Are eBooks Really Books?

If I am fortunate enough to get promoted again, I’ll face a choice. My position can either be Associate Professor, or Reader.

It will still be a while before I have to make that choice, but Reader is a pretty tempting title.

Why would an academic be called a Reader?

It comes from the days before the printing press, when books were very rare. In the first universities, the Reader was the person that read the book out loud to the class.

At the time, the idea of a book was quite different from what it is now. Books were rare, since only a few people were literate, they were mysterious, and the bestowed power to those that could read. They were big and heavy, and when they were read, the were placed on a stand and read out loud.

At the International Schumpeter Society Conference here in Brisbane last month, David Lane gave a fascinating talk on innovation, and he talked about the point in time when the form and meaning of books changed – in Renaissance Italy. His talk here is very similar to the one he gave us:

Artifacts and Organization: A Complexity Perspective on Innovation and Social Change

David Lane

I thought of his talk recently on a day when I picked up these two items:

They are both reading devices. The book is the 1932 edition of A Handwriting Manual by Alfred Fairbank. The gadget is a Samsung Galaxy Tab 2.

Lane tells the story of the invention of the physical object that looks like Fairbank’s book. It happened in Florence, with a new form of book called the Ottavo. This format unleashed an innovation cascade. It was the first form of book to be published in a language other than Latin. It used italic handwriting for the first time, and it was also the first time that punctuation was used.

Punctuation is important, because it signals the more radical innovations in the cascade. These all came from how the new Ottavos were used. They were no longer read out loud – you could read it yourself. That’s why they needed punctuation.

This also meant that you could read a book anywhere, not just in a library. And because they were written in Italian, not Latin, many more people could read them.

All of a sudden, the meaning of the concept “book” changed radically.

The new format led to new behaviours, which in turn led to a change in the meaning of both the object and the behaviours.

The innovation cascade continued. With the new meanings and behaviours, new roles quickly followed. Now we had authors, publishers, printers, and booksellers. None of these jobs really existed prior to the Ottavo.

At the same time, a bunch of jobs became a lot scarcer – like copyist and illuminator.

Lane distinguishes between two types of innovation. One type makes things better, faster, cheaper. Evolutionary change, in other words. But revolutionary change comes when we innovate the meaning of things.

So what does this mean when we start to do more of our reading on things like the Tab 2? It’s likely that are ideas of what a book is, how it works and what it does will change again, and probably just as radically as they did with the advent of the Ottavo.

With highlighting in Kindle, or, reading becomes social. This is as radical a shift as the one from reading out loud in a library to reading to yourself wherever you want to was.

There will be other changes as well. eBooks are also changing what it means to be an author, and a publisher too.

In some sense, then, eBooks aren’t books – at least they’re not books in the same way that we’ve been thinking about them for the past 500 years or so. Even when the words are identical, a book is a different thing on an e-reader than it is on paper.

What will the consequences of this be? I don’t know. But there will be significant rewards if you can figure it out, or, better yet, if you can help shape what “book” means when it refers to eBooks.

If you’re looking to create radical innovations, the best place to start is with meaning – that’s where the real action is. Especially if everyone else is still thinking about better, faster, cheaper.

As for me, I’m going to take that Fairbanks book and practice my handwriting. It seems like a skill I could use if I ever get promoted to Reader. And blogging will be something different if I can figure out how to do it with a fountain pen…

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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9 thoughts on “Are eBooks Really Books?

  1. This is very insightful. A couple of thoughts.
    I have published a couple of ebooks and spent a lot on design. I think they should look good.
    Yet I think I am too old to be able to read an ebook in depth. I need hard copy to make notes, see concepts relative to what I just read, and so on. Reading ebooks for me to great if I want to scan something. Do you know of any research on reading and retention? Is there any difference in comprehension and retention between a real book and an ebook? I hope some academics are studying this issue. I think we are making a lot of assumptions about learning and technology. ed

    • Thanks Ed.

      As far as I know, there hasn’t been a huge amount published yet on ebooks. I’ve read a summary of one study that found retention rates to be about the same, but I’m not sure where that was.

      For me, I love ebooks for things that I just read straight through, like fiction. For books that I use for research, I still strongly prefer physical books. However, I’ve run into others who are exactly the opposite. I’d love to see some research that actually aggregates some of this…

  2. This is an old argument in media effects studies, harkening to the ideas of Marshall McLuhan–the medium is the message. That is, the technical and physical means of conveying the message is intertwined with and alters the meaning of the message. In effect, the experience of deriving meaning alters the meaning; it alters meaning by changing connotations, in part.

    However, that doesn’t mean an ebook isn’t a book. This is another question–the question of whether a thing can retain its essence when its physical form is radically changed. I think this is a straw argument, one which misses the point. I take a functionalist point of view: Does the object fulfill the same function it has fulfilled in the past? In this case, the answer is yes. Ultimately, a book is a means of storing information linguistically, representing information in a “natural” linguistic form. While the information in an ebook is at its root stored in binary form, the end-user interacts with it linguistically as has been the case with traditional books.

    So, while the experience of reading an ebook is arguably (but not definitively) different from reading a traditional book, it serves the same function and the user derives meaning in the same way. An ebook is a book, but one which alters the meaning subtly. But, an illustrated book also alters the meaning of the contents. Does that mean it is not a book?

    • Hi Greg – thanks for the comment.

      I almost tied McLuhan into this, but though that would just complicate things too much.

      I don’t think this is a straw argument at all. First off, I’m not at all convinced that the functions are the same. The function of the “book” certainly changed with the printing press, and then again with the introduction of the Ottavo and other portable versions. I guess all of these are storing information linguistically, but I think that’s too limited a view of what a book is, and what it does.

      And my broader point is that the meaning of “traditional book” has changed over time. Illustrated books are pretty new – and when we were little kids there was sure a distinction between those that could only read picture books and those that were reading grown-up books. My suspicion is that this will be another inflection point, and that the meaning of “book” will change again. The use certainly will.

  3. Tim,

    First: reader or associate professor; either way, congratulations!
    The extended mind theory argues that we use external artifacts (such as book) to complement or replace our cognitive abilities (e.g. Storing information linguistically). But this role is now being usurped not only by electronic versions of books but as you rightly point out features in eBooks that extend our minds in novel ways (leveraging the interconnected nature of the Internet and tapping into the collective knowledge of social networks).
    So, at least on the surface, books and eBooks do have different functions. But I wonder if this comparison is a bit unfair. After all, when mass printed books were first introduced they offered similar advantages over hand-copied ones: they leveraged the interconnected nature of publishing houses and tapped into the collective knowledge of their early readers; what used to be called natural philosophers — scientists.
    It is only because these quallities are ubiquitous today that they have become unremarkable. I imagine the same will befall eBooks when the Next Big Thing arrives.

    • Hi Marco – I was just speculating on the promotion, so no congratulations yet!

      Part of my point is that the definition of a book has changed over time. So you’re right in saying that mass printed books had huge advantages over hand-copied ones. More importantly, the meaning of the concept book changed radically at that point. I’m arguing that we may be at a similar inflection point now.

  4. I still don’t know what an academic reader is today, if you could give some explanations …;-)

    About book and e-book : I am a senior , no internet when i was a student. I read a lot. Without talking about social behaviour, today when i am looking for professional information i use a site or a blog for fast information and a book for deep information. I don’t see why a good site could not provide deep information. It’s only a question of time and habits.
    The difference with a physical book is organisation (not as linear as physical book) and video contents (illustrations ++). It looks like a progress because you can still use an internet site as a book if you want (reading in a predetermined order and no video). Electronic screen is the difference against paper which allow this progress.
    Who will continue to provide information in a limited way ? Who will restrict herself to linear linguistic information ? I can think only of some kind of snobbery or artistic point of view like black and white photography.
    The big change is not e-book imo but links and multimedia.


    • Now a Reader is basically the same as an Associate Professor – it’s an archaic term. I definitely agree with you that the big change is due to links + multimedia, but then again, those are major parts of eBooks. So it’s hard to untangle them.

  5. I agree , but Books are the easy and logical way to materialize linguistic information : paper, binding and so on…It’s an evolution top after clay tablet, papyrus roll and lambskin incunable.
    eBooks are only one “screen size” amongst smartphone, netbook, laptop, desktop computer screen …or TV. As physical object , it’s not important. I cannot imagine people carrying tablets 200 years from now.
    To communicate a story in a formal way, we had the tale (oral) then the book (scriptural) and now the movie (visual). The book is still available. The tale also but who use it ? Don’t you think that communication through a group of written words will become archaic too ?
    (excuse my poor english)

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