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E-books and Their Containers: A Bestiary of the Evolving Book

Amazon Kindle eBook Reader
Image by goXunuReviews via Flickr

Nowadays we like to think of books as something separate from their containers, though they take their specific form by virtue of their being bound (literally) inside a small block of print.  Thus the text of, say, Jonathan Franzen’s latest or Augustine’s Confessions can be removed from the Macmillan or Penguin or Oxford edition and poured into new vessels — an iPad, an Android phone, the latest release of the Amazon Kindle. It’s as though the text were pure spirit and the physical book its mortal coil.  When we shuffle off the physical book, we set the text free, where it can determine its own shape and meaning.  What a piece of work is a book, in apprehension so like a god!

This is incorrect.  Although there is more to a book than its container (most important is context, as noted in Brian O’Leary’s excellent analysis), the creation of a text is a dialogue between the ideas and words of the author and the limitations imposed by its container. Some ideas are good for books, some for journals, some for magazines, some for dramatic performance — we have incorporated the formal assumptions of containers into our ideas and now take them for granted.  No wonder, then, that the task of creating a new form of publication for a mobile device or a dedicated e-reader can seem like a daunting task.  What are the rules?  Or paraphrasing Robert Frost, how can we play tennis without a net?

The “rules” are what are known as a medium’s “affordances,” the properties that a particular form makes possible.   (Using the term “affordance” breaks my rule never to write a word that I can’t or won’t pronounce.)  Thus, Hollywood feature films lend themselves to spectacle on a huge screen — and now increasingly in 3-D; low-budget independent films look just fine on the smaller screen of a television, brought to you courtesy of Netflix.  (For an outstanding analysis of the medium of paper itself, see “The Myth of the Paperless Office” by Sellen and Harper.)  Consult your own experience.  Want to stick your entire rock band, amplifiers and all, into your dorm room? Or would you prefer a large concert hall or even a sports arena?  Or if your days playing lead guitar are behind you, consider the challenge of putting all the data associated with the human genome onto a Mac.  The problem with getting books out of their containers is that books are their containers.  Switching from one container to another can be awkward; try reading a PDF of an academic paper on an iPhone or think about the adaptations of your favorite novels into movies.  Poor, poor Jane Eyre.

With the enormous growth of e-books today, we should be thinking of the affordances of the various e-book containers.  What kind of books do they make possible?  This does not mean that you cannot pour “Pride and Prejudice” into a Kindle or iPad (I am happily reading “Sense and Sensibility” on an iPad now), but over time the properties of the containers will begin to influence the kinds of books that are created.

Let’s begin the process of defining e-book containers and the kinds of affordances of the various containers.  I say “begin” because the categories I am listing here are certainly incomplete, and people will make good arguments that some of these categories should be mashed together.

The Institutional Book. I start here even though the Institutional Book was with us even before the e-book explosion that began with the Amazon Kindle.  The Institutional Book is a facsimile (or close to it) of a printed book.  Typically the book is rendered as a PDF and then displayed on a computing device with a large screen — a desktop or laptop PC, for example.  The Institutional Book lends itself to fixed content.  If there are comments (hard to place comments next to an Institutional Book, often impossible to highlight phrases), they are never permitted to alter the text.  The Institutional Book is a record of a text; the aim is to maintain in digital form all that we have come to expect from print.

It’s easy in the world of Web 2.0 to make fun of the Institutional Book for its stolidity, but the Institutional Book is not going away anytime soon, and for people interested in scholarly communications in particular, the Institutional Book will remain a fixture (an institution, as it were) for a very long time. Part of the reason is cultural (don’t we want to know exactly what Burke or Hume actually said?), but there are economic factors as well.  For example, the sheer cost of digitizing and converting books, as we know from the Google Books project, is staggering; it’s unlikely that for all but the most important texts that the conversion process will be started up again.  The Institutional Book will remain as a silent critic of the proliferation of containers.

