Asking not only what the future of the book might be, but how to make “beautiful books” in digital formats, last week’s Books in Browsers conference in San Francisco brought together an array of digital visionaries, entrepreneurs, developers, bureaucrats and activists -- from as far as Japan, Sweden and Singapore--as well as nearby Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Traditional publishers were in short supply, though, with only Hachette and Wiley represented.

Despite the talk of improving standards, and promising signs of innovation in digital book design, business models and ways of connecting readers around a book, the driving questions of the conference were vexingly similar to those faced nearly 20 years ago by “quasi-greybeard” Michael Jensen, when he first contemplated publishing e-books at the National Academies Press: “How can we sell them? How can readers own them? How can we protect them? Who would read a book on-screen anyway? What is a page? What is a book? What is the sale-able object? What are the standards?”

The tension between utility and design in e-book standards was a recurring theme, as well as the need for new standards around emerging social reading technology. Bill McCoy, executive director of the International Digital Publishing Forum praised the new EPUB3 e-book file standard for its compatibility with both the latest HTML5 web standard and publishers’ XML systems, and for its adaptability for both applications and websites, and for letting content reflow on all kinds of devices. Or as writer and web developer Hugh McGuire put it, “books are now basically websites that we read on a specialized platform. It’s not yet a beautiful book, but we’re getting closer.” Meanwhile, Todd Carpenter, executive director of the National Information Standards Organization, called for standards in social bookmarking and annotation sharing, while Hadrien Gardeur of Feedbooks, highlighted OPDS, a catalog framework for discovering, lending, and selling books and other digital content on the web.

Organized by library information technologist Peter Brantley, co-sponsored by O’Reilly Media, and held inside the white pillar facade of the Intenet Archive founded by Brewster Kahle, the program also introduced several promising social reading and library-oriented startups., a social bookmarking service currently in development by Corey Menscher, offers readers a way to follow, share and engage with text excerpts they have highlighted via their Kindle or other e-reading platform, while signaling a new copyright frontier for authors and publishers., a new startup created by Valla Vakili, offers readers a way to use their favorite books as a gateway to discovering related cultural references from other books to movies, music and products., created by Eric Hellman, is a book digitizing initiative based on an “NPR funding model,” in which librarians and booklovers create wish lists of titles to digitize, the copyright holders name a price for producing them, and the site runs a pledge drive for contributions. If the named price can be matched, the book is digitized and made accessible under a Creative Commons copyright that allows the e-books to be shared by readers, though they can never be sold, adapted or used for any commercial purpose.

Stepping outside the developer bubble, Nicole Ozer of the ACLU of Northern California warned of the need for more robust privacy protections as books move from print to digital formats, due to greater capacity to collect, retain and monetize reader data, without regard for who might ask for it and how it could be used by government entities. She announced that an ACLU primer on issues that companies have encountered on data collection and disclosure, and how they have defended themselves, is available at And Mary Lou Mary Jepsen of Pixel Qi demonstrated some refreshing ways that screen technology can be improved to ease readers’ tired eyes.