What is an ebook? What is a book? What does reading mean anymore?


Gerrit Dou [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We hear about mobi files, ePubs, various platforms, Amazon Kindle, Google Play, iTunes, B&N’s Nook, Kobo… Ebook library aggregators such as MyiLibrary, ebrary or Netlibrary, each demanding different sets of data, each distributing on their own terms and conditions and dictating their own business models and producing reports in whatever way they want. How many formats and platforms the poor production and sales teams have to deal with?

Ebook: definition

Oxford Dictionaries defines ebooks as [1] ‘an electronic version of a printed book that can be read on a computer or handheld device designed specifically for this purpose.’ and [2] ‘ a dedicated device for reading electronic versions of printed books.’

Oxford is great! But I’m afraid both definitions are wrong. 50 shades of Grey, the bestselling novel of 2012, appeared as an ebook without a print counterpart and the print edition was only published after the ebook had already reached its high sales. There are thousands of ebooks published every week that may never have a print version, and the trend shows that we should expect more and more ebook-only editions of a book.

The Oxford Companion to the Book offers another definition: ‘An electronic book (variously, e-book, ebook, digital book, or even e-edition) is a book-length publication in digital form, consisting of text, images, or both, and produced on, published through, and readable on computers or other electronic devices.’

Well, this seems to suggest a better understanding of the concept, but it’s not complete. An ebook is not only about text and images; it’s a package for any digital media such as audio, video, and interactive graphics. Some ebooks don’t contain texts at all; they just include images and voice. It’s not about text, it’s about concept. And something else is missing from the definition above: ‘interactivity’, one if the core features of books, including ebooks.

If we take a step back and look at the definition of books, we usually see something like: ‘A set of written, printed, illustrated, or blank sheets, made of ink, paper, parchment, or other materials, usually fastened together to hinge at one side. A single sheet within a book is called a leaf, and each side of a leaf is called a page,’ (Wikipedia) or ‘a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers’ (Oxford Dictionaries).

Well, as you can see, even the definitions of books don’t succeed in defining the concept of the most important medium for transfering knowledge in human history. That’s why the definition of ebooks gets confusing.

So, I’m going to offer another definition:

‘A book is a transferable, portable, standalone and interactive package of readable knowledge employing any of the various forms of media, including words, sounds, and static, moving or interactive images. It can be produced or reproduced on physical objects such as paper sheets, or in digital form’.

And therefore,

‘An ebook is simply a book that is produced in digital form.’

Even a physical book is interactive. You can write on it!

The word ‘readable’ differentiates books from other mediums such as films and music (not notes, which are readable’), but we should be careful not to attribute the verb ‘reading’ to written word only. Audio books are not ‘written words’ (although they are based on written words. Children picture-only books don’t have any kind of written word in them and all the knowledge is transferred via images. If we look at the definition of reading, there is no mention of written word, although written word is currently the most common mean for facilitating the act of reading:

‘Reading is a complex cognitive process of decoding symbols in order to construct or derive meaning. It is a means of language acquisition, of communication, and of sharing information and ideas’ (Wikipedia).

‘Decoding symbols’ is the core component of the act of reading, and differentiates books from movies. In movies you are not ‘reading’, you are ‘watching’.

I have used the word ‘knowledge’ in the definition of books rather than ‘information’ to differentiate it from other forms of packaged content, such as advertising pamphlets. But the old criteria of attributing a minimum size for something to be called a book, no longer applies. If a research paper is published as a standalone package of content, then it’s a book. If it is published alongside in a collection of articles in a periodical or another ‘book’, then it’s not a book. If package of knowledge is published periodically under the same name, then it is not a book and it’s a periodical. If the package of content can live on its own without sharing its name (the main name of the product) with other publications in a series, then it’s a book.

The reason I’m having these discussions before tackling the practical aspects of producing and selling ebooks, is that I believe until the publishers, authors, editors, and readers change the way they look at the concept behind the products they are developing, they can’t possibly come up with a strategy, and therefore everyone just needs to go with the flow determined by retailers such as Amazon and Apple, who are currently dictating the product models for ebooks in the market.

In the next posts I will start talking about ebook formats and the necessity of Digital First.