The Problem With “E-Books”

by | Jan 27, 2010

seiko readerIt’s the eve of the long-awaited announcement from Apple about its e-reading / kindle-killing / publisher saving / book destroying tablet computer.

In the Twittersphere, the feed has been lighting up with people reporting from Digital Book World in New York, and everyone is looking to the future, trying to discern the horizon line somewhere in the distance.

Over here, where we’re still cutting down trees and binding sheaves of paper together, I’m struggling with the last piece of copy for my Book Construction Blueprint that I’ve been working on.

It’s the chapter on “E-Books.” Here’s my problem: like all truly new and breakthrough technologies, the e-books of today are rudimentary and obviously transitional.

The model for almost all e-books is a printed book original, or an imagined printed book original. What I mean is that we have ported the conventions of bookmaking from the world of paper and board into the digital realm simply for our own convenience. They are signposts, markers that help us orient in this new world.

ebook shot image

How Is an E-Book a Book?

Reading through various instructions about formatting e-books, parts of e-books, helpful hints about e-books, it’s pretty obvious that the authors are making it up as they go along. All the instructions boil down to one question:

How slavishly does the e-book have to follow the physical conventions of the print book?

But, just for fun, off the top of my head, how is an e-book most definitely not in any way a “book” at all?

  1. E-books have no pages. Pages, the two sides of the leaves of paper that make up the book, are intrinsic to printed books. Although e-books imitate “pages” it’s just for our convenience. There is no reason an entire novel in e-book form couldn’t be written on one “page” or on thousands of bits of displayed text within a programmed environment.
  2. E-books also have no spreads. Although it seems like I’m repeating myself, this is the heart of the book. When the sheaves of papyrus or linen or wood pulp paper are bound they naturally create two (or more) side-by-side pages, or a spread. What makes a book is the binding, so the spread is really the basic unit of the book, not the page.
  3. Every word in an e-book is equidistant from every other word in the e-book. Any location in the e-book can be connected instantly to any other location in the text through hyperlinks.
  4. The text of an e-book is searchable and subject to computer analysis. Just by entering a search term and hitting the Return key, you can highlight thousands of occurrences of the term throughout the entire text. Instantly.
  5. There is no need in an e-book for text to be linear. An e-book, like almost all text-delivery systems, presents text in orderly rows of type on discrete, sequential pages, but this has nothing to do with the form of the e-book and everything to do with habits and expectations. We are used to reading text that way, so designers have created a model of the book on the screen. With just a little more work they could and do create models that have no debt to the book, where text is free-form, or timed to appear at intervals, or integrated with other media, or reading in circles if they bloody well want it to.
  6. The form, size and typography of the e-book are adjusted by the devices on which they are presented. I have hanging over my desk a page from a religious text printed in Paris in 1495 by a printer named Ulrich Gering, and I have no doubt that Ulrich himself set up this page and printed it on his pull-lever press. With many e-books, the user can change the typeface, the typesize and other attributes. The e-reader itself will create the format for the pages and how they are displayed.

The Pull of History Cannot Outlast The Push of New Technology Forever

Eventually, of course, popular e-books will break free of their need to imitate print books. But the force of habit and convention is strong. When the first graders are given “kinder-kindles” to learn reading, the transition will be pretty complete. Text has become data. Until then we’ll use the printed book as our guide, because it’s what we know.

Stanza pageE-books will continue to have “covers” although it’s impossible to say what’s being covered. Indexing will die off, since in e-books, every word is already indexed. We’ll still need a copyright notice, but I’ve seen texts now that just have a link to a rights notice on a server somewhere. It’s like an abstraction of an abstraction.

I don’t think the print book will disappear anytime soon, but there’s an exciting kind of terror to realize we are navigating the uncertain waters of epochal change. When I was growing up, hot metal type was the norm. It was dethroned by the allmighty offset press and photolithography. But in technology, you don’t get to dominate for long.

The more I think about it, the more I agree with the remark E.M. Ginger made at the recent BAIPA meeting: I’m not sure we’ve seen a digital “book” yet, and I’m not sure we ever will. Not even from Apple.

What do you think?

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. David Griffiths

    If ereaders are essentially browsers, and ebooks are essentially HTML, then ebooks with multimedia and interactivity are essentially websites. Are we going in circles?

  2. Scott Morgan

    I think you’re right on about how the E-book eventually will find its own language in terms of delivery and design, Joel. It happens with everything — cinema followed the conventions of theater for decades before finding its own language, for example. Personally, I love E-books. E-books have democratized writing the way the Misfits and Sex Pistols democratized the guitar. But I do fear one thing –the day ads start popping up in downloaded E-books. Stephen King once said that books are prefect entertainment medium because nothing interrupts you, especially ads. That won’t last long in the E-book realm. I’m surprised it’s lasted THIS long. But such is progress, I suppose.

  3. Joe Bowers

    “5. There is no need in an e-book for text to be linear. An e-book, like almost all text-delivery systems, presents text in orderly rows of type on discrete, sequential pages, but this has nothing to do with the form of the e-book and everything to do with habits and expectations. We are used to reading text that way, so designers have created a model of the book on the screen. With just a little more work they could and do create models that have no debt to the book, where text is free-form, or timed to appear at intervals, or integrated with other media, or reading in circles if they bloody well want it to.”

    As a formatting issue I hate to quote such a big paragraph in a box so small but all the sentences are relevant. And the box is the box.

    Mr. Friedlander,

    In life and learning there is street smarts (experience) and book learning (reading). In school, book learning is a large part. If we changed our conventions in reading from word to word, left to right, line to line, paragraph to paragraph and so on. And say, introduced new conventions like color-cooridinated text, mathmatical formula based word and sentance recognician systems, with free-form multimedia. Do you think our brains would change? And if so, what would be the consequences?

