Searching in ebooks: A unique use case that requires a unique approach

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers’ project “Breaking the Page, Saving the Reader: A Buyer & Builder's Guide to Digital Books.” We’ll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead. (Note: This post originally appeared on A New Kind of Book. It’s republished with permission.)


Not all ebook search monocles are equal. Options range from non-existent (Hey, Kobo! If there’s room in the programming budget for virtual reading awards like the Inverted Comma and the BookLover, then it’s time to spring for a search tool, too!), to roughly implemented (Nook), and from nicely polished (Kindle, iBooks) to fully instrumented (Inkling).

To help make sense of what works versus what doesn’t, consider first why readers search. If the title at hand is a reference or how-to book it's often to look up a specific ingredient or procedure. But those kinds of books aren't actually selling that well in eBookLand; publishers are turning those titles into apps. Instead, ebook fans are gobbling up narrative — fiction and non-fiction alike. Those titles all top the charts and so it's worth refining that earlier question: For narrative-style ebooks, why do readers search?

Often it’s for a quick lookup: a character we’re having trouble remembering, a plot twist we want a refresher on, a memorable quote. In each of these cases the searcher’s goal is quite different than what takes place during, for example, a traditional web search. There, you want to leave Google or Bing or wherever. In a book, by contrast, you just want a quick answer … and then an equally quick return to where you left off.

So with that in mind, let’s start off with what I would argue is a not particularly good search implementation. Here’s what a reader sees when searching on the Nook iPad app:

How’s a reader supposed to decide which of these results is the one she wants? Think about how cumbersome it is to tap each item, get whisked off to its location, and then have to navigate back to the starting spot. What a pain. In a print book, at least you’ve got fingers, bookmarks, or a coaster to hold your spot as you leaf around (reviewing index entries, for example). But in an ereader device, the disruption readers suffer after following a link is significant.

Especially for folks in search of a memory jiggle, the most important thing a search tool can do, then, is help quickly decide which result contains the answer they’re looking for. So this means designing a search tool that:

  1. Returns accurate results (duh)
  2. Presents these results with plenty of surrounding context
  3. Highlights the term clearly on the destination page
  4. Makes it easy to quickly return to the original reading position

If 1) and 2) are done well, there are plenty of cases where the reader never has to deal with 3) and 4). So a big part of making a search tool helpful happens in the results list itself. Make it big enough and you bring joy to the reader: they get the memory nudge they need and can get back to the passage where they stopped reading. Some of this stuff is fairly straightforward and can already be found in a few of the more polished e-reading systems.

Consider, for example, the iBooks app on the iPad.

You get a generous sampling of text surrounding the found term (which is itself clearly visible in boldface) making it easy to skim the list and find the result you’re looking for. You also get a tally of the number of times the term was found. For students and other researchers this can be a big help, as they often want a search tool to function like a print book’s index: to help perform a comprehensive review of a particular person or concept. And once the reader taps a result, the page he arrives at displays the term highlighted in yellow. Nice.

But there’s more, still, that can be done. More that a morphable digital screen can do … all in the service of trying to maintain a reader’s flow and minimize the page flipping required on devices that have proven themselves to be pretty poor page flippers.

Here, for example, is one possible solution I’ve sketched out, modeled on the “page preview” feature popularized by Bing, and now used by Google and plenty of other web search sites. (In case you haven’t seen it, it’s where you hover your mouse over any item on a typical search results page and up pops a small window showing the web page you’d see if you follow the search result link; it’s a great timesaver when you’re reviewing a list of results since it lets you do a quick visual skim before clicking any link.)

Proposed design for improved ebook search results
Click to enlarge

Rather than sending the reader to the search result, the idea here is to fetch the result for them. The results list appears just as it ordinarily does in, say, the Kindle app. But there’s that tiny “Show More” option; when tapped, it unfurls the result, increasing the viewable preview. In many cases that’s all a reader needs. For those who need more, the search term remains active and can be tapped to see the target page in full. By giving readers a quick way to review, temporarily, extra content like this, digital books can help preserve the immersive state that a great book induces.

Another way to improve the search results list: sortable search results. Here again progress made in the world of web search can improve how things work within a book. By letting the reader sort the results list in different ways a seemingly overwhelming heap can be reduced to something more manageable. iPad textbook publisher Inkling provides some handy design work in this area.

The tabs at top let the reader sort according to relevance (a software-driven guess at what's most important), content order (where the result occurs, ordered from start of book to finish), and type (audio, video, text, and so on). At the bottom of the search pane two other tabs let the reader switch between chapters they own and the entire book (Inkling sells chapters individually). This last twist is clever — half reader service and half marketing. Because the tool lists a meaningful snippet of the found term, someone searching for, say, bassoon, might see that there’s a video demo of that instrument in a chapter they haven’t yet purchased. Good stuff.

My main takeaway: by all means, let readers search. But give ’em tools that let them get back to what they’re reading as quickly as possible.

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What to expect in EPUB3

Just as publishers are wrapping their heads — and workflows — around the current version of EPUB, a new release is scheduled for May. The EPUB3 draft is set to publish for comment later this month, giving publishers and developers their first blush at what the release will mean to them.

In the following interview, Bob Kasher, business development manager for integrated solutions at Book Masters and a member of the International Digital Publishing Forum EPUB Working Group, highlights some of the changes the new version will bring to the publishing industry. Kasher is scheduled to speak in depth on EPUB3 at February’s Tools of Change for Publishing conference in New York.


What are some of the major changes EPUB3 will bring to digital publishing?

Bob KasherBob Kasher: There are three key areas EPUB3 is focused around: language support, greater accessibility, and increased multimedia support. Language support will allow EPUB3 to save and search non-Roman scripts — such as Japanese, Chinese and Arabic — as font characters rather than JPEGs, as in current EPUB support. This will make a much broader range of literature available to current and future reading devices from base EPUB files. It will truly internationalize EPUB.

EPUB3 will also be better at integrating the current DAISY accessibility standards, to help make reading devices of greater usefulness to visually impaired readers.

EPUB3 will be much more adept at supporting multimedia capabilities for both HTML5-based devices and the coming generation of tablets supporting both Flash and HTML5. It is hoped that in doing so, EPUB3 will help develop an enhanced ebook standard that can be used across a variety of media and content.

Other developments include enhanced metadata support for discoverability, better facilitation support for touchscreen devices, and support for MathML, which we hope will open up greater opportunities for textbook publishers. EPUB3 will be a quantum leap forward in capabilities for future device support, but still backward compatible with current devices on the market.

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Will EPUB3 bring any digital rights management changes?

Bob Kasher: DRM is still optional, and DRM formatting will still be flexible as far as being wrapped with EPUB. There will be no changes in that area.

How will EPUB3 change ereaders and apps?

Bob Kasher: That depends on where content creators take it. As EPUB3 will be backward compatible, it will be usable on current devices, so there won’t be any immediate need for change. However, as new devices open up greater opportunities for readers to access elements not readily available on devices like the Kindle or Kobo or Nook, it will propel accessibility to these attributes in the next generation of ereaders.

With an estimated 80+ new tablet products coming to market this year, I foresee an increasing consumer interest for app-like products that can be accessed through general distribution sites rather than as individual apps.

When will EPUB3 be released? Is the publishing world ready?

Bob Kasher: The draft is being readied for comment and release this month, and we hope to have the final version publicly proclaimed by Book Expo America in May. I think the world will be ready — there is already a lot of testing and development around the product. I fully expect publishers will embrace the re-write quickly and effectively, and we hope it will be one more element fueling the digital transformation of our industry.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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