24 Feb 2012

What we talk about when we talk about ebooks


Books are easy to describe. They have a familiar structure and physical form, a sequence of pages, a constant order. Once printed, their content is finite and permanent. When someone says they are ‘writing a book’, they usually mean something with a beginning, a middle and an end. Ebooks are not so easy to define however.

Is an ebook simply an electronic version of a printed book? At one time this was probably true. Books were printed first and then made electronic as CD-ROMs or pdfs to offer increased value, particularly in the case of technical books.

However a shift away from this traditional workflow has been gradually occurring, towards a model where content no longer begins as a traditional book, but rather as an epub file marked up in XML. Replacing headings, titles and tables with tags yields a very different looking ‘book’. In truth it is no longer a book as we know it, that is, a defined container.

How do you cite a quote from a book with no page numbers, where instead there is an infinite pane of content? The reality is that fixed structures such as page numbers are no longer necessary, and this creates so many more possibilities. Content can be changed, augmented, annotated, refined, updated – in the same way that thoughts and ideas develop and evolve as a continuous, infinite process. Chapters can be added seamlessly, rather than requiring a new edition. Some people still like the permanence of printed books. They feel solid and reassuring. But such durability is only required in a minority of cases. In many other contexts fluid and dynamic content presents an opportunity rather than a threat: the opportunity for sharing and developing content and ideas, and making information a social experience which continues to change and grow rather than one which ends when the book closes.

There are certainly some forms however, which still lend themselves to print and arguably always will: poetry; visually complex material; books where the physical experience and design is as much a part of the content as the information contained within them. These works will become even more valuable as pieces of art in both form and function, ultimately ensuring that printed books remain an intrinsic part of our cultural future.


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