respondents, almost five more people agreed with Deutsch’s statement when it was written in Baskerville than they did when it was written in Helvetica. That might not seem terribly impressive, but Dunning assures us that this so-called Baskerville Effect is indeed statistically significant: ‘It’s small, but it’s about a 1% to 2% difference — 1.5% to be exact, which may seem small but to me is rather large … Truth is not typeface dependent, but a typeface can subtly influence us to believe that a sentence is true.'”

There’s even more about Errol Morris’ intriguing truth and typography test here, (“It’s absurd to think that we would be nudged by one typeface over another, into believing something to be true. Something disturbing about it, I’d go so far to say.”)

Is The $10 Digital Textbook for Real?

Affordable digital textbooks are a hugely important part of the future of education. Campus and Technology (“Developing a $10 Digital Textbook”) had an attention-grabbing story about a fantastic project at Purdue University with Skyepack to move away from the standard $160-per-textbook-per-semester pattern:

“Upon hearing about Faris’s concerns, the university approached her about writing a custom e-text for the course through its digital textbook development pilot program. The book, A Concise Guide to Interviewing, would cost only $10; students would have unlimited access to it after the end of the semester; and they would continue to receive any updates she made to the book.”

SkyepackI’d honestly not heard of Skyepack before – but they seem to be doing a lot of things right. The part that I am an especially big fan of is their approach to a digital textbook solution that is not tied to a specific closed ecosystem:

“According to Bowen, many of the digital publishing tools available on the market today — most notably iBooks Author — are focused on very specific ecosystems. ‘Now iBooks Author is a tool that allows people to simply craft material in a number of different ways, but to get the most out of it everybody has to have an iPad,’ said Bowen. ‘Plus you have to have OSX machines or Macs to craft the content or craft the iBook in the first place.’

The Skyepack development team wanted to support multiple platforms using common standards such as HTML5, so authors could develop their content in other tools and Skyepack could import that content and format it for distribution on multiple device platforms.”

Not only that, I think Skyepack is really on to something in how to think about disaggregating the traditional notion of the textbook:

“The ‘pack’ part of Skyepack is the platform’s name for topical collections of material, similar to a chapter of a book. ‘Think of it as a collection of content interactions that surround a particular topic,’ said Bowen. ‘Rather than crafting the entire book, the instructor creates packs, so they can craft the e-text in an iterative or progressive fashion over time.'”

Purdue’s pilot digital textbook program (check out their website: Affordable Textbooks at Purdue) is extremely interesting and worth keeping an eye on. If it continues to succeed, this could be a model that we see more and more at higher education institutions soon.

The $10 Textbook idea has been kicking around for awhile (see also, Gigaom: “Scribd and the new era of the $10 textbook”) but it is still far from a reality. The law professor perspective on the self-publishing revenue model is worth a read, too:

digital textbooks vs. print textbooks
Infographic from The Denver Post: digital textbooks vs. print textbooks

“Compared to 99 cent or free eBooks, a $10 downloadable book may sound expensive. But, compared to the typical law school dead-trees casebook, $10 is a ridiculous bargain. Many print casebooks of comparable size cost $150 or more. … While we could easily justify a higher price than $10, we’re not exactly philanthropists. Here’s how I see the math: a $150 casebook may have a $110 price wholesale (or less). At 10% royalties to the authors, Rebecca and I would share $11. At the $10 download price, Scribd takes $2.25 a download, leaving us author royalties of $7.75. So discounting the retail price 93% perhaps reduces our royalties by less than 30%. Let’s hear it for disintermediation! Plus, just like any demand curve, the lower price point should lead to higher sales, which may, in fact, make our approach profit-maximizing.” 

I’ve been long intrigued by the concept of the open digital textbook. And while there have been some promising forays (see also, The Atlantic: “California Takes a Big Step Forward: Free, Digital, Open-Source Textbooks“), the future of digital textbooks itself continues to be something of an open book.

Thoughts on Kindle Textbook Creator

Kindle textbook creatorEarlier this year, Amazon rolled out a beta version of The Kindle Textbook Creator. It’s still too soon to tell exactly what impact this might have upon the digital textbook world, but it’s hard not to pay attention when Amazon does something new. TechCrunch (“Amazon’s New Kindle Textbook Creator Takes A Different Approach From iBooks Author“) has a useful rundown:

it lets authors prepare electronic textbooks for students, for publication across Fire tablets, Android devices, iPhones and iPads, Mac and PCs. It’s kind of like iBooks Author for Apple and iTunes U, but  it uses PDFs of existing texts as a starting point and offers over-the-top digital features for Kindle-based consumption.”

So far, Kindle Textbook Creator (which is a free app) has a fairly basic feature set — highlighting, notebooks, a rudimentary flashcard feature, and dictionaries — but I wonder about who the intended user base really is. The digital textbook market is obviously dominated by the Big Three, and perhaps the motivation lies in simply being able to provide a tool for the longer tail market of smaller publishing companies and another option for the self publishing education crowd**.

The fact that Kindle Textbook Creator works across multiple platforms is a good thing. And as TechCrunch notes from the above article, perhaps the most important takeaway at the moment is the differentiated approach between Kindle Textbook Creator and iBooks Author: “Apple’s iBooks Author tool tries to convince educators to go digital-first, while Amazon’s says bring whatever you’ve already got to the table to help us expand our education market reach.” Having experienced firsthand how publishers continue to struggle with what to do with their textbooks that exist only in flat PDF format, this seems like another step in the right direction towards making digital textbooks a more relevant option.

The Digital Reader (“Kindle Textbook Creator Now Lets You Embed Audio & Video“) notes that the most recent Kindle Textbook Creator update allows for embedding of video and audio files, and table of contents creation — but in terms of overall user interface and features, it still falls a bit short of Apple’s iBooks Author.*

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*Also worth reading for thoughts on Apple’s edtech strategy and marketshare: “About that Impending Amazon-Apple Digital Textbook War,” including this part, which gave me something to think about the different philosophies of hardware vs. content:

ipad vs chromebookSpeaking of ‘war’, exactly whose content would Amazon and Apple be fighting with?

As Flavorwire pointed out, there’s a lot of money in textbooks. But what they missed was that little of that money is spent through retail ebookstores like iBooks and Kindle; in fact, as Kno (bankrupt), Coursesmart (failed), and Inkling (pivoted to serving publishers) have shown us, there’s not enough of a retail digital textbook market to support even small startups.”

** Speaking of Amazon’s self-publishing options, did you know there is even a Kindle Comic Creator? It’s very smart of Amazon to try many different angles for the self-publishing market. Bleeding Cool (“Kindle Your Comics – A Guide To Amazon’s New Comic Creator“) has an excellent writeup of the pros and cons.