When is a book not a book?

Also arising from promoting Anthologizr at OR2012 was the matter of when, whether and why we perceive electronic documents to truly be ‘books’.

It arose in part from my experience of downloading ‘books’ (in EPUB or MOBI format) from Amazon and elsewhere. Of course these are only electronic files, just like the thousands of PDFs, Word, HTML and text files I have downloaded before, so why do I find it easier to think of these as ‘books’?

Chris Awre has suggested that the significance lies in how the formats are then presented, and I am inclined to agree: it makes a considerable difference that the target device is a dedicated e-book reader – that portable, inexhaustible, infinite book that Borges promised us – rather than a laser printer or a desktop/laptop computer monitor. Not only does the dedicated device have the right dimensions and portability, but it offers “electronic” enhancements, such as automatic bookmarks, and full-text search.

As I was leaving Edinburgh, I was also made aware of the Getty Introduction To Metadata, an “online publication devoted to metadata, its types and uses, and how it can improve access to digital resources.” It is free online in HTML and PDF versions, as well as in a printed version. It doesn’t call itself a “book” and in my views, in its electronic manifestations, most definitely is not an e-book. The HTML version packs all the detritus of being a “website”, and the chunked PDF version no doubt prints beautifully on A4 or Letter, but falls far short of being anything I’d call a “book”.

“Can I get the Getty Introduction to Metadata as an e-book for my Kindle?”

And yet the Getty Introduction To Metadata could so easily have been issued as an “e-book” too. The chapters are just the kind of material one might expect to find in an Anthologizr-enabled repository, to pick-and-choose as appropriate.

I proved this, by turning it into a passable EPUB and (via Calibre) MOBI on the train journey back from Edinburgh to London. The terrible crimes that the Web version commits against the most fundamental principles of HTML markup made this a more laborious task than it might have been, but it is conceptually trivial, and readily scriptable.

5 thoughts on “When is a book not a book?

  1. I really like the piece by Kevin Kelly on what a book is, a beginning, middle and end with a theme over at http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2011/04/what_books_will.php

    I don’t really agree that an ebook needs to be in ‘traditional’ looking book reader for it to be a book. Before our current books we had scrolls, and I bet for a long time folk thought that a book needed to be a scroll, these are merely containers. If a series of blog posts can be collated into a neat long-form collection to become a book, are the individual blog posts not merely chapters in waiting? in which case a book really is simply a container

    I was asked in my talk yesterday if an audiobook was therefore an ebook….

  2. Hi Zak

    “in waiting” is the key term, I think: many things are potential books, but only become books when they are put (by publishers, generally) in the accepted container du jour for easy consumption without further intervention or ado.

    http://is.gd/8dNHYa is indeed a book – we made it for Kevin Ashley from our departmental blog in early 2010, and you can order it from Lulu and receive a book in the post – should you so desire! But the blog (http://dablog.ulcc.ac.uk/) it was compiled from is not a book, nor is the PDF file that it was printed from.

    If I have to put any extra effort into getting a text into a form acceptable to me as a book (print or e) then IMO it’s not a book.

  3. Stroking the hair on my chin! i think the content of the epub/pdf still needs to be book like…. whatever that may be! the format doesn’t make it a book but i think we both are thinking along the same lines. The ‘making and using’ contexts can help guide that. either way it is very interesting.

  4. For our purposes here it’s enough that the current wave of e-books has achieved a hitherto unheard of degree of penetration and acceptance among the book-buying public, thanks to the emergence of affordable tablet/ebook readers, and the underlying technical and marketing infrastructure. It’s the possibilities of that shift that we’re exploiting in this project. Expectations and capabilities of e-books will only grow.

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