Sending the Right Signals

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What’s in a book? This is the question we ask, albeit unconsciously, before deciding to buy a physical book. We want to know that the book is worth the cover price, and the time we’re going to spend reading it. Of course, we can’t truly know in advance. But a book sends us signals—cover art, quotes from authors, number of pages—that we can use to guess at its content and quality.

What signals can and should digital books send? The answers matters, because the digital world is so competitive. Contrast these scenarios: arriving at the start of an article via a link on social media; looking at a book after picking it off a bookstore shelf. The latter is much more contemplative. And on social media, in fact almost everywhere on the Internet, we are used to encountering short chunks of text. So digital books don’t just have to compete with other digital books—they often have to compete with the rest of the Internet.

Here’s an aside that makes that point. I was chatting recently with a designer at the company where I work. She’s smart and loves to read, but she told me she almost never reads long articles. (In this context, “long” means anything over 2,000 words.) She said that she never knew if the investment in the story would be worth it. In other words, the long articles she was seeing weren’t signalling her correctly.

Of course, digital stories can borrow all the techniques used in print. They can and do come with cover art, endorsements, summaries, etc. But digital offers us an untold number of different ways of signalling quality. What are the other options? I don’t know the answer, but here are two ideas that I think are interesting:

A better version of Amazon’s “search inside the book” feature. It’s pretty horrible to use at present, but Amazon’s tool is great in that it allows readers to sample a large work, just as people will open a book and read a random page before deciding whether to buy it. What might a better version of this tool look like?

Make the structure visible. I often look at the chapter page of a book before starting it. I’m not even sure why—the page doesn’t usually tell me anything particularly useful. I guess it’s an attempt to gauge the contours of the mountain I’m about to climb. What might a digital contents page look like? There’s no need to replicate the print version. Could the contours of a book could be expressed graphically, for example?

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