Readers assume and authors imply that books should be read page by page, cover to cover. After all, there is a front cover and a back cover and the pages are numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Books have existed so long in this format that we approach books primarily as linear constructs.

Not anymore!

Just as text and images are no longer the only methods of displaying content in a book, ebooks can free us from linear reading. Yes, even in ebooks content must have a default order, but the ease of linking between areas within a book fundamentally changes how authors and publishers can structure the reading experience.

Suddenly, books can have depth as well as length. In a yoga book, for example, one reader might want a simple explanation of a pose while a second reader might want an in-depth exploration that includes anatomy and kinesiology. In a cookbook, one reader might already know how to poach an egg while another needs that explanation in order to successfully complete a recipe. A book with creative cross-linking to supplemental sections can satisfy each of these readers.

This is a concept I like to call “ten pages long and ten pages deep.” Every reader comes to a book with different needs and expectations, and while previously authors either trod the middle ground or footnoted copiously, the flexibility of ebooks now allows authors to build multiple levels of experience into one book. It is possible to simultaneously create an unobstructed, top-level route for skimmers and strategically link to additional content for in-depth readers.

“10 pages long and 10 pages deep” can apply to fiction, too. Not everyone wants to know the backstory of every character, but some people do. Linking to optional side plots and character sketches solves that dilemma. And of course, there is always the opportunity to revive the “build your own adventure” craze. That genre was slightly clunky in print (“If you decide to do X, turn to page N…”), but I look forward to its revival in e-book form.

Diagram showing linear versus non-linear reading.

So far we have compared multi-level ebooks to traditional, linear books. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Internet. The Internet is almost completely non-linear, which is both revolutionary and problematic.

The Internet is revolutionary in that it is the “deepest” book possible. Online content creators are co-collaborating on an infinite tome in which all content can link and be linked to. A reader can theoretically follow these links forever in search of more and more information. There is complete freedom to move within a universe of content based on each reader’s personal needs.

Which, of course, is the problem. The Internet is deep in a way that a black hole is deep. Where are you going when it sucks you? Readers can’t be sure. Contrast this with the strength of books: expert authorship, editorial oversight, organization, coherence and a defined promise. The Internet struggles to provide these things because it is inherently an open platform.

Books offer contained packages of content and controlled experiences. Books are designed specifically to teach, inspire, intrigue, etc. Books get you somewhere, but sacrifice flexibility and depth in exchange.

The Internet is everything to everyone, but lacks boundaries. Books have boundaries, but sometimes fail to provide the depth of experience a particular reader is searching for.

Between these two ends of the spectrum, ebooks now offer authors a creative middle ground. Authors can build non-linear, multi-level reading experiences using supplementary sections and cross-linking that allow readers to “just kick the tires” or “look under the hood” depending on their preferences. At the same time, these books still offer the controlled experience that readers value – and pay for – in books.

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This essay was originally published on the Vook blog.

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