The Classic E-book. An e-book is a Classic when it embodies the primary virtue of a printed book — namely, it mostly disappears from our awareness as we become immersed in the text.  This was one of the declared goals of the Kindle, and in my view, Amazon has been very successful at this.  A Classic E-book provides a reading experience that is just a tad different from a familiar printed book.  It is likely to adjust type sizes (thereby effectively killing off the large-type print book market) and may support limited highlighting and annotation.  Some Classics include dictionaries in their functionality (interestingly, the current version of Google E-books does not), a feature that is bound to be picked up by all the competition, even if it is rarely used.  All of the tools brought to the reading experience are kept in the background; nothing is to interfere with the primacy of reading.  Unlike the Institutional Book, the Classic E-book fits the page of the display, making it possible to read the same book on a large-screen PC, an iPad, a Nook, an Android phone, or anything else.

It is the Classic E-book that has stormed the industry, beginning with the aptly named Kindle and now copied by Barnes & Noble’s Nook, the Kobo reader, the Apple iBookstore, and Google Ebooks. For all the disruptions caused by e-books to date, the Classic E-book is somewhat comforting to many — authors, publishers, and readers alike — because it seems so familiar.  And it is:  an author writes a Classic E-book in the same way he or she writes an old-fashioned print book.  The disruptive nature of digital technology is mostly kept hidden from many participants in the value chain.

The Enchanced Book. It is about one year since the iPad first appeared, and it has changed everything.  Now books need not simply be the display of text with a bit of illustrations thrown in.  Books can be enhanced — audio, video, computer simulations. A science fiction tale of travelling to another planet can allow you to take the helm, holding your iPad on the sides and “steering” it through interstellar space.  Surgeons will learn new procedures this way, and schoolchildren will delight in the disgusting sight of George Washington’s wooden teeth.

The iPad is the first successful entrant in the burgeoning tablet market; by one count, 35 tablets have been announced to date.  Unlike the Kindle or Nook, tablets invite developers (we really can’t call them authors any more) to think beyond the confines of pure text.  Books can be enhanced; all the affordances of computers are now at the disposal of the creator.

Some pundits believe that all books are likely to be enhanced in this way.  I doubt it.  I struggle to imagine placing “Vanity Fair” into a Hollywood version of hyperreality, nor have we seen in the world of print that all authors insist on publishing books in color.  Sometimes creative people are retro by design, denying themselves the plasticity of a particular form precisely to provide themselves with a barrier to work against.

The Enhanced Book, however, will disrupt some parts of the traditional book business.  It is likely that children’s books will migrate to this container. In the world of STM, we should look for medical texts to take full advantage of a tablet’s multimedia capabilities.  That would be a good opportunity for a start-up: clinical medical works designed for tablets, with a business model built around the tablet ecosystem of apps, social referrals, and sales made to individuals, not institutional libraries.

The Muscular Book. I have wrestled with what to call this category.  The word “interactive” covers too much ground, but we need something to describe books that invite an almost aggressive reading style.  Typically, the use case is of a college undergraduate who is assigned to read a textbook.  The expectation is that the student will want the digital equivalent of a yellow highlighter and tools to take notes. The text won’t just sit there; it will be picked up, tossed about, analyzed, commented upon, compared to other texts, outlined, reviewed — and then let’s start over.  The devices that support this kind of reading style (if “reading” is the right word for flipping a book over your shoulder and pinning it to the mat) are just now becoming available.  There will be more of them, challenging the Classic Book by insisting that reading can be a contact sport.  It remains unclear whether trade books, which will drive standards (because that’s where the big numbers are), will find the Muscular container suitable for their relaxed form of entertainment and information.

If the installed base for the Muscular Book becomes large enough, however, in time the leading Muscular Book application could begin to incorporate many of the features we now associate with standalone services such as EverNote, Zotero, and CiteULike.  Indeed, any book or text-related utility that is not part of the primary platform offering is likely to have dim business prospects.  Think about how Google continues to absorb new features into its services (e.g., an RSS reader, Buzz, etc.) before you attempt to start a business that does not take primary control of users’ attention.

The Social Book. In the age of Facebook, the Social Book is inevitable.  The container is the Web itself.  The Social Book can take different forms.  Least ambitiously, it may simply be a wrapper of social commentary surrounding a primary text.  Another variant would incorporate some of the social dimension into the form itself–voting for alternate endings of a novel, for example.  More radically, the social book could come to resemble a wiki.  At that point it may strain the boundaries of what we mean when we call something a “book.”  Can a book be created by a community or does it require an author or small team of authors?  Is Wikipedia a book?

