Less Expensive, Bite-Sized, Available for Take-Out: The Book of the Future

by | Feb 17, 2010

McDonald'sMark Barrett over on Ditchwalk, is trying to figure out the epub and pdf translation processes from the point of view of an author who wants to move his work into the public sphere.

When authors start having to roll up their sleeves and get under the hood of translation software, learning the ins and outs of formatting, you know we are still in a hobbyist phase.

Of course, the whole computer culture is still like this, to some extent. It’s not as bad as it used to be, when it was assumed that if you owned a PC you would want a nice leather pouch to keep your wrenches, drivers and chip pullers in.

That culture is still around. Today I had the pleasure of learning just enough about cable modems to purchase one of my very own after the leased job I had from Comcast finally keeled over. Several Technicians at Comcast had a bit of a snicker about just how long I’d had the old modem. But if it’s under your desk and everything is fine, eight years can pass very quickly.

Anyway, here’s what Mark had to say at one point in his progress to publication:

Because the stories I want to publish are straight text, the reflowable .epub format not only meets my needs as an author, but it provides the most transparent reading experience for end users. That’s a win-win for me because I don’t have to make any trade-offs between my own authorial needs and the end-user reading experience.

In a New York Times item this week, Nick Bilton looked at the need to take breaks when reading on screens. V. Michael Bove, Jr., director of the Consumer Electronics Laboratory at the M.I.T. Media Lab, was asked whether e Ink (like the Kindle), full-color LCD screens (like the iPad) or paper offered a better reading experience:

It depends on the viewing circumstances, including the software and typography on the screen.

And What About those e-Books?

The Taming of the Shrew, Nonesuch

The Taming of the Shrew, Nonesuch

I was in high school when McDonald’s opened in my home town. We were forbidden, of course, from going there, to no effect whatsoever. Burgers that were cheap, so cheap even we could afford them. Great fries. No waiting, no sitting around trying to act like an adult at a table. What could be bad?

Convenience, economy, flexibility. This is what the appeal of e-readers is today. And just as my mother couldn’t quite get herself to call McDonald’s burgers “food” it’s hard to see exactly where the “book” is in the e-Pub reader world.

Is a book a 500-word blog post? I don’t think so. How about a 30,000-word blog post, one long page of text? No, not a book. How about a 21-page PDF, but one where the vendor has created a neat “3D” image with modeling software of the report as a book, with a spine and everything. Does that make it a book?

(By the way, I’m looking for someone to define exactly what an e-book is. Not one that’s a copy of the files used to print a book. When does an electronic “text” become a “book”?)

It Sounds Good, What’s The Price?

The Taming of the Shrew, iPhone

The Taming of the Shrew, iPhone

There’s always a trade-off. Perhaps Mark doesn’t think going to e-Pub impacts the reading experience. Or maybe typography does play a crucial role in readability, and in subtly tying us to our own cultural history.

The monocultures that grew up around the fast food industry have decimated much of the centuries-old agriculture of the country. Farming and livestock production are now done in “factories.” The buying power and overwhelming financial growth of fast food and greater food processing ability changed everything we eat and, in the process, changed us.

What about books? The books we’ve grown up with are mass-produced objects of retail trade. Without the mass-production part, the economics of the business change drastically. When the overwhelming growth of e-books, the intoxicating ability to reproduce them endlessly with no cost and no inventory, and the “flexibility” of the format to allow the texts to flow into and through various devices, when these reach a tipping point, the book will cease to exist as an item of popular culture.

Takeaway: The change from printed books to e-books will not happen overnight, but it is inevitable. We don’t know what trade-offs will be involved, because transitions raise more questions than they answer. But the book will not remain the same.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Joel

    Mark, thanks for your thorough and thoughtful comment. In your position, I’m sure I would make many of the same decisions. Heck, I’m going to be publishing an e-book myself shortly, and plan to have different versions in PDF and ePub (because of my desire to illustrate with examples, screenshots, etc.).

    I liked your definition of “book” also, thanks for that. I do tend to get a bit grouchy about the whole e-book enthusiasm. I read on the screen when I have to, I actually read a fair amount on my iPhone because, well, it’s right there in my pocket and connects to everything.

