Publishing Interactive Books And Smart Textbooks

Publishers seem to have forgotten that evolution can only work if every intermediate step is viable. There’s a rush on to bring out pointless “next generation” eBooks in the hope that they will be a stepping stone to a new type of interactive book that publishers can’t quite describe yet. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. The reason people put up with mainframe computers programmed by stacks of punch cards is that the mainframes replaced large numbers of clerks doing work on mechanical calculators and filing by hand. Mainframes were cost effective, time saving devices. Yet publishers seem intent on bringing out ill-conceived book hybrids with video or a gloss of glitz added by designers simply to demonstrate that it can be done. Whether books are read out loud, on paper, on screens, or written in the clouds, the essence of the book is to be read. Slipping in some multi-media isn’t an improvement or an evolutionary step for books. It’s way to grab headlines and raise money from gullible investors.

I started with the bean counting mainframe example for a reason. The closest thing I know of to a mass market interactive book today isn’t a book at all, it’s tax preparation software. Every year tens of millions of Americans spend a couple hours reading screen prompts and answering interview questions for a simple piece of software to complete their tax filing. Tax interview software is a compelling model for interactive books because it works well, is widely accepted, and performs a critical task. If people are willing to use what is essentially a simple interactive eBook to keep the IRS at bay, it’s a proven foundation to build on. Math performed by the tax software is trivial in most cases, primarily addition and subtraction. The interview questions save users from having to read through large piles of puzzling IRS publications, and having read plenty of them in 17 years of filing my own business tax returns, I can understand the savings. So I would define non-linearity as the first evolutionary step for smart books, a form of addition by subtraction. There’s tremendous value in a reference text that doesn’t make you read through the parts you don’t need to get the information you want, and that requires a new level of interaction between the reader and the book. A traditional index doesn’t do the job because you can only use an index if you already understand enough about the subject to make meaningful choices.

I’ve been working on ways to make my books interactive since I started publishing online back in 1995. Since paper books lack the built-in processing power of computers, the only way for readers to interact with a paper book is for the processing to come from their brain power. The first edition of my smart textbook was published in 2003, and used flowcharts to guide the reader through a troubleshooting process, with a nonlinear text offering additional information on-demand. The figure below shows a basic flowchart:

And the next figure shows how the flowchart decision points are used to navigate the nonlinear text by repeating the flowchart symbols in the margins.

The result is an interactive book that offers some of the advantages of an expert system without requiring a computer processor. Today, with readers and publishers pushing to move eBooks into the mainstream, the opportunity to introduce interactive books and living texts on all available platforms is wide open. Although Wikipedia defines “rich media” as “interactive multimedia,” in current practice I see publishers using rich media for anything that offers text plus. The plus can be audio, video, pictures, hyperlinks, but the only richness I’ve seen provided is through the reader starting things in motion by clicking. Well, a light switch is interactive because you flip the switch and the lights go on or off, but it’s hardly innovation at this point in history.

A book can be interactive in several different ways. A paper book can interact with the reader powered by the reader’s brain as with my flowcharts or any other nonlinear schema. An eBook can drive the interaction through a computer program conducting an interview process or otherwise reacting to reader input, and a living book can also interact with data sources by way of the Internet. One critical element for future books read on any dynamic surface will be live updates. Why should a financial planning book be full of obsolete information about interest rates, stock prices and bond spreads, when all of that information can be updated each time the book is opened? Why should a tour book leave disappointed people standing in front of buildings that are closed for renovation or which have doubled the cost of admission? Tour guides are also a natural for integration with GPS enabled devices. Adding a little programming and an interview process could produce tailored tours that get people to the places that interest them and don’t strand them at noon a two hour walk from the restaurant where they want to have lunch. By asking the right questions, a truly interactive book will leverage the knowledge of the author so that the reader doesn’t need to master the subject before getting any benefit from the book.

Creating useful interactive books will require close cooperation between the author and publisher, though I’m sure plenty of publishers will settle for adding a gloss of interactivity that’s all smoke and mirrors. Hyperlinking all the proper names or paying contract designers to add rich elements will create a distraction rather than true interactivity. All of this translates into an advantage for self publishers who can choose their platform without regard to some overarching corporate strategy and quickly take advantage of new devices for reading interactive books. Self publishing also allows the author to control every stage of the publication process, and to react on the fly if the experience of the real-world reader doesn’t work out as planned. A model for interactive fiction might look less like today’s novels than like computer game games, primarily role playing fantasy games, as opposed to shoot-to-kill video console stuff.

