The New Ones: The Only Horizon Is Before Us

Peter Brantley -- April 29th, 2013

Chasing birds at the Hunt Library by meikimeikiRecently, I had the opportunity to meet a young software developer who is a graduate student at UC Berkeley. He’s amazingly quick; a good coder, confident in his abilities, and a budding novelist. Both for school and his own needs, he helped to build an open source ebook reader, FuturePress, in javascript. In part, he and his friends felt the need for a lightweight reader; and as a novelist he also wants to play with versioning, reader collaboration, and all the other cool things you can do on the web. What struck me was not that they had written an ebook reader: others have done that. My more significant realization is about the world they know.

These grad students are aware of EPUB and EPUB3 – they’ve researched the formats’ mechanics and construction. They have the luxury of permitting the javascript ebook reader to parse EPUB3 without worrying about consistency of operation or appearance; they can let the file dictate the reading behavior. Unlike Readium, they don’t have to model the concept of a “library.” They’re not worrying about a Kindle or nook device running Android – they’re simply unzipping and presenting the book file on the web, within a browser. In other words, because the browser has evolved to deal with all sorts of weird and unexpected behaviors in html code, scripting, and display, they can let the browser handle it. That’s a natural and very refreshing attitude – it’s very much at the heart of Books in Browsers, the annual conference that I run with O’Reilly Media. My new colleague would be right at home there.

Except that he pretty much doesn’t know anyone that’s been there. The world of ebooks doesn’t really have a past to him – he doesn’t know the details of the evolution of the EPUB or EPUB3 formats, and it frankly doesn’t really matter to him. Never heard of the OEBF or OEBS, I’m sure – or about the IP travails and angst of figuring out how to secure book content in the pre-web internet era. Even more recently, as he begins to think through all the cool ways he can manifest his new sci fi novel, and how to split the narrative, run off individualized PoD print copies, deal with iterative story-telling, and foster reader engagement – there’s not much industry history nagging at him. “The Mongoliad? Oh, yea, kinda remember hearing about that.”

That’s when the tugging at my brain started. This awesome smart person, who I am privileged to collaborate with and who has a great intuitive sense of what’s possible on the web – has a knowledge of ebook history that stretches back to maybe, like, 2012. And all that went before – all the stuff that the publishing industry struggles with, their whole workflow and distribution and editing and curation and pricing algorithms and promotions and marketing and even the transmedia experiments of the last decade – it’s all simply wisps and vapor to him. And really, that’s just fine.

That’s the realization: this person is not unique. There are hundreds and hundreds of bright people like him across the world, more every day, men and women in North America, Asia, Latin America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, all encountering the concept of “writing books” on the web for the first time. They’re authors and programmers, they have access to the network, and they’re reaching for programming tools: for Angular, Backbone, and Knockout; for Python, PostgresSQL, ElasticSearch and CouchDB; for CoffeeScript. Oh, yea, maybe EPUB3. And they have no historical understanding of the publishing industry at all.

I don’t know what the future of EPUB3 looks like. It’s certainly a sophisticated packaging option for a wide variety of books, supporting interaction on the web, and capable of incorporating support for additional features. Those are all huge pluses, for an ebook standard. It is assuredly a wonderful means of packaging content and moving it through B2B channels – even content that might theoretically be non-compliant, as long as it is unwrapped into content parsable on the web.

Yet EPUB it is not the web, and programmers across the world who don’t know about the history of ebook standards, or about publishing, are going to use the tools they know about and have at hand, to write their stories. Those stories are going to be web native, and they’ll be cool and neat, and for the next few years at least they will lean heavily on the evolving HTML5 and CSS standards and all the rest that comes with that.

And that’s the thing – because “all the rest that comes with that” is the rest of the stuff that comes with the web. And that – that is going to be awesome. It is going to be touch, and gesture, and ultimately it may involve direct cognition. And it is wide open to every programmer on the planet. See you there.

2 thoughts on “The New Ones: The Only Horizon Is Before Us

  1. bowerbird

    peter said:
    > Except that he pretty much doesn’t know anyone that’s been there.

    that’s quite all right. indeed, it is most definitely for the best.
    because the vast majority of the people who have “been there”
    have had their heads up their asses, if you’ll pardon my french.
    so they just woulda steered this young person the wrong way.

    and, oh, there is so much more i could add to this comment…

    because there is so much more that this grad student will learn.

    he’ll learn .epub is just silly. why do all of that work to put a book
    _into_ that format, when you just turn around and take it back out?
    and even when the process is fully automated, what’s the payoff for
    storing a book as an .epub, instead of just storing its components,
    so that each of them can be accessed individually when it’s desired.

    the bad news, of course, is that if a person is saturated in the web,
    without a fundamental understanding of the core values of books
    as their print foundation evolved over the past five hundred years,
    the electronic-books that you create might well lack some features.

    so i’d advise that young person to study some book-design books…

    but other than that, the clean slate has a lot going for it.

    and i would be lying if i didn’t say that i’ve been waiting patiently
    – for far too many years — for this type of development to occur.


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