What Is an “eBook?”

12 March

Two recently released eBook surveys—the HighWire Press 2009 Librarian eBook Survey and Aptara’s eBooks: Uncovering Their Impact on the Publishing Market—serve as a catalyst to consolidate a set of inchoate notions that have multiplied in this season of bustling enthusiasm for everything “eBook.” Namely, what exactly is an eBook?

I propose that there exists broad confusion about what constitutes an eBook, and that this definitional problem is interfering with decision making by both content producers and consumers.

Any major product introduction by Apple commands intense awareness, and the iPad was no exception. After the Kindle surge over the recent holidays—Atlantic Monthly reported that on Christmas Day 2009, Amazon’s “e-book” [quotation marks mine] sales exceeded hard-copy sales for the first time in Amazon’s history—the lay public probably thinks it has a working definition. Likewise, the term is often invoked in the publishing world as if it is definitive (the recent O’Reilly Tools of Change conference in New York included no fewer than­­ 11 sessions with “eBook” in the title (which list excludes many more that were substantively about the topic despite not meeting this particular criterion).

But in practical usage, a shared definition remains elusive. I have seen everything from a Kindle download to relational content databases referred to as an eBook. Wikipedia says an eBook is “an e-text that forms the digital media equivalent of a conventional printed book,” while the OED defines an eBook as “an electronic version of a printed book which can be read on a personal computer or hand-held device designed specifically for this purpose.” However, Planet eBook says it “can be anything from the digital version of a paper book, to more interactive content that includes hyperlinks and multimedia. It can even be the electronic reading device such as a Rocket eBook or Pocket PC.”

For purposes of this discussion, let’s oversimplify and identify two possible definitions: a Simple eBook (one title, unconnected, Wikipedia/OED-style) and a Rich eBook (interactive, interconnected, Planet eBook-style).

The HighWire survey, aimed at Librarians, contains significant evidence of confusion between the two poles, both in its questions and in the user responses and comments. For example, responses to the final question, “Are there any additional important factors not covered above that publishers should consider when publishing ebooks?” include:

These perspectives strongly imply a Rich eBook model. But in response to the same query, others said:

…responses that suggest an understanding of “eBook” much more like our Simple model.

The Aptara survey, which collects responses from publishers, exclusively (if not explicitly) implies the Simple eBook model. One can quickly discern this focus in the question about device support. Note that the percentages sum to 100, even though certain of these platforms overlap (Kindle has a iPhone app, for instance, and many web-based content applications offer alternative interfaces optimized for smartphone access). (Rich eBooks will generally not function in dedicated hardware environments.)

As I encounter people trying to plan for their future enterprises (be they authors, publishers, service providers, librarians and other licensees, or individual content consumers), I find many are conflating information about this very disparate continuum of information products. If the terms of the research are ambiguous or incomplete, then it risks obfuscating market realities. For instance, HighWire’s survey reports that 81% of respondents have a budget for electronic resources above $100,000, yet 91% report that “eBooks” represent less than 10% of their overall collection budget. Not only do these two questions confuse the numeric scale ($ v %), but they fail to compare the same resources, first citing “electronic resources” then switching to “eBooks”. What comprises the former category? Is it electronic journals+eBooks? If so, what is included in and excluded from the latter? Where do electronic databases fit? What about what we’re temporarily herein calling “Rich eBooks?”

In professional publishing, the simple concept of a downloadable unit, the content of which is the precise equivalent of the print, has broken down. Sure, a reader can buy professional eBooks that meet this definition. But more important, prevalent, and useful (despite the current eBook hype) are content systems that are addressing the fundamental purposes of a professional book but radically rethinking the means by which we achieve them. This rethink expresses itself in both the creation and the consumption modes of the Resource Formerly Known As The Professional Book.

So, what are the purposes of a professional book? Education, broadly defined: we read a professional book to learn, either in a formal educational context, or in a maintenance/current-awareness mode. The primary audience reads to edify itself, at whatever level of abstraction and practical applicability, about subjects related to its professional activities. This is distinct from (if overlapping at the margins with) reading at leisure/for pleasure, which is the primary purpose of trade books. Authoring a professional book is an exercise in consolidating and reporting the state of the art, proposing new perspectives and ideas that will be added to a foundation of shared understanding, and/or integrating concepts from disparate disciplines. An author (or editor) gathers and organizes preexisting information, synthesizes it, and sometimes posits new or alternative conclusions, attempting to expand on the shared foundation of the domain.

