QR Codes in ebooks and other absurdities

Recently I’ve seen the subject of QR codes in ebooks come up a few times. Now, I love QR codes—I have them on my business cards, and we print them on the backs of any promotional material we give out. They’re super handy. Putting QR codes in ebooks, though, is infuriating. Why’s that? I’ll tell you why…

QR codes are a cool new (for certain values of “new”) shiny toy, I get that, and they’re all about merging the digital and they physical, right? So aren’t they a perfect fit for ebooks? Well, no. Consider how you use a QR code: you scan it with your phone or other camera-enabled digital device with an internet connection and/or appropriate decoding software, and it turns into a hyperlink or a digital businesscard or whatever. Nice!

So, what if I’m reading a book on my phone and it’s got a QR code in it? Perhaps a complex arrangement of mirrors so the phone can scan itself? Oh, no, that wouldn’t work—the QR code wouldn’t be on the screen, the scanner app would be. Maybe… read it on my tablet and scan it with my phone? Or vice-versa? Great—now I need two devices to read my content. Here’s a thought: how about we just use a hyperlink instead?

I know, I know—hyperlinks are boring and passé, and all the kids are using QR codes today. The problem is, hyperlinks are designed to do exactly what you want: they link from one digital item to another. QR codes are, as previously noted, not about that—they connect the physical to the digital. By all means, put QR codes in your print book to make it easier for your readers to access your online content, but not in your ebooks—there’s really no point.

QR codes aren’t the only bits of technology that get misused in ebooks, of course. There are any number of “multimedia enhanced” ebooks that are nothing but a regular ebook with some extra junk the publisher had lying around stapled onto the back cover—I’ve seen author interviews (which were also available online), theoretically relevant songs, book trailers for the book you’re reading, and all sorts of other nonsense included just so the publisher could claim that “multimedia enhanced” label.

The thing is, generating good content is about more than just slapping some more stuff into the file. The content that you include in an ebook should be there to serve the reader—it should add to the narrative (if you’re talking about a narrative text) or help your readers understand what you’re trying to explain (if you’re talking about an informational one). If, like a QR code, your digital content doesn’t bring anything new that is relevant to the point of your manuscript, it really shouldn’t be in there.

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