Students Developing Next-Generation e-Books Platform

The electronic book industry is booming; nearly a quarter of Americans are reading e-books, and sales of e-book readers and tablets — including Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, and Apple’s iPad — continue to grow. But the increase in e-book sales is accompanied by a growing chorus of complaints that the current e-book publishing system is fundamentally broken.

“There are a lot of problems in publishing. It’s very centralized: the Kindle is a locked system, and iBooks is a locked system. It’s frustrating for e-book developers,” said Jake Hartnell, a first-year MIMS student at the School of Information.

Other criticisms focus on digital rights management, the restriction of having books locked inside a specific device, and questions about long-term sustainability. “People who buy an e-book have no assurance that today’s book will be readable in the future,” explained Lisa Jervis, another first-year MIMS student.

Now a group of students from the School of Information is developing a next-generation platform for electronic books that promises to resolve these challenges and more.

The students are enrolled in the course Info 290. The Future of E-Books; the class includes ten graduate students from education, cognitive science, and the School of Information, including Hartnell and Jervis. The class is working together this semester to design and develop an open-source, platform-independent framework for publishing e-books, along with tools for authors, editors, and publishers. Their framework is based on HTML5, which allows it to support a wide range of multimedia content, as well as the possibility of customizable content, interactivity, and social tools. HTML5 allows books to be read on a variety of devices, including in a standard web browser.

Although the framework is web-based, the design uses HTML5 storage to save the book permanently in the browser’s or device’s cache, making books fully accessible even without Internet connectivity. In a nod to economic realities, the framework includes tools to allow publishers to charge for conent, or to automatically delete the book from the cache after a preset expiration date. Responsive frameworks will let the same content be optimized for display on a variety of devices, from phones to tablets to desktop web browsers.

Initially, the team is focusing on the reader’s experience. The students are taking the best features of the ePub standard and adding it to HTML5. “We want to make reading on the web a great experience,” said Hartnell.

Hartnell is not just an information graduate student; he’s also a science fiction author. As an author, he’s especially excited by the creative possibilities the new framework offers. “In most e-books formats, your options for controlling layout and styling and design are very limited,” he explained. “As a writer, I’m looking forward to using the stuff we’re building; it allows me to post my book online in a beautiful fashion and share it. I think people still have the desire to make beautiful-looking things.”

The second phase of development will focus on tools for authors, editors, and publishers. Lisa Jervis is particularly focused on supporting authors and editors. She was the founding editor and publisher of Bitch, author of Cook Food, and the co-editor of Young Wives’ Tales and Bitchfest; her writing has appeared in Bitch, Ms., the San Francisco Chronicle, Utne, Mother Jones, the Women’s Review of Books, Bust, Salon, and more.

“In my fifteen years of work as an editor, I’ve developed a deep understanding of how content is produced and honed,” said Jervis. “I want to use that experience to design a tool that incorporates editorial best practices, in a way that encourages the production of high-quality content.”

Jervis is also excited about building editorial workflows and tools to support collaborative authoring. “There are lots of new models for collaborative content creation, but none of them are well suited for the long form of books,” she explained. “A book requires a different editorial control model than Wikipedia.”

The students expect that this semester’s work will just be the beginning. The new platform will be open-source and modular, to encourage other developers to add new tools and features.

One possibility is interactive books — textbooks could include quizzes and interactive tutorials. A developer could also create customizable content — readers of a textbook or instruction manual could choose examples targeted to their specific industry or application. The platform could also support social tools like open annotation — imagine sharing your comments or notes with friends who are reading the same book.

“The possibilities are really endless,” said Hartnell.