Given the technological tools available, the simple eBook as defined above is insufficient to support the central function of professional books. It confines a reader to a quarantined jurisdiction, administered by an individual author or editor, fixed at the moment of its publication, unconnected to related information resources that are often crucial to the context of the shared domain.

As a result, I suspect the prospects for the Simple eBook model are much more limited in the professional domain than they are in the world of trade, where it is far more closely aligned with the fundamental purpose of reading (and helpfully solves certain problems like portability and access). Instead, the Resource Formerly Known As The Professional Book will, in the service of its fundamental educational purpose, morph into something much more interactive, dynamic, and temporal than a Simple eBook. In fact, resources like this have already developed, resources that make the professional (Simple) eBook obsolete even as the format gains ascendancy in the popular imagination and the trade market. If you think about it, you’re likely already familiar with rudimentary examples, and you probably use some of the tools that will converge to make this professional post-book a reality.

For instance, think of aggregated content applications—in medicine, products like MDConsult (from Elsevier) and AccessMedicine (McGraw-Hill). These systems allow a user to focus on addressing the educational (again, in the broadest sense) objective with multiple sources of information conveniently organized into a single interface. Even this now well-understood innovation renders the education process far more efficient than the use of individual eBooks. How about Wikipedia or YouTube, continuously evolving reference databases that are good places to start many investigations (and could never be a book)? Social networks, from the 800-pound gorilla Facebook to the exclusive and targeted CardioExchange, are increasingly being used to annotate and aggregate content around professional domains. And Macmillan has taken a next step (as have a number of large educational publishers, in various ways) with its launch of Dynamic Books, a platform that will allow wide-scale annotation, reordering, and other modifications of its textbooks.

Speaking of which, consider the content creation/generation side of the equation. Professionals benefit from, and increasingly rely upon, information that is vastly more current than that provided by books (paper or E). Networking technology has made the exchange of what we will broadly call “updates” massively more accessible. Updates—my placeholder term encompassing all sorts of timely (and often time-sensitive) content—can include blog posts, wiki edits, dynamic news links, peer-reviewed syntheses, and so forth.  Furthermore, connectivity to and between dynamic data sources (in medicine, for example, clinical trials registries, guideline clearinghouses, drug databases) can likewise enrich and propel vastly more integrated, comprehensive, and effective educational experiences.

Now imagine a future in which relevant information around a theme of user interest is dynamically aggregated across previous boundaries (publisher, format, repository, etc.). Wide deployment of digital publishing infrastructure (syntactic and now semantic XML, ontological standards, proliferation of web services standards, registries like DOI, and so on) is in place to begin delivering user experiences of ever-increasing richness, connectivity, efficiency, and dynamism. This is not your father’s Kindle.

(By the way, I am not a wide-eyed arcadian with respect to content sources. Nothing I’ve said should be taken to suggest that standards, pedigree, quality control, peer review, and other editorial values are either passé or automatic. Rigor in organizing and curating the Resource Formerly Known As The Professional Book will continue to be essential, and these qualities will be required to establish a new value proposition on top (not in lieu) of authors' and publishers’ domain expertise. As seems to always be the case in publishing, it’s more work on top of the old work.)

So, how does a Simple eBook compete with this vision? Not favorably. I’m hard pressed to envision more than a peripheral role for it in the professional information sphere of the future. Now, if we redefine eBook as something more comprehensive… or maybe we should just give it a new name? What are your suggestions?

[your term here]  (Rich eBook)

Simple eBook

Dynamic Content Static Content
Interactive Content Unconnected Content
Multimedia Text, Limited Graphics
Social-media Enabled Isolated to Individual Utility
Continuity (Subscription) Revenue Model Single-sale Revenue Model
Non-proprietary Device & Platform Proprietary Single-use Device & Platform
Customizable Fixed
Addresses Fundamental Educational Process Replaces a Single Book 1-for-1
Lives in the Cloud Stored on Your Device
Transforms Pedagogy Reduces the Weight of Your Backpack

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