Category Archives: Ebooks

E-book chapter mashups?

The good folks at Feedbooks are improving their publishing application programming interface (API).

Writers can now “switch to the Table of Contents (ToC) of your book while editing, to drag & drop parts/chapters/sections and re-order them the way that you want.”

Sounds very user-friendly—another online publishing option for potential authors.

But quickly reading the post the first time, I mistakenly thought Feedbooks was going to let the reader perform these in-book mashups. It got me to thinking: why not?

When a mashup will work

For novels that rely on straightforward linear progression, a mashup probably wouldn’t work. But not all novels do. The Sound and the Fury, for instance, or David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten (available as DRMed Kindlebook). Or imagine a novel written around a cluster of characters. You, the reader, follow the characters along as they intrigue you, reading the book in an order of your own choosing. (Note: I’m working on a manuscript along these lines.)



Hard to fathom the amount of technical work that would be required to create such a beast, both in terms of actual writing and e-book API. It would have to be done very, very well. The “hypernovels” of the 90s that I’ve seen are dismal failures, no improvement on the Choose Your Own Adventure books of my childhood, which at least had the virtue of being entertaining.

In Pale Fire, a protype for e-book mash-ups?

The only really good book I can think of written in this way is Nabokov’s masterwork Pale Fire, conceived as a commentary on a 999-line poem. The poet himself has been killed by a man who may or may not have been sent to assassinate the commentator, who may or may not be the mad exiled king of a conquered principality, which may or may not exist.

Mashup prototype?

Mashup prototype?

You can’t just read this book chapter by chapter. You have to page back and forth between poem and commentary and index. The prototype for e-book mash-ups?

Undoubtedly there are more. Italo Calvino? Maybe the original “postmodern” novel, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy?

Possibly this would be a more effective technique for nonfiction. For instance, allowing a reader to order the chapters in a how-to book as they find them relevant. Or history books. For instance, allowing me to get to the good stuff connecting 12th-century Heian-era Kyoto to modern-day Tokyo while skipping over the hackneyed samurai derring-do in between. Bringing the sort of hop-scotching link-jumping we associate on the internet to e-books, while maintaining a semblance of chapter order.

Certainly this would be a break from reading tradition, but that’s already happening on the Internet. (How many hyperlinks have you clicked on so far?) I’m not convinced it’s necessarily a bad thing to follow your clicks down the rabbit-hole, as long as it doesn’t involve too much time watching skateboarding rabbits.

I think e-books can be a lot more than just a convenient offshoots of paper books. E-books with this sort of functionality built in would allow you to zero in on what fascinates you most. Sort of a hybrid between website and paper book. The sort of thing that could send e-books in a really radical new direction.

Note: This post originally appeared at TeleRead.

Update:  Reader Timothy suggests A Spoon River Anthology as one prospect for a mashup.  Excellent idea.  Seem to be an ideal candidate for me.

And I thought of one more: Winesburg, Ohio.  You could read this in all sorts of orders, if you were so inclined and had the e-book capability to do so.  (Of course, you could also just flip around as you pleased in a paper book.)

An ATM machine for books?

Stop the presses, as it were. The Espresso Book Machine “can print and bind books on demand in five minutes, while customers wait,” according to the Guardian. Currently it has access to 500,000 books, but the British bookseller Blackwell’s

hopes to increase this to over a million titles by the end of the summer—the equivalent of 23.6 miles of shelf space, or over 50 bookshops rolled into one. The majority of these books are currently out-of-copyright works, but Blackwell is working with publishers throughout the UK to increase access to in-copyright writings, and says the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

According to maker On Demand Books, the Espresso is “in essence, an ATM for books.”

No word on how U.S. publishers have reacted, but as the Espresso is the brainstorm of American publisher Jason Epstein, my guess is we’ll find out soon. I can imagine brick-and-mortar stores won’t be hopping for joy (according to Douglas A. Mcintyre, the bookseller Borders will be gone by the end of 2009), but Amazon will lap the news up.

On Demand apparently plans to have the machines available at retail outlets in the UK. Is this really going to fly? What if there are 50 people waiting for a book? That would stretch out five-minute quite a bit. Will you have to make an appointment? Perhaps online? In that case, why bother with a retail outlet at all? Why not just order online?

I can envision a warehouse of ever-more efficient Espresso machines churning out the books 24 hours a day, new orders streaming in to be packaged up and mailed out. A warehouse of blank paper and mail clerks. Big-name authors and publishing houses see the writing on the wall and skip the entire traditional print run in favor of on-demand orders. Both eliminating a great deal of waste and leveling the publishing industry. A Netflix of books, if you will. (Meanwhile, the real Netflix is driving big-box rental outfit Blockbuster to bankruptcy.) As Julia at HarperStudio recounts, “I vividly remember an agent I respect sitting in my office a couple of years ago saying “if the Espresso takes off, publishers and editors will be dead men walking.”

Maybe. Or is this yet another business model for Amazon to swoop down on—its acquisition of Lexcycle being the latest?

Of course, if you’re really interested in getting your books quick, fast, and in a hurry (not to mention free if they’re in the public domain), you’d be making the move to e-books. It’s pure speculation on my part, but I imagine if the Espresso machine is widely adopted, a lot of people who might have moved to e-books will stick with print, particularly if “Espresso books” (to coin a phrase) become progressively cheaper. Alternatively, more people might be drawn to e-books, particularly those available with Kindle-like ease. After all, why wait five minutes when you can have a book now?

If the logistics could be worked out, this could also be a great opportunity to offer e-books alongside print books. Package deals. Buy five print books, get one e-book free, say. Opportunities abound, it seems to me.

If the Espresso Machine really does take off, will the publishing industry be agile enough to respond positively? Though their comrades in music and Hollywood don’t offer much hope, with Amazon on the prowl and e-books on the march, it’d better.

This post originally appeared at Teleread.