My first foray into smart textbooks was creating an educational multimedia CD back in the early 90’s. Based on a local author’s natural history textbook for K-12, it started with the idea of using simple animation sequences along with narration. But I quickly found myself adding true interactive features, quizzes and matching games, such as identifying birds by their calls or classifying trees by their leaves, bark or silhouette. The program could keep track of right answers and wrong answers, so as the “game” went on, it would naturally focus on whatever the child was having trouble learning. The amount of useful interactivity you can add to any smart textbook along these lines is limited only by your budget and the available technology. For the time being, I don’t see any way to do this with Kindle or the other eBook readers which seem focused on presenting dead texts, but it would be easy to implement with netbooks, iPhone apps or other smart devices being used to read eBooks.

The ultimate model for smart textbooks and interactive books will be “always on” connectivity with the Internet, though it will be entirely transparent to the reader as a cloud computing application. All that’s required is a device capable of displaying text or playing an audio book to the reader, and some way for the reader to physically interact with the device (touchscreen, buttons, movement sensors, etc.) It’s the direction I’d like to move my publishing business, and I’m ambitious to expand beyond the areas I’ve been publishing in to date. This week I’m trying to decide whether or not I want to work with partners on projects that I wouldn’t want to take on alone. For the time being, I think the simplest platform for developing, marketing and selling interactive books remains a website, and a website optimized for cell phone display may be the way that I end up going. I hope some of my blog readers are thinking about similar projects, because the time is now.


Miguel Simoes said...

That's a text that I would Like to write, If I know how to do it in good English. I also am a self publisher since 1995 (ebook in hlp format that is still alive - the oldest in the world, i think :-) ). I smile when i see all those investements for producing what i already have - plain text in paper. I bought a Sony Ereader, I don't know for what I need such a reader just for having what I alredy had. I just could read one book with that ereader. Other books, I read them with much pleasure in paper. But of course I'm looking for a Ereader that can give me interaction with the book, something I can not have in plain text, but I haven't found it yet. Please don't spend more money making Ereaders that give me the same as paper gives....

Morris Rosenthal said...


Publishers and eReader makers do some crazy things. I once saw a picture of a planned eReader that opened just like a book and had two screens, one for left pages and one for right pages. Dumbest design I ever saw, eBook with facing pages.


Anonymous said...

Doesn't seem like a dumb design to me (facing pages) because it would preserve the layout of the original print book, which, in my mind, goes a long way toward the "feel" of a real book, not to mention preserving the publisher/author's intended perception of the book -- i.e., text on a left page that describes a chart on a right page -- that is something that many of my books have.


Morris Rosenthal said...


Don't agree with you there. Some of the worst designs in history came from holding onto old technology, like cars steered by a rudder. If you want an eReader big enough to display landscape with two pages side by side, that's one thing. But to physically break an eReader into two screens to make seemingly book-like is a horrible idea.


Anonymous said...

Morris -

One thing I haven't seen addressed in the eReader discussion is the classical element of applied typography. Not so much in font (actually typeface) selection, or even in type height and leading. But rather in more layout-centric areas such as optimal line length, overall white balance, x-heights, etc. Things that, if executed properly, would actually improve the reading experience.

The discussion in this comment thread looks at the facing page issue. Of course, a landscape layout with two columns can emulate a traditional facing layout, but then we're back to optimizing line width and leading, to either enhance or not degrade the ability to track the eye across the text. In most cases, with conventional aspect ratio monitors, (or even more so with "widescreen" displays), two columns in landscape mode results in line lengths are are too long to properly support eye tracking across the page. The resulting reader fatigue is one element in many people's resistance to reading onscreen, or via smaller devices.

I would think that a truely interactive e-text would be able to address those issues on the fly; re-rendering the page image based on the specific reader used, (screen height, width, brightness, contract, etc.) and user-adjustable variables.

Even before adding in truely interactive content, such as videos, popups, dynamic links, heuristically based presentation and sequancing, etc., simply creating a dynamic document encoding format that could handle optimized type rendering would be useful.


Morris Rosenthal said...


I agree it would be nice if eBook readers provided more control for designers, but I don't associate that with interactivity at all. It's solidly a paper world concept. The eReading approach has always been to leave as much control as the device supports in the hands of the individual doing the reading, such as changing font size and font, which blows all conventional formatting out of the water right off.