    Could we become smarter?

    • Joel Friedlander

      Joe, thanks for that. If you get the Google Chrome browser, you can expand the little window until it’s a great big window. Isn’t that neat?

      I’m a little skeptical of our ability to “change our conventions in reading” although if we could, I think it would certainly change brain function. But part of the fun is that digitization brings up all these interesting possibilities to think about. Thanks for contributing to the conversation.

  4. Joe Bowers

    “When the first graders are given “kinder-kindles” to learn reading, the transition will be pretty complete.”

    But Mr. Friedlander, you can’t give lightweight/fragile, heat/shock/sit-on/rain or other fluid intolerant electronic devices to first graders. They wouldn’t last ten seconds!

    Think about that.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Joe. You might be surprised at the number of ereaders being sold for primary school-age children right now.

      In the article I’m assuming that a kid-friendly version will be available when they start to roll out the “kinder-Kindle.”

  5. Peter O'Hanrahan

    Well Joel, it’s all very destabilizing – micro and macro. I’m not sure if I can adapt to the multiplicity of formats that are now available. But maybe one step at a time. E-book containing links to audio and video files! It will be a multi-media presentation, although all mediated by the gadget on the receiving end. Is the medium still the message? Or does it vie with content, at least authors (content providers) can hope.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hey Peter, thanks for your comment. Content is being twisted and turned into forms we haven’t seen or imagined, and the intersection where content meets the technology that makes it available is currently the “bleeding edge” of innovation. So, yes, we live in “interesting” times. Content creators have fantastic resources at their disposal now and it’s pretty exciting to see what they will make of all this.

  6. laura cerwinske

    THe article is brilliant and told me exactly what I need to know conceptually about using the ebook as an art form. Many thanks. Laura Cerwinske

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Laura, that’s very kind. I’m glad it was useful.

  7. Curtis Chappell


    This is a great concept! The reader can build his or her own book….very cool…

    I’ve also learned that books delivered vis the ipad will have the ability to have live links to other content, including videos! This will turn the world of how-to books upside down!

    Write On!

  8. Frances Grimble

    Oh yes, and I expect even text e-books to become increasingly interactive, with authors creating branches to fiction that readers can select. Does a character do X or Y at this point in the story? Reader, choose one. Or even just, do you want the happy ending or the sad ending? Choose one.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Frances, this reminds me a little of the very earliest text adventure games that proliferated early in the personal computer era, in which you could travel down different branches of the story depending on the choices you made. And interestingly, they were nothing but a few lines of text on a character-mode screen.

      The ways that ebooks will morph into multi-media products, and the way those changes will affect print books, are endlessly fascinating topics to speculate on. I think the print book is pretty hardy, and quite refined after 500 years of development. It looks like it will last a while longer yet. Thanks for your contributions.

  9. Frances Grimble

    What I expect is for e-books to increasingly incorporate other media such as audio, video, and animation, either throughout the book or in parts of it, and either alone or mixed together. There’s really no reason for an e-book to consist entirely of text.

    In other words, yes, what we have now is just transitional technology. It’s just that e-books have so much potential to move into being a different media from what we now call books. I expect print books to remain as a technology and coexist with the new media e-books will evolve into. After all, TV did not eliminate radio, films did not eliminate the live stage, and so on.

  10. Curtis Chappell

    Hi Joel,

    Great reply! cheers…there does seem to be quite a bit of confusing info around the place…was going to check with the library of congress for the definitive answeer, but as you say, it’s more of a distribution issue.

    if you get an solid info, please pass along…it would make a great post!

    Write On!

  11. Joel

    Hi Curtis, good question.

    There is a lot of disagreement right now about the use of ISBN. Traditionally every edition needed its own ISBN, which would indicate you should put a different ISBN on your ebook “edition.”

    However, when the ebook formats started to mutliply, and considering the cost of ISBNs, many people started to issue different “editions” under the same ISBN (check for their policy).

    The upshot is that this policy is “under review” and there are ongoing discussions about how to bring the ISBN policy up to date with the reality of ebooks and proliferating formats.

    So the short answer to your question, Curtis is “no one knows” but if you have extra ISBNs and you are only doing your book in 1 ebook format, I would suggest putting a different ISBN on it. There’s no “protection” involved, just the ability to differentiate between the two editions throughout the distribution channel.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  12. Curtis Chappell

    Hi Joel,

    I’m curious about using an ISBN for the ebook version of my printed book…what is your experience with this?

    I’ve heard that an ebook should be protected by a different ISBN than the one used for the paperpack version…is this correct?

    Any advice you have would be great!

    And your site has heaps of valuable info! Great stuff…

    Write On!

  13. Joel

    @True Blue, read your post. Yes, the “long arm of the law” shouldn’t be discounted in all of this. Wireless connectivity and digital downloads mean that you have a two-way connection. Not a problem with a paperback, but while I’m typing this I’m watching the iPad announcement roll along, and it’s obvious that whether it’s this Apple device or some other, the world of books is changing under our feet.

  14. Joel

    @Dan, I think that’s called a “looseleaf binder.” Kind of an oxymoron, since if the pages are loose, they are hardly bound. But hey, I do those printouts now from PDFs that I want to refer back to. Welcome to the future.

  15. dan

    I think Kindles, etc. will soon be able to connect wirelessly to our wireless printers and we’ll be able to print out our ebooks on paper and bind them in 3-ring binders. But because most of us don’t bother to print on both sides of the paper, we will have lopsided spreads with the verso always blank. It will be cool.



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