Once again, I bring you Marshall Mcluhan, “While people are engaged in creating a totally different world, they always form vivid images of the preceding world.” And that’s pretty much exactly what we’re doing (myself included here).
If you’ve downloaded a PDF ebook or Amazon or even an advanced iBook format – they’re all pretty much organized and running on a linear fashion. The differences in iBook formats is the insertion of video or active images in place of static placeholder images. But still, they’re all organized in a linear fashion – largely because that the way publishers and consumers have been trained to think about “books”.
When I watch the way readers consume websites though, and remember websites are not linear, that pattern is far different. They don’t start with soil – although many of them should – they start with what they want to know. Then they browse, clicking and reading / watching other things. Totally non-linear in their consumption of information. I’ve also come to realize that how the information is organized on the page is of marginal importance as long as the data is well titled so readers can skim the pages, again looking for what they want. Part of the year-long rebuilding of my websites (with another year to go – with over 14,000 pages to rebuild it’s not a short process) has focussed on this titling to enable effective scanning and information retrieval. And it’s not the big, important things readers want to know, it’s the tiny little details we never think of – my Q&A forms fill up with those small details or gaps in reader’s understanding of how plants grow.
While fiction books tend to work better in a linear fashion (at least they do in my world and yes, I’ve seen experimental non-linear fiction books) my sense is that non-fiction information is ideally suited to non-linear organization. The software to produce this (HTML 5.0) is in its infancy but it’s the way of books to come (until something better is invented)
So what’s that got to do with anything? The power of the web is it’s non-linear information system – of providing what readers want to know, when they want to know it. We’ll only unleash the power of the non-fiction “book” when we sort out how to create that kind of system for ebooks.