A couple of recent commentaries, excerpted below, suggest that the best sort of books for eBooks are ones that are intended to be read linearly, navigating through pages consecutively (i.e. most notably fiction). Both observers say that books whose usability is increased by flipping back and forth from one section to another do not make good eBooks.

Writing about the Kindle, Jakob Nielsen notes the problem with non-linear content:

The usability problem with non-linear content is crucial because it indicates a deeper issue: Kindle’s user experience is dominated by the book metaphor. The idea that you’d want to start on a section’s first page makes sense for a book because most are based on linear exposition. Unfortunately, this is untrue for many other content collections, including newspapers, magazines, and even some non-fiction books such as travel guides, encyclopedias, and cookbooks … The design decisions that make Kindle good for reading novels (and linear non-fiction) make it a bad device for reading non-linear content.

Later in the review, Nielsen broadens his comments to eBooks more generally. In addition to the issue of linearity, he also mentions that books that depend on pictures are problematic:

11 years ago, I wrote that electronic books were a bad idea. Has Kindle 2 changed my mind?– Yes — I now think there’s some benefit to having an information appliance that’s specialized for reading fiction and linear non-fiction books that don’t depend on illustrations and don’t require readers to refer back and forth between sections.

Paul Biba, in comments on using a cookbook on the Kindle, says:

The concept doesn’t work. This is not the Kindle’s fault, but the fact that some things are just not meant for an ebook format. When using a cookbook one likes to flip through it browsing for recipes. You look at one, go back and compare it to another … see if you can’t combine the ingredients of [recipes] … You simply can’t do this flipping back and forth with an ebook … Going back and forth from the table of contents to the index is a time-consuming process. The ergonomics of the whole thing is just not set up for cooking and recipe browsing.

This is really the first time I have come across a complete failure of the ebook medium. I can’t see how it is possible to make any change in the hardware that would alleviate the problem. There is simply no substitute for flipping pages and marking them with bookmarks … The ebook format is, by its nature, linear and this linearity is not adaptable to serious cooking.

Suzanne Chapman, at userslib.com, has the interesting tag Pageturners. This term has been used to describe eBook systems that allow the user to have the feel of actually turning the pages of a print book, by clicking an icon or by using the mouse to mimic the motion of turning a paper page.

Like Chapman, I’ve thought of “Pageturners” as a sub-category of eBooks, and have searched in Google for the concept/term. It turns out this is a difficult search term because it gets confused with use of the word to describe “a book so good you can’t put it down.” So use of the word to describe an eBook is, in a way, a cute play on words, but Google doesn’t do well with double-meanings!

Aside from the difficulty of searching, though, the concept is a valid one, and it’s useful to have Chapman’s links on it, especially in this posting and in her Delicious links.

Actually, I think I can see in Chapman’s lists that the meaning of the term has evolved in her mind, and I suspect also in the shared mind of the Net. In what seem to be her earlier links, the sites she links really were “pageturner” eBook systems, which tried to simulate the feel of turning pages in a print book. But other, seemingly later, links seem to broaden the concept to include eBook viewing systems that get away from the idea of simulating print books.

Likewise, on the Net generally, at first it seemed like the goal in designing eBooks was to make them feel as much as possible like print books. But as we get used to the idea of eBooks, it becomes clear, I think, that the best way to design eBooks is not the best way to design print books. Print books have advantages, and eBooks have different advantages. The real challenge of designing eBooks is how to convey their nature and content in the small amount of screen space of a computer window.

In thinking about the presentation of an eBook that features pictures, Google Books, I think, has established the principle that the intro screen for the eBook should communicate clearly that the eBook has pictures …

… Which is not to say that the Google Books About this book – Intro screen is perfect. But for now it has set the standard.

PS to Suzanne Chapman: Thanks for confirming my idea that “Pageturners” is a good tag — I’m adding it too. Though I think it’s an “old design” idea for eBooks, I suspect it will continue to be around for a while more.