Why Context Matters: Of E-Books, Content Layering and the Future of Publishing

first published in Simon Fraser University PUB800 | Canada’s Pub­lish­ing Indus­tries: Text & Con­text (December 8, 2014)


In one way or another, I’ve been reading on a computer ever since it meant looking at green phosphor pixels against a black background. And I love the prospect of e-reading — the immediacy it offers, the increasing wealth of its resources. But I’m discovering, too, a hidden property in printed books, one of the reasons I will always prefer them. They do nothing. (Klinkenborg 2010)

On encountering this passage by Verlyn Klinkenborg from the New York Times’s “Editorial Notebook,” some might think they are about to read the umpteenth piece arguing for the superiority of printed books over electronic books. Others, more likely, might think it is the introduction of an article debating the advantages and disadvantages of digital reading. For my purposes, however, it is neither of those things. Klinkenborg’s observations provide a useful starting point from which to raise the issue at the core of my argument: if the magic of the printed word lies in its ability to induce mindful action, to spur the reader’s imagination, by merely “doing nothing,” — that is by its negation of the multimedia and interactive “wonders” of screen-based technologies — then what is the true value of e-books? The answer appears to lie in the question itself. The greatest merit of an electronic book is the exact opposite of what we value in a physical book; we appreciate and enjoy e-books precisely because they can do what paper publications cannot. The apparent “obviousness” of such an idea is only a deception. In fact, the idea entails questions concerning a variety of topics and fields, from publishing to information technology, from cognitive studies to cultural criticism. Throughout this essay, I will attempt to address at least two such questions. First, what exactly are these multimedia and interactive “bells and whistles” that inhabit the digital realm and make a book enhanced? Second, why are they important, if they are important at all, and to whom should they matter? In addressing these questions, I will use, and call attention to, a concept that has been mistakenly neglected and only explored marginally by most publishers since the dawn of the digital revolution: the context.

From Context to Layers

At the Books in Browsers conference in San Francisco, publishing consultant Brian O’Leary, while arguing for a “unified theory of publishing,” compellingly questions what he calls “the container model of publishing,” as being outdated in an industry irreversibly disrupted by the rise of the digital (see O’Leary 2011 and 2012). He argues that such a model, where publishers’ primary concerns involve the need to fill physical “containers” with content to be distributed and sold, is no longer viable in today’s networked, ever-expanding world of multiple browsers and platforms. Instead of focusing on such limited and limiting physical units, publishers, he observes, should direct their efforts towards building a new industry model, where context plays a predominant role. But what is context? O’Leary defines it as a mixture of “tagged content, research, footnoted links, sources, and audio and video background, as well as title-level metadata” (O’Leary 2011). This is a lucid and far-sighted definition. Yet, it seems to leave the aspect of the relationship between context and content unexplored. In fact, while the model O’Leary proposes clearly advocates the need for publishing professionals to move beyond their bidimensional focus on content-container and to embrace the third dimension (the context), it doesn’t have the same clarity with regard to explaining how content and context are related. Hence, I wonder whether a more apt and pregnant metaphor could be used to describe this idea. Since we are talking about digital environments, I turn to the world of e-books in search of an answer. What suddenly comes to mind is a fascinating notion that I first encountered a few years ago, when I was taking a course on digital publishing through the Tuscia University of Viterbo (Italy): the idea of an electronic book structured in layers.

The idea of a layer-structured book is far from new. In a piece from the New York Times Review of Books, historian Robert Darnton outlined a similar model as far back as fifteen years ago. His was a call to action, rather than an abstract theory, in the face of the acute crisis that scholarly publishing was facing at the time, especially in the fields of the humanities and social sciences. Another strong motivation, the scholar admits, was the desire to alleviate his fellow historians’ frustration at their failed attempt to communicate “the fathomlessness of the archives and the bottomlessness of the past” (Darnton 1999). At the end of the article, Darnton presents a concrete proposal to help solve the problems faced by the scholarly community, advocating the building of electronic monographs organized in layers arranged in a pyramid structure.

I am not advocating the sheer accumulation of data, or arguing for links to databanks–so-called hyperlinks. […] Instead of bloating the electronic book, I think it possible to structure it in layers arranged like a pyramid. The top layer could be a concise account of the subject, available perhaps in paperback. The next layer could contain expanded versions of different aspects of the argument, not arranged sequentially as in a narrative, but rather as self-contained units that feed into the topmost story. The third layer could be composed of documentation, possibly of different kinds, each set off by interpretative essays. A fourth layer might be theoretical or historiographical, with selections from previous scholarship and discussions of them. A fifth layer could be pedagogic, consisting of suggestions for classroom discussion and a model syllabus. And a sixth layer could contain readers’ reports, exchanges between the author and the editor, and letters from readers, who could provide a growing corpus of commentary as the book made its way through different groups of readers.” (Darnton 1999)

