Schrödinger’s eBook

Last week, I had the privilege of both attending and speaking at the Computers in Libraries conference in Washington DC. As can be expected of a technology oriented conference, eBooks were prominently featured as an entire track for the two of the three days of the conference. There were presentations on the future of the medium, how to market them, how publishing is going to change because of them, what libraries are doing things now, and the challenges they present. Even so, I think a basic fundamental question was punted by the organizers and the participants (myself included). That question is this:

“Is an eBook a book?”

There is a significant problem when people who are employed in the publishing industry or the librarian profession (book experts, you might call both groups) cannot give the same answer as to whether an eBook is a book or not. There was even a presentation that started with a PowerPoint slide entitled “eBooks are not books”, then proceeded to use nearly the exact same book acquisition terms to describe the collection and management of eBooks. After making a starting claim that they are not the same and should be treated differently, the use of the same language felt like it controverted this point. Also, I don’t believe these differing viewpoints break down on publisher-librarian lines; each group has members that hold opposing viewpoints on this question. For myself, this is an example of the greater mounting confusion as to where eBooks fit in to the greater societal and cultural picture.

Seriously, this should be the only question being discussed at this time because it is the most fundamentally important one. How can the other questions as posed by the presentations mentioned above be answered if we (the book expert people of all stripes) cannot come to a united conclusion as to whether an eBook is actually a book or a computer file or something else. It must be settled because each possible answer takes us (publishers, libraries, authors, readers) down very different paths. Nevermind that there are inherent implications and associations that are held regarding books and computer files, many of which are not shared (no pun intended). This question absolutely needs to be resolved before we can truly move forward with eBooks.

For those who wish to hold the middle ground and declare that eBooks are both books and computer files, it is here that I feel that best comparison of such a belief resembles the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment. In declaring that it exists in both mediums simultaneously, it places the eBook in a virtual quantum state in which the observer determines what they want the eBook to based on the situation. Rather than relying on a random event as to whether the cat is alive or dead (as Schrödinger’s experiment stated)), the eBook either becomes a computer file or a book when it is convenient to do so.

When it comes to appealing to readers, publicity, and the sales pitch as to why to read a particular book, the eBook invokes all of the tried-and-true lines and clichés that invoke the way books make us feel and the thrill of the printed word. When it comes to ownership or reigning in sharing capabilities or other traditionally associated values of a book, it magically morphs into a computer file subject to the terms, limitations, and end user agreements that are pressed upon the buyer at the time of purchase. This slight of hand behavior suggests that an eBook is a book except when it isn’t; this is a poisonous paradox that will inhibit the future of this medium if it not resolved one way or another.

Personally, I believe eBooks are books in the same way that water is still water whether it is in a solid form (ice), liquid, or a gas (steam). The different phases of matter still have the same molecular structure; the conversion process does not change this fundamental core. Likewise, in converting the print to digital (or even audio for that matter), it does not subvert the fundamental nature of the literature and prose contained within the medium. In other words, the content of an eBook conforms with the expectations of literature, not computer science. Therefore, it is a book.

I concede that this is not a perfect reasoning nor that this conclusion is not open to some good counterarguments. However, I believe that in making this ultimate determination, it will assist in all decisions made downstream from it from how eBooks are handled, collected, and curated; security measures to promote acceptable forms of sharing while preventing unauthorized copying; and the establishment of clear rights to authors, publishers, libraries, and consumers. What counts is that a starting basis is established from which we as a literate and reading society can move forward.

So, how would you answer the question: is an eBook a book?

7 thoughts on “Schrödinger’s eBook

  1. Great post, Andy! Unfortunately I didn’t have the privilege of going to CIL and feel like I’ve totally missed out on some great discussions, but here’s my take:

    Most books these days never start out as a handwritten manuscript; they are nearly all done in word processing programs. I can’t be all-inclusive here because there are some authors who are still old-school enough to use pen & paper.

