A Reinvention of Paper Is Not Enough

If you are a publisher and your e-book strategy is called EPUB or any of the likes, you are still stuck in the print era.

E-book formats and reader devices came with the promise to transform the way we consume books. However, those formats did not reinvent the book but they rather reinvented paper. They do not necessarily offer the possibility for a use case that is radically different from the use cases that we know from the world of print. True, it is cool and practical to take many more books than we can actually read while on vacation. Yet, besides this, electronic book formats have essentially been mimicking paper. Some devices/formats even make you turn the pages like you do in a print book, out of concern, I suppose, that confused users might be totally dismayed if page-turning worked differently…

When moving a book from print to electronic format, many opportunities arise to exploit a potential that cannot be deployed on print. This is especially true in the case of reference materials, manuals or basically any large text that is frequently used in the course of professional activities. Many premises from the print world do not need to follow in e-format. Furthermore, electronic formats offer possibilities that do not exist in print.

  • Sequence and arrangement

This is about how we access different parts of the book. In print, with the help of a table of contents in the beginning and appendices at the end our only way to accessing specific information in the content is flipping from left to right or vice-versa. An e-book interface can offer panes that display of some content elements permanently, for example, the table of contents. It is not rocket science, but with the table of contents always close to the reader’s eyes the “flipping” experience changes profoundly.

  • Awareness of the context

When we read a book or use a reference text, we like to know how the section we are reading is situated with regards to the rest of the book. Are we in section 3.4? What is next and how many sections are left at this level? What was the previous section about? Is section 3.4 further broken down in subsections? Awareness of hierarchical and structural context is important to our discovery experience. The possibilities offered by print are quite limited here and besides imprinting the chapter or section title in the page header, nothing much can be done. In electronic format, the omnipresent table of contents comes to mind as a solution as well as breadcrumbs which are quite effective to achieve that.

  • Access to the immediate environment and bridges to the remote environment

Hyperlinking is one of the web’s strongest arguments and hyperlinking parts of the book throughout sounds like a no-brainer. As a result, in addition to the whole browsing experience readers can benefit from shortcuts – direct pinpoint access – to relevant parts which are of immediate interest. Of course, links can be even more useful when they establish bridges beyond the book itself by reaching out to the book’s remote environment – be it Wikipedia, CanLII or Slaw.

  • Interactivity

E-books ought to offer more in terms of annotating capabilities than the possibility to handwrite in the page margin. Electronic annotations may be searchable, versioned and could be kept for personal use or shared with others.

  • Written text

With electronic books, even written text is not a requirement any longer. We can think of the integration of multimedia or other visual aids which are better suited to present some types of content and which could greatly enrich the reading experience.

  • Search engine

Finally, one of the main benefits of migrating a book to an electronic platform is that it becomes extensively searchable. There is a good reason to be happy when we come across a PDF enabling CTR+F, especially when that PDF is the only option along with the print copy. However, a fully-deployed search function is essential to the effective use of the content and e-book platforms must be designed with this in mind.

The list of things that book users do not need to live with in electronic format and the ones that they can benefit from is not meant to make us dream about the perfect electronic book. It can lead us to choose a platform that is best suited to unlock the full potential of a book in electronic format.

HTML (on the web) is very strongly positioned to be that platform. It is an open and evolving standard. It is accessible to anyone with a browser – mobile or not. Combined with Ajax, HTML offers huge possibilities in terms of user interface design. The approach known as “lazy loading” ensures optimal bandwidth use and high response time and performance. HTML5 embeds nicely multimedia. It can be searched decently. And many more.

What should you use as an input format? MS-Word. It has an overwhelming market penetration and chances are that most of your authors use it. Also, it offers such niceties as paragraph styling which transit quite well into HTML tags and structure elements.

The concept here is simple: a sound e-book strategy must find a way to start from the most widely used authoring format and transform it to really exploit the strengths of the most widely used content consumption platform. Then you will have much more than a new paper. You will have a new sort of book. Today, airplanes are not being designed after birds; neither must e-books mimic traditional printed format.

Ivan Mokanov


  1. I too have been bemused

    In the general trade market you can’t argue with Amazon’s success, but I suspect in legal and regulatory, Thomson Reuters and, to a lesser extent LexisNexis and others, are wasting a lot of money.

  2. These are all excellent suggestions and points. However, a few questions come to mind. For instance, how would you price this product? Is this less labour intensive to produce than a print product? Is there an assumption that less resources than employed to produce print is required to produce such a product as outlined above? Would consumers be willing to pay more or would they expect such product to be less in price than its print counterpart?

  3. This all makes great sense to me. There is no doubt that for many years the serious legal publishers have been much further ahead of ebook technology, the latter being about simple devices for reading basic narrative in consumer publishing environments.

    No doubt there is a place for ebooks by professional publishers but only as a part of their larger delivery strategies.


    More interesting is the future and the extent to which lawyers may be happy to let the publishers work out solutions to their clients’ problems through the use of their electronic services.


  4. Some devices/formats even make you turn the pages like you do in a print book, out of concern, I suppose, that confused users might be totally dismayed if page-turning worked differently…

    Reminded me of this skit . . .

  5. Legal publishers have had many years to get this message and take up the challenge to be innovative. The early efforts with loose-leaf going on-line was a dreadful user experience. Much the same has happened with e-books. Westlaw/Lexis provide hyperlinks to cases and legislation, but that seems to be the extent of a concession to the ‘e’ in e-books. Interesting piece, thank you Ivan.

  6. Verna,

    I think that massaging a Word document upstream is a cheaper way compared to working with Framemaker, InDesign or an XML editor. Then, the step from a nicely formatted Word document to HTML (I strongly believe HTML is what publishers should be aiming for) is an easy one given the appropriate tools. In sum, the concept presented here is meant to be a lighter and cheaper publishing alternative.


  7. Thanks for your explanation, Ivan. Interesting comments about HTML and Word because XML has been the format of choice for such projects. Certainly, something for the legal publishers to consider. Again, great ideas and suggestions.