What Does an eBook Look Like?

I think, that like most people, when I heard that there were various book digitization projects happening went to see what it was all about.  My first download was Dracula by Bram Stoker.  I’ve always been a lover of the macabre and this is a classic.  It was also an opportunity to play around with the digital reading experience.

A few years ago, my parents had given me a printed copy of this classic and I’ve read it a few times.  I recognize that it may not be everyone’s cup of tea but I’m going to use it because to use some more modern electronic books might offend some and I don’t want to do that.

When I got the paper copy, I took it everywhere.  I could read it in bed, in the rec room, while someone else drives a car, in the bath, and did until I finished it.  Subsequent readings weren’t quite so fanatic but the point is that I could read the paper copy wherever I wanted.  When I got the electronic copy, I first put it on my computer and then on my iPad.  In both cases, I could read the book on whatever device but it wasn’t quite the same.  No more bath tub reading for one thing, and a device is heavier and more sensitive to light and, quite frankly, makes it just not as exciting to read.  I also like to read on my back or in a number of relaxed positions without worrying about dropping or otherwise damaging my book.

Now, coming from me – a lover of technology – that’s quite a statement.

Having said all this, I’m not naive enough to think that things will not change.  A quick look lets you see the variety of eReaders and reading programs for computers.  Yes, books are going electronic and I need to be ready for it.  But, for the most part, paper editions are equally as available.  What will be the tipping point?

As I “flip” (page?  scroll?) through Dracula, I realize that in another life, this ePub document could just as easily be a .doc or a .pdf file.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s just, well, different.  What they do have in common though is a fixed presentation format.  Do I really need a $500 device to read a book?  Obviously, the answer is no.  But, what would actually make it worth my while?  In a school setting, what’s going to motivate students to read?  How can we make these things come alive?

In a way, the answer may well parallel what happened with website design.  In the beginning (or with some really crappy current websites), we’re looking at static formats where the only engagement attempt might be to add some colour or a font change.  We’ve matured as consumers who demand more and we have the type of web that we have today.  Can the same thing be said of books?

As I’m pondering this, I’m flipping through my iPad and stop at an application that I had downloaded earlier.  IBM’s Minds of Modern Mathematics is an application that “tells the story of mathematics and how it has impacted almost every aspect of human progress, from science to music, art, architecture, and culture.”  It is a fascinating read and I really recommend it.

But, I started to think.  Is this an application or is it a book?

Can it slide into the category of “book” as in Dracula?  Does it belong in a different category?

  • I can read both;
  • I don’t necessarily have to go through either sequentially although each has its own navigational strengths and weaknesses;
  • I could buy Dracula the book in many places;
  • I have to buy Minds of Modern Mathematics though the iTunes store;
  • I don’t need anything special to read Dracula the book;
  • If I have 5 books, my backpack gets heavy; 5 books on my iPad doesn’t change the weight;
  • Minds of Modern Mathematics has embedded movies;
  • Both books have text and pictures;
  • I’m limited to the number of Dracula the book type books by the number of bookshelves in my house;
  • I’m limited by the memory size of my iPad (Minds of Modern Mathematics is 500MB so I’m glad I don’t have a 16GB unit!);
  • Looking into the future, my electronic book could be stored in a cloud somewhere so I can always access it; my Dracula book is out of reach if I leave it at home.

I suppose the list could go on and on.  Feel free to add your thoughts at the bottom.

Ultimately, I wonder – what does an eBook look like?  Is it a static entity or will it take advantage of the fact that it could also be connected to the internet and all that offers?  I would suggest that, if it’s just a matter of converting a traditional book into PDF or eBook format, it isn’t going to have legs for the long run.  To realize a tipping point, it’s going to require all the technological wizardry to make it stand up and engage the reader.  It sounds bizarre to say, but the book will have to bring added value to the reading experience.  After all, $500 for a device just to read books could be better spent buying a lot more traditional books.

4 thoughts on “What Does an eBook Look Like?

  1. I also examined a few freeware PC e-readers last month – they are (really) absolutely terrible, IMHO, lol. Available here: http://classicquarters.blogspot.ca/2012/05/e-dreaders.html
    As well I found a lesser-known Cdn writer, J Robert Jones, having his entire mystery novel series available in e-book form this month (alongside a new e-book only novel). See here: http://classicquarters.blogspot.ca/2012/05/myst-j-robert-janes.html

    That is the tipping point! Not to try to sell current books (and/or best sellers) in electronic form, but to make available full backlist catalogues. With paper: most books sit out-of-print for at least a couple decades and then only return in a blurry small type, mass market, form. And that’s if at all! Even the Agatha Christies and Rex Stouts of Popular Mystery are lucky to have a mere fraction of their works republished. Plus e-books won’t involve the old “what’s that stain?” game of the used book market. Ewwhhh.
    I have a jumbo 1200+ page book of old Black Mask pulp magazine stories, with at most – two short stories per author (many more forgotten then still remembered and well known).
    I would thrill at the prospect of accessing such an expanded treasure trove. But not at $9.99 per or $1 per story or dime novel. It needs to be more like 5-25 cents per (and with no expiration date or proprietary format issues).


  2. Pingback: Learning from Replies | doug – off the record

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