For an author-created Social Book, one of the questions will be how to shape the text to invite social participation. Will authors provide questions or leads, with the hope of engendering readers’ comments? Will arguments be more provocative in order to trigger strong and plentiful responses?  It may be that the best Social Books will be created by someone with the air of a successful cocktail party hostess, introducing the participants to one another and keeping the conversation flowing.  Brooding metaphysical novelists need not apply.

The Staccato Book. Recently the so-called cellphone novel became a huge commercial success in Japan.  This new form consists of works of fiction written within the 140-character limit of the SMS standard — that is, each section of the novel is essentially a text message.  Book publishers in Japan then republish these works and sell them profitably; ironically, the form of monetization is print.

What exactly is the container for the Staccato Book?  It’s hard to say.  On one hand, the Staccato Book is a creature of the mobile phone and texting (hence the name I have assigned it), but on the other hand, the Staccato Book is a component of traditional print publishing, which completes the business model.   The Staccato Book is thus inherently cross-platform and multimodal.

It may be that each of these six containers will find its own publishing segment.  Enhanced Books, for example, may come to dominate children’s literature, but the novel may comfortably remain ensconced within the Classic E-book.  What is clear, though, is that understanding the nature and affordances of the container are very much a part of the creative act of writing a book in the first place.  I’ll resort to Robert Frost again:  “While something there is that does not like a wall, good fences make good neighbors.”

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About Joseph Esposito

I am a management consultant working primarily in the world of digital media, software, and publishing. My clients include both for-profits and not-for-profits. A good deal of my activity concerns research publishing, especially when the matter at issue has to do with the migration to digital services from a print background. Prior to setting up my consulting business, I served as CEO of three companies (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Tribal Voice, and SRI Consulting), all of which I led to successful exits. Typically I work on strategy issues, advising CEOs and Boards of Directors on direction; I also have managed a number of sticky turnarounds. Among other things, I have been the recipient of grants from the Mellon, MacArthur, and Hewlett Foundations, all concerning research into new aspects of publishing.

Discussion

11 thoughts on “E-books and Their Containers: A Bestiary of the Evolving Book

  1. This is a very interesting scheme for thinking about the future of the book, but it omits one type that has already been tried, in the Gutenberg-e and ACLS Humanities E-Book projects, embodying the vision that Robert Darnton articulated in his NYRB essay on “The New Age of the Book” (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1999/mar/18/the-new-age-of-the-book/) and that he borrowed himself from Cornell librarian Ross Atkinson. This shares some features with what Joe calls the “enhanced” book, but goes well beyond that in its deployment of multiple interconnected layers. Unfortunately, the Gutenberg-e experiment showed that this is a very costly type of book to produce, both for the author and for the publisher, and its sponsor, the Mellon foundation, concluded that it is not a sustainable form of publishing. I think that conclusion wass premature, and Kate Wittenberg, Gutenberg-e’s director, in her post-mortem analysis suggested a number of lessons, such as the utility of templates, that could have been employed to reduce costs. At any rate, the Atkinson/Darnton type deserves to be added to Joe’s list.

    P.S. It might be noted that copyright law does distinguish between content and container in Section 109, which distinguishes between what one can do with the physical copy in comparison with the IP embodied in it.

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Jan 18, 2011, 11:01 am
  2. This is an interesting survey of possibilities. I agree that student textbooks will likely evolve into what you call “muscular books.” I would add that part of the contact sport for students will be embedded features to assess the student’s understanding of the topic being presented. Based on this assessment, the content could then adapt to review, or further challenge, the student.

    Another type of book could be called the “The Game Book.” Modeled on single or multi-player, interactive video games, an ambitious author could conceivably create a complex, non-linear “story” which is actively explored by the reader in any number of possible directions. Characters could be “followed” to see how their days, or even lives, progress; timelines could be retraced to pick up the trail of a different character; or one could stay in a certain location and read as all aspects of the story particular to that location play out; etc. Electronic containers can facilitate such an experience in ways that a book cannot.

