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?