A manifesto for digital book designers

A manifesto for digital book designers

"This capability is what we lost 500 years ago with the Gutenberg book." And Akim Ozakil, founder of the two-year-old Alternate Worlds digital publisher in the San Francisco area, calls that lost capability "mutation," by which he means the ability for readers to impact a story. What's printed, in other words, is set in paper. And, as Ozakil might put it, flexibility > rigidity. (He also thinks that an infinite canvas, annotations, and social integration are > than pre-digital, too.) Digital allows us to "think outside the book," he writes. And even to create this #FutureBook15 manifesto.—Porter Anderson

Before there were books, there were only voices

People memorized stories and repeated them again and again–imbuing them with variations in each telling; and, with each telling, the stories changed and evolved.  

With the advent of books, especially printed books, while the voice of the author was made stronger, the voice of readers–or wreaders as we can call ourselves (with a silent w) the willing collaborators in the story telling business–was weakened. As wreaders, we could only do annotations in the margins; we couldn’t change the story anymore.

It is only with the dawn of the internet age that fan fiction really started making a stronger case for wreaders. Fan web sites abounded and fan fiction sometimes even transcended the publishing barriers to be standalone published stories.

Digital books are still weak facsimiles of paper books–as Tom Abba writes in his manifesto, “The best we have are books under glass." But they shouldn't’t be glass-encased curiosities.

Digital books can be much, much more because digital != paper.

That doesn’t have to mean that digital < paper.

There are 4 main areas where digital can be > paper.

  • Infinite Canvas: The digital screen is a window on an infinite canvas. It can handle any type of content and any amount of content and scale up and down as needed.  We just need to have good tools to help us navigate around the infinite canvas – being able to swipe to the next page is not enough.
  • Mutation: This capability is what we lost 500 years ago with the Gutenberg book. With digital books, we can again change the stories that we read; we can collaborate; we can co-create.
  • Annotations: These do not have to mimic writing in the margins with little pop up text windows. We need Edward Tufte's "layered views" of annotations. Notes, references, digressions, meta-data, alternate versions, related information, revisions, reader statistics, popularity etc. can all be layered over the main content with customizable digital separators like layer opacity.
  • Social: Yes, everyone is on Facebook. But how often do you read books digitally and share that experience digitally? We need social integration in digital books that is seamless with the reading experience. Yes, we need to be able to see notes from friends, but we also want to see other popular annotations – maybe a new character or a new side story, added by a wreader who is both attributed and licensed to be a co-creator. We want to have access to a scalable, global wreading experience. And we want to be able to control and manage that experience.

Digital book reading can be a very different and maybe even a better experience. But we need the right kind of digital reader software. 

This manifesto is a call out to all the digital book designers (and software developers) who are building the next generation of digital book experiences.

Think outside the book and imagine what a digital reading experience can and should be.


This is another entry in our series of "Five-Minute Manifestos" for The Future of the Book Business. In his article Those magnificent manifestos, The Bookseller editor Philip Jones revisited his call for the FutureBook community to reflect on five years of the digital dynamic, "to challenge the customs we have begun to adopt." The response has been robust, and we thank all our manifesto writers. See their articles here.

  • Please plan to join us on 4th December at The Mermaid in London for the fifth-anniversary FutureBook Conference
  • And bookings now are open for our inaugural Author Day (#AuthorDay) in central London, 30th November, the kick-off to a week of #FutureBook15 events.

As we add more in this series, our most recently published #FutureBook15 manifestos are:

Main image - iStockphoto: HJalmeida