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

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

by Joseph Esposito

Nowadays we like to think of books as something separate from their containers, though they take their specific form by virtue of 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 “Context First” post at magellanmediapartners.com), 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 daunting. 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 3D; low-budget independent films look just fine on the smaller screen of a television, brought to you courtesy of Netflix.

Consult your own experience. Want to stick your entire rock band, amplifiers and all, into your living 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 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 not likely that the conversion process will be started up again except for remarkably important texts. 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 the one offered by the familiar printed book. It is likely to let readers 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 eBooks does not), a feature that is bound to be picked up by all the competition, even if it is rarely used.

All 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, first with the aptly named Kindle and then with 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 the author writes an old-fashioned print book. The disruptive nature of digital technology is mostly kept hidden from many participants in the value chain.

The Enhanced 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 illustration thrown in. Books can be enhanced—audio, video, computer simulations. A science fiction tale of traveling to another planet can allow you to take the helm, holding your iPad on the sides and “steering” it through interstellar space. Surgeons can learn new procedures this way, and schoolchildren can 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 anymore) to think beyond the confines of pure text. 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 hyper-reality. 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 startup: 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 example features 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 E-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.

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—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, a 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.

Allowing for Affordances

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 is 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.

Joseph J. Esposito is an independent management consultant, the “portable CEO,” providing strategic advice, operating analysis, and interim management in the area of digital media to publishing and software companies in the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors. He writes extensively on digital media and has been awarded research grants from the Hewlett, MacArthur, and Mellon Foundations.

 

 

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