The printed form of the communication device we know as the book is without doubt one of the most potent forces in the history of humanity. The other of course is the gun, but that is another essay for another time and another place. What I want to discuss here is a more recent means of communicating ideas in an easily portable form.
The e-book has long been touted as a catalyst for change across a civilized and universally connected planet. It will change the face of publishing it has been said. It will transform lives, and create new pathways to literacy and education throughout the developing world.
It will even deliver to us a utopian vision of a World Library open 24/7 that contains such a wealth of un-burnable books that we may even stop worrying for five minutes about the rise of fascism. Our big brains will be bursting at the seams as we acquire e-book after e-book until there are no more novels left to conquer. The printed form will be a forgotten hero and we will lay flowers upon the Rosetta Stone each year in memoriam, ad infinitum.
Of course this is complete fantasy for the most obvious of reasons. You don’t need to re-charge a print book at an electric socket. You can lend it out and give back, pick it up put it down, muse over it and love it. You can assess its condition for just the right kind of fresh newness, or the most comforting degree of musty oldness. All that is at your fingertips before you even start reading it!
Most of all, the much-loved printed book is waiting to be found by you, and only you. It doesn’t matter whether you discovered it in a car boot sale, found it left behind on a train, had it given to you by a friend, or even bought it yourself. You saw it, and heard its voice. It said, “Read Me”.
Unfortunately, you really have to search for an e-book that you think you might read, that you might get round to reading or that someone else’s website said might be worth looking at. The e-book contrives to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time because it exists only in the back of your mind. It is only visible when you are looking at it.
That is one of the reasons why the hype about the e-book form has attracted so much derision from otherwise quietly bookish types. Naturally, much of it has been an understandable overreaction. It is quite simply a matter of fact that the print book has never been threatened with real extinction as suffered by passenger pigeons and thylacines.
However, the suggestion has been made that the e-book should have been strangled at birth. This is because e-books have multiplied faster than lemmings and many of them look suspiciously like clones. Could it be some sort of conspiracy of Amazonian proportions? Is the ePub something that properly should have been left on the tree in the Garden of Reading? I have my own e-book to do but I would like to put down my pen (yes it’s still of some use), my mouse, and my E-book Formats for Dummies (print) book and talk about what the problem seems to be. Perhaps we can try a few things, and if they don’t work then we can always consult a physician, or an editor.
The main problem of perception regarding the e-book form is one of visible proliferation. There are now so many e-books roaming loose across cyberspace that we know perfectly well that they are unlikely to mostly be enlightening, entertaining or informative. This is an understandable reason for supposing that the e-book is predisposed to producing more and more of similar specimens of poor quality and dubious longevity.
Once you’ve seen one lemming you’ve seen them all, so it therefore does not take long for the idea to grow in the public mind that e-books have little worth because they are all the same. The form itself is burdened with connotations of low value implied by endless duplication, and this invites the contempt of the familiar. One lemming on your lawn is cute. Millions of them will have you reaching for your gun.
Now, let us take a moment here to put to one side the multiple issues of file formats, pricing, royalties and quality control. The e-book version of the printed form by an established author is merely an extension of the activities of any alert publishing house. One thing is for sure, we should not be so quick to discredit the e-book form, or diminish its potency as a useful device for communicating ideas and information.
I do not believe that the widely discussed difficulties surrounding formatting wars, quality control and perceptions of worth are really the most important matters at hand. It will be ideas, information and language that will make the e-book a rich resource, not the vagaries of devices nor the pricing strategies. The e-book is actually very like a real book, only different.
So, let’s do one thing first and foremost. Let’s dispense with the idea that content is the stuff that e-books are made of and start with an idea. Let’s take that idea and re-instate narrative as the driver. We have an idea for a story that could be fact, fiction, or a bit of both. The narrative will decide where the story takes us, but it must be underpinned by the urge to communicate the idea.
This is what Stuart Kidd and I set out to do with the creation of “You and I”, a story designed specifically for publication as an interactive e-book (see1320Books) with text, images and embedded songs. The inspiration came from Stuart’s lovely tune about his much-loved do, Alfie, but we decided to make friendship, fellowship and companionship the kernel of the story.
Stuart also picked out the inquisitive nature of a small boy on an adventure, and emphasised a secondary theme of questions arising from new experiences. The eight chapters, ten songs and numerous images are mutually supportive, and the tale is deliberately episodic. You can pick this story up and put it down, listen to the songs, or browse the images. Certainly, we want to create Joe and Alfie’s world inside your head mostly with words and ideas.
So far so good. We are still in book territory.
However, the e-book can change, update and extend those ideas. We can insert narration later on. We could re-mix the songs and add them as bonus tracks. We could conceivably create graphic novel versions and/or introduce animation should the opportunity arise in the future.
It can do this in ways that are difficult for the print book to emulate because print editions are bound by the scope of their production. Once you’ve printed your book you cannot get it back from your reader and write interesting things in the margins. This is where the e-book is potent, but it depends upon re-defining some of the key functions involved in the production of a conventional book.
The real rewards and benefits that e-books can deliver lie in the re-definition of the functions that are common to the production of a conventional print book. Ideally, the author writes the book, the editor edits it, the publisher prints it and arranges its distribution. It’s success or failure now largely depends upon the ability of the marketing department. This is where e-books could and should part company with convention.
In e-book world, these functions can be stripped down and re-named to create areas of activity and responsibility. This will give e-books a dynamic identity that distinguishes them from the sturdy but static print format. In my model there is no distinction between the Author, The E-book, The Publisher and the Companion Website in terms of their relationship to the Idea.
Now, you will hear the argument that print publishing can do all these things, and do it better. If that isn’t the sound of a gauntlet hitting the floor I don’t know what is. E-book authors can change it round, get creative with it, and do it really quickly, but they have to show more.
I do think that e-book authors and publishers need to establish a clearer identity for the e-book that will help to differentiate it from the print edition (and the digital version of the print edition), and distinguish it from book-like disposable software.
An e-book contains all the usual suspects to be found in print books. There are pages, paragraphs, words, language, vocabulary and mistakes. However, it will stand apart where it also contains personal history, insight, texture, depth, voices, music and an idea that encourages readers to travel beyond the boundaries of its virtual pages.
I’d like to say much, much more about this of course, but I have my own e-book to do.
MSC March 2018
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