It doesn’t take much to see that the book business is changing (even if only a little bit at a time). No, it’s not that Editor’s have stopped drinking coffee (I’m already on my second cup) or that we’ve stopped reading printed manuscripts. The change is in the fact that a small percentage of the market share is now digital books.
I recently had a graduate class where our teacher kept asking “what is a book?” Amazingly, that simple question can become an incredibly frustrating rabbit hole. I settled for a simple answer… (albeit incomplete I’m sure): A book is a collection of related words, often split into chapters, of varying length.
eBooks can then fall into the book category. Though they are different in construction, eBook developers and eReaders like Kindle, iBooks, and Nook all work really hard to make the experience similar. EBooks are constructed primarily of HTML, CSS and EPUB. HTML and CSS are familiar terms to those in web development, but to those of you who aren’t familiar with them, these are the guts of every webpage, eBook, and even (to a certain degree) an app on your smartphone.
EPUB is special to eBooks. It’s a set of “tags” that format text for eReaders- it allows your text to “reflow” (move from one page to another depending on how big your text is), be opened and formatted for eReaders and it also allows companies to attach DRM (Digital Rights Management- think back to the music biz and how songs can only be played by a few logged in computers.). It’s a powerful and interesting tool that is developing quickly.
In fact, eBook developers can actually make eBooks that will do a lot more than what you currently see on your Kindle or Nook. We’ve learned how to embed sound and video into files and make gorgeous, highly designed eBooks. So maybe you’re asking (and rightly so) why aren’t we seeing these kinds of eBooks now? The simple answer is- the eReaders themselves can’t keep up.
The iPad is one of the best eReaders in supporting new HTML and EPUB features, but even it is not complete. Someday our new eReaders will catch up, though by then we’ll have probably discovered something new, but even then we’ll face a dilemma. The market is flooded with older, perfectly respectable, eReaders like the original Kindle (see left) that still open books and work without much issue but will not support any of the newer features of eBooks. To maintain a market for all of the new and old eReaders we’ll have to find a middle ground to settle into until the eReader market is a majority new eReaders. This will more than likely slow down the progress of dynamic and technology forward eBooks for the consumer but I believe that we will see more advanced features in the future that will make the eBook experience distinctly different that the print book.
Once we have that distinction, there will be no excuse for quibbles over which is better print or eBooks because they’ll be different. They both have their place and will appeal to different types of audiences. In fact, the cultural debate stemming from the silly question “will eBooks replace print books?” has died down considerably. After all we still use the scroll (no not the scroll bar, the paper scroll).
A little food for thought on a Monday. I’ll follow-up with some tech talk on HTML, CSS and EPUB from time to time (of course with a great deal of food in between). Let me know if there is something you’re particularly interested in hearing about. But to end on a laugh, one of my favorite YouTube videos Medieval Helpdesk.