Why does an ebook have to be a book anyway?

Great author/editor collaboration, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Who would Eliot have trusted as a digital collaborator had be forseen his legacy? (pic courtesy of www.wrensnest.org)

Great author/editor collaboration, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Who would Eliot have trusted as a digital collaborator had be forseen his legacy? (pic courtesy of http://www.wrensnest.org)

The whole enhanced ebook issue is on my mind. Neil Leyden from the IDSC suggested some time ago that the ebook hasn’t gone far enough regarding interactivity and that the publishers could be arm-twisted to do more. But I always get a bit uneasy when publishers are named as the baddies when it comes to the perceived digital shortfall in this area. Surely the rest of the industry, not least the retailers