    I personally feel that the term “ebook” is a misnomer, and that “etext” is a more correct term for this concept. A book is indeed a specific type of container, a particular mode of presentation of ideas. “Ebook,” in my mind, disregards this fact and somewhat dismisses the still-relevant advantages, and sometimes beauty, of a physical book.

    Posted by Randall Satchell | Jan 19, 2011, 11:51 am
  3. What the article calls institutional books are a transitional artifact. Books exist as texts before they are turned over to the book designer to be turned into PDFs. Those texts could easily be turned into ebooks — if the publishers were willing to tweak their production process. They aren’t, yet, so they release the #$@##$% PDFs that are the endpoint of their current process. Eventually they’ll learn to do everything in XML and repurpose the fully-edited text into ebook and PDF late in the process.

    The other sort of PDF is the kind that Google is producing. Images of pages from old books. Those pages can be OCRed, but the text output is often full of errors (scannos). It’s time-consuming to turn the OCR into a reliable text, but it IS being done, slowly, by various academic projects and by groups like Distributed Proofreaders.

    It’s going to take years, but eventually we will do away with the dang PDFs, which don’t allow you to choose font or font-size, and which don’t reflow to fit your screen.

    Posted by Zora | Jan 19, 2011, 3:38 pm
  4. So what about the inevitable split then, between electronic media and the physical arctifacts known as books?
    Maybe the dialogue shouldn’t try to anticipate patron demand since we have to meet customer demands regardless, so how can we anticipate the urges of the crowd?
    What’s pretty sure is that there will be a split between the physical book and electronic media.
    So- how are we preparing? Maybe that might be a more productive conversation instead of chasing our tails over rapidly evolving technology and guessing how to better anticipate customer demands whose desires simply lie within the emergence of new technology and the mantra “hey, I didn’t know I needed that”.
    When we don’t effectively utilize technology for a pre-determined purpose and instead, try to adapt our purposes to rapidly evoloving technology- ot only is that a growing avalanche, we can’t possibly expect to keep abreast of patron demand if we don’t constantly keep abreast of technology, so hence the split between Information Technology and good old physical books.
    Books will eventually become artifacts. I rather like that. I have no problem with spiraling technology. However, by virtue of evolving technology it does not obviate at the very least the physical space of books, and if someone says “warehouse” then maybe we’ve already lost touch with the true essence of the library’s cultural role in the community. Maybe that is what needs to be reclaimed and is proving difficult by forcibly trying to merge e-media with books.
    Finally, the role of the physical book as object and text is also evolving so why are they being excluded from the conversation? Not “new” enough? How about an established and on-going dialogue between archivists, curators, and librarians? All I’m saying is can we for once have a conversation about the furutre role of books? Thereby developing a plan for their future instead of constantly trying determine the fate of books by constantly updating the latest greatest combined with estimations from unforeseen technology?
    Let’s take charge of our own futures. Make technology work for us, not vice versa.

    Posted by what's the deal | Jan 20, 2011, 10:32 am
  5. New #TAPintoIT blog post about the bodies and soul of a book, in response to Joe Esposito’s post. http://tapintoit.wordpress.com/

    Posted by Tom Peters | Jan 21, 2011, 9:49 am
    • Tom, you should take a look again at Darnton’s essay. He was deliberately aiming at creating a new kind of multidimensional document–call it a “book” if you will, but it hardly much resembles what we traditionally think of as a book–an idea that he borrowed from Cornell librarian Ross Atkinson (by way of me) and then elaborated further. He is himself now finishing a “book” of just this type, culminating his many years of research on the business of publishing in the Enlightenment. Certainly, the idea of the “container” in this case heavily influenced how the author has gone about creating the work.

      Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Jan 21, 2011, 11:04 am
  6. In the evolution of the “container”, we will see an evolution of the content into very different taxonomies, some of which will not look at all like the printed book, and none of which will resemble their common ancestor, which was what–runes carved on rocks?

    Posted by Rhoda Weber Mack | Jan 21, 2011, 7:45 pm

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