    And when I take my “book designer/publisher” hat off and put on the worn out old baseball cap that says “writer” on it, I’m right there with you. As a writer, what matters most is readers. If readers want e-books, then that is what they should have. One of the interesting things to come out of this past Saturday’s talk at BAIPA about marketing was the whole concept of “basic” or “original” content that’s then available to be served in the channel that the buyer/reader selects. It does make a certain sense.

    Now if I could only get Bembo on that e-Reader…

  2. Joel

    Dan, I think you are correct, and that there will be a long transition period. When the dust clears, things may be very different than they are today, and different from what we expect. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Dan

    For years, the 8-track and cassette coexisted with the LP. I have a feeling today’s so-called ereaders will coexist with the book. Ereaders have their advantages (just as cassettes did) but there’s no way today’s ereaders are going to supplant books. That’s not to say books aren’t on their way out. Sooner or later something will come along that we haven’t even dreamed of, and when it does, the book will virtually vanish within a matter of years just as LPs vanished when CDs hit the shelves. For the moment, however, I think books are safe.

  4. Mark Barrett

    “Perhaps Mark doesn’t think going to e-Pub impacts the reading experience.”

    I’ve tried to be clear that reading on a screen definitely impacts my own reading experience. For example:

    All of these devices fail the most basic test, and that’s providing a reading experience which is as transparent as a book. Yes, they’re gadgety and geeky and feature rich and able to do things your Swiss Army knife can only dream of, but they’re still the technological equivalent of first drafts.


    As it happens, I don’t own an e-reader because I know I wouldn’t use it. The reading experience is not good enough. It’s certainly better than it used to be, but as your NYT quote suggests, there’s a ways to go:

    “In a New York Times item this week, Nick Bilton looked at the need to take breaks when reading on screens.”

    But there’s more to it than that, at least for me:

    In the end, publishing fiction to a computer screen is a problem. Whether it’s the quality of the monitor or the clarity of the font or the size of the text or the comfort of the chair or the heat from the laptop or the need for suspension of disbelief there are so many things arrayed against the reader’s need to process the text into an emotional experience that I can’t think of a single parallel in any other medium. And if what you’re trying to do is turn fiction on the internet into a form of mass-market entertainment, that’s about as big an iceberg as you could possibly run into.

    So what does this mean?

    It means that fiction on the internet is never going to replace books or e-readers. E-readers may in fact replace books, or at least segments of the book market, but I don’t see any way that either freely-available internet fiction or pay-per-whatever internet fiction is going to compete with portable, and more importantly, dedicated print publishing. As a distribution medium I think the internet is clearly the future for the written word, but as a publishing medium it has serious drawbacks.

    Does this mean nothing will work? No, that’s emphatically not what it means. All I’ve established in my own mind is that you’re not going to be able to write a novel and put it on the web and have people enjoy it as they might if it was a book. Books and e-readers are still going to have a competitive edge.


    My own definition of what a book is relates more to storytelling than it does to the object. I know the value of archival and artisanal skills relative to craft and history, but you’re quite right: technology is headed in a different direction. (And it’s not the future: it’s already here.)

    For me a book is a transparent experience in which the medium disappears. Right now, e-book technology can’t do that — at least for me. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to ignore the fact that other people seem okay with it, or that I’m going to turn down a chance to make my work available by taking advantage of the internet as a distribution medium.

    As a publisher I’m certainly a hobbyist. Or at least an apprentice. And I don’t mind serving an apprenticeship if it helps me as a writer. My only point about .epub and .pdf was that .epub seems to be the correct fork for me to take in the e-publishing road because of reflowability. Maybe that knowledge will be useful only in the moment, but that moment is now.

    Back in the day I used to actually know the Hayes Command Set (AT&F&H1, etc.) because I wanted to be able to use those newfangled and amazingly fast 14.4 modems to connect with other computers. Today, almost nobody knows what a modem init string is. I would be fine with a world in which I didn’t have to be a hobbyist publisher, or a world in which I had an infinite amount of cash in order to buy my solutions.

    Having looked at the available tech and my bank account, however, all I can tell you right now is that I have to do it myself. I do appreciate the extent to which you and others are making the learning curve a little less steep.


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