A few years ago, Gino Roncaglia, professor of digital humanities and director of the Master in e-Learning program and the course on the future of the book at Tuscia University, revisited this idea of layers and took it in an exciting new direction by connecting it with the emerging technology of augmented reality (Roncaglia 2011). To illustrate this, he uses the fascinating example of Layar, one of the first augmented reality applications for smartphones and tablets, which was created in 2011 by a pioneering Dutch company. Through the smartphone or tablet camera and sensors, Layar offers users the unique experience of a digitally enhanced world by adding layers of information (videos, audio, images) on top of specific items in the real world (buildings, restaurants, shops, places of historical interest, and so on). As Roncaglia points out, the strongest asset of Layar is its openness: anyone can choose the layer through which they wish to filter their view of the reality around them; as well, anyone can contribute to the creation of new layers according to their needs and desires.

The concept of the layer can serve as a powerful metaphor for describing the added value and potential for growth of digital publications, helping us to re-envision O’Leary’s definition of context. Although this notion of layers is not alien to digital settings (think about desktop-publishing software such as Adobe Creative Suite and QuarkXpress), its connection with book publishing is not immediate and needs further explanation. Again, Roncaglia’s discourse proves useful. Let’s take, as he does, Google Books e-reading services offered via Web Reader as an example: when selecting text in a Google e-book, a pop-up menu opens allowing the reader to choose among the options to define, translate and search for words from within the Web Reader without navigating away from the page.

(Source:TechWhack blog)

In this case, the number of layers is limited and the contextual menu seems an efficient solution. But if we wanted to benefit from more strata of information and services when reading a book, as suggested by Darnton’s pyramidal book and Roncaglia’s theory of layers, we would need a different system, beyond the instant convenience of the pop-up. Here is where the relevance of the layered content model starts to become clear. We could have a layer for every different type of annotation — the author’s note; explanatory, historical and critical notes; the reader’s notes, and so on. One layer for footnotes, another for discussions, and yet another for reviews. We could have a layer for social-network and relevant content-sharing sites, as well as geo and chronological layers allowing readers to access location- or time-based information on places or events of interest (See Roncaglia 2011 and 2012); and, of course, a layer for multimedia, those “bells and whistles” mentioned in the beginning that, when used with wisdom and an understanding of digital environments and different communication styles, can be a real enhancement to a digital edition.

It is important to highlight that such a system of layers, although built on different and inter-related levels of content, interactivity and multimedia, should never be intrusive and disruptive. Readers should be able to activate the additional strata of information at their leisure, and thus still be able to enjoy an immersed and uninterrupted reading experience. Viewed in the light of the above observations, O’Leary’s idea of context takes on a new significance. Conceiving the book as both a pure, self-contained unit of text and an open tool for accessing different layers of knowledge and services at the reader’s convenience means redefining the relationship between content and context to the point where their limits become blurred and the two elements blend. O’Leary’s persuasive claim of “context, not container” might then be restated as “context is content.”

The (Unexplored) Benefits of Enhanced E-Books

The merits of the mechanism of layers are several, and hardly debatable. First and foremost is the benefit of an enhanced reading experience, where the pleasures of bonus features (visual or auditory, textual or interactive, or all of them together) that accompany the core text blend with the personal enrichment of a meaningful, quiet and prolonged immersion in another world. This advantage would be beneficial for a wide range of book categories — not only those that, by style and by structure, are more easily conceivable and translatable into digitally enhanced forms, such as nonfiction and instructional texts, but also those that seem hardly reconcilable to the “embellishments” and networked paths of hypertext and multimedia, such as fiction. Indeed, until today, as industry expert Paul Cameron remarks in a recent article, “few authors or publishers have managed to enhance works of fiction very meaningfully, in a way that improves not just the entertainment value of reading but also boosts readers’ engagement and retention of text” (Cameron 2014).

Let me try to illustrate this with an example. Imagine the following situation: Christmas is approaching and you are in the mood to read a classic. You have more free time this year and decide to break your holiday tradition of reading A Christmas Carol and instead have a second pass at another Dickens masterpiece,Oliver Twist. You own a brand-new tablet and have just purchased a recent enhanced edition of the book. You have always been fascinated with Dickensian characters, and, on this second reading of the novel, you want to know more about them. Before starting to read, you tap and hold on Oliver’s name on the screen, and activate the character analysis layer. You get the information you want and finally begin to immerse yourself in the book. You read the first seven chapters in one sitting, a quiet, undisturbed reading session, except for one instance when you stopped to access the extra information layer about the character of Noah Claypole, the obnoxious charity-boy who bullies Oliver. Your eyes are tired from reading and you need a break. Yet before taking one, you feel compelled to fix and order your thoughts on what you have just read. You activate the annotation function in the relevant layer and start writing. It is time to pick up your nine-year-old son at school. You are early and wait for him in the car, at the school parking lot. There, in solitude, your thoughts go back to Oliver Twist. You take your tablet out from your briefcase, access the library, and press and hold the book title: the multimedia layer opens. You are impressed by the wealth of bonus features the digital edition offers. There is even a trailer for the 1948 film adaptation (still your favourite) by David Lean, starring an unforgettable Alec Guinnes as Fagin. The clip ends and you walk rapidly to the main entrance of the school. Your son shows up and welcomes you with a hug. “Hi boy, I’ve been waiting for you for a while,” you say with a grin. “What have you been doing?” he asks. “I’ve been reading,” you answer. “What have you been reading” he asks. “A book,” you say after a few seconds of silence.

Another advantage of this system assumes as a precondition that publishers accept the idea of using open standards. Rather than enclosing readers in the fence of proprietary standards, publishers and software producers should offer them content that is readily available, easily discoverable and specific to their needs. The only chance for enhanced e-books to succeed in the marketplace and survive the competition against the vast array of information and entertainment offerings is to meet the criteria of discoverability and ease of access across different platforms and devices. Furthermore, the use of open standards would allow publishers other than the original content producers, as well as authors, to contribute to the building of new layers, in an open information economy that would benefit readers, publishers and authors altogether (Roncaglia 2011). [The topic of proprietary vs. open standards is important and yet too broad and complex to be explored in detail here].

The E-Book of the Future: Who Should Care?

While I do not expect that my argument will persuade those who are entirely immune to the magic of the digital universe, I do hope it will give publishers, readers and writers (and, of course, anyone with an eye to the future) something to talk and think about. As I have maintained in the previous sections, content innovation and discoverability, a context-oriented approach, openness of standards (as well as of mind), a willingness to experiment, and a consistent effort in understanding the needs, expectations, and desires of both current and future readers, are key to the survival, renewal and growth of an industry that, for the most part, seems to have adopted the idea of crisis as a modus operandi andvivendi.

But such an advocacy for a shift in mindset and change of attitude is not only directed at publishers. Authors, too, should venture out of their entrenched position and open the doors to new ways of seeing and experimenting with text (from the very early stages of its creation).

A serious discussion about the future will never conclude with an easy answer or secret solution. Then, it makes sense for me to end with a question, a thought-provoking passage from David Ulin’s The Lost Art of Reading: “What if the e-book is a catalyst for reconnection, by engaging our fascination with technology to stir long-form reading, by integrating deep concentration with the lure of the machine?” (Ulin 2010).


Bhaskar, Michael. 2013. The Content Machine: Towards a Theory of Publishing from the Printing Press to the Digital Network. London: Anthem.

Cameron, Paul. 2014. “Resuscitating Enhanced Ebooks.” Digital Book World, November 6. http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2014/resuscitating-enhanced-ebooks/

Costanzo, Peter. 2014. “The Real Reason Enhanced Ebooks Haven’t Taken Off (Or, Evan Schnittman Was Right… For the Most Part).” Digital Book World, May 23. http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2014/the-real-reason-enhanced-ebooks-havent-taken-off-or-evan-schnittman-was-right-for-the-most-part/

Darnton, Robert. 1999. “The New Age of the Book,” New York Review of Books, March 19. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1999/mar/18/the-new-age-of-the-book/.

Klinkenborg, Verlyn. 2010. “Editorial Notebook: Some Thoughts About E-Reading,” The New York Times, April 24. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/15/opinion/15thu4.html?_r=0.

Lei, Derek. 2011. “Define, Translate and Search for Words in Google eBooks.”Google Book Search Blog, May 19. http://booksearch.blogspot.ca/2011/05/define-translate-and-search-for-words.html.

Leonetti, Francesco, Gino Roncaglia, and Antonio Tombolini. 2014. “Scrivere ebook: una lezione di Gino Roncaglia sulle narrazioni non lineari.” Storia. Laboratorio di scritture online (webinar), November 17. http://www.storiacontinua.com/corsi-di-scrittura/scrivere-ebook-una-lezione-di-gino-roncaglia-sulle-narrazioni-non-lineari/.

O’Leary, Brian. 2011. “Context Not Container.” In Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto, edited by Hugh McGuire and Brian O’Leary. Montreal: Pressbooks. http://book.pressbooks.com/chapter/context-not-container-brian-oleary.

O’Leary, Brian. 2012. “‘Context First,’ Revisited”. MagellanMedia, February 21. http://www.magellanmediapartners.com/news/context_first_revisited/.

Roncaglia, Gino. 2012. “Layers, e-Books, e-Libraries.” The Fiesole Collection Development Retreat Series (conference), April 12–14.

Roncaglia, Gino. 2011. “Verso un libro a strati”?. E-book. Teoria e pratica: esperienze di biblioteche a confronto (webinar). AIB Emilia Romagna, October 17. http://vimeo.com/30525397.

Ulin, David L. 2010. The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time. Seattle: Sasquatch.

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