    With that knowledge of how books are created, can we really say that books are not eBooks? These electronically created works only become print books when the file is loaded into the computerized press for printing. So most books start life as DRM-free eBooks, and become restricted only after the publishing house gets their greedy fingers on their keyboards.

  2. I think you reasoning is pretty straight on.. right now anyway. In other words, as a general statement the content between ebook and print book versions of a title are pretty much the same, the textual information does not change between the two so that a John Grisham novel on the shelf at the library is the same word for word as the title on my Kindle.. but what happens when and if that starts to transition?

    For instance, with iBooks Author, books can be created which allow for the embedding or audio and video content into the book. Now, these books are “digital natives” and do not have a print counterpart, but will we not come to a time when published print novels will have ebook counterparts with such additional content. There are examples of this out there already. To take it a step further, there are apps for different mobile markets that are enhanced ebooks. Is something like that a “book”?

    Some print books have intertwined interactive content using links, QR codes, etc in their print versions, but what about when the ebook contains them directly and the print does not, is that the same? I am very interested in the future of books in particular their evolution and the blurring of lines from their traditional forms.

    However, as I said, I think right now I would agree with you that they are in essence the same, but for how long?

  3. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that an eBook is not a book. A book is a book. There’s a reason a scroll is called a scroll and not a book. A word file may contain text but that doesn’t make it a book. There’s a reason the electronic file I send to my publishers is called a manuscript and not a book. The argument that “the content is what makes a book a book” doesn’t hold water for me. By that logic, a haiku written on a piece of toilet paper is a book and I’ve yet to find anyone willing to agree with that.

    • I guess my question to you would be this: is there another better term to call them that would be less confusing? Or is this like soy milk (which does not come from the mammary gland)?

      Also, I think we (the book experts) can play the nuance game, but consumers don’t. They don’t get or don’t care about the nuance.

  4. CIL was good times and it is nice to see a gamer represent.

    I think most eBooks are simulations of books, in that they display the same content. I’d say “movie” for blue ray dvd’s and vhs. Even if there is more information about the movie and commentary and the like, the big show is the movie.

    Maybe I should say that it is what the author created for the intention of the story.

    This would be different if an author create a story and used media to tell the story, text would just be a part of the experience…at that point we may need a new term.

  5. Great post. I’m (supposed to be) graduating from a LIS program this summer, and have been witness to a lot of discussion on this issue. I come down on the same side as you, that an eBook is a book. Of course, questions of the container and format are relevant, but it’s especially important to give eBooks a designation, even if it is just positional for now.

    To the comments about both scrolls and the seemingly infinite electronic potential of eBooks, it’s good to keep in mind that the scroll *was* a book, in that it occupied a similar cultural role in the ancient world as the codex has done these past 500ish years. With its bound, numbered pages, the codex was actually the first “digital” text in the truest sense of the word – you use your fingers, or digits, to flip back and forth, to mark several places at once. It supports other reading styles than straightforward linear. The codex isn’t the last word on book formats – another reason the question “is an eBook a book?” demands an answer. Thanks for blogging, Andy.

  6. I keep thinking about the notions of affordances. An electronic file has different properties, allows different actions, *suggests* different actions, than a paper book. (Those of you who’ve read Design of Everyday Things can just fill that whole book in here; the rest of you, go read it, it’s amazing!) Our disagreements and confusions center on the conflict that sometimes arises between our expectations of the use cases and limitations of a “book” (drawn from our experience of paper) and the affordances of digital; the fact that the law itself has enshrined that paper experience, with its use cases and limitations and affordances, leads to further cognitive dissonance. (The digital affordance of copying vs. the difficulty of that with paper and the assumptions of copyright law being the obvious case.)

    I think it would be more accurate to say that, no, an ebook isn’t a book, but only if a paper book isn’t a book either; the central booklike thing they have in common is elaborated by different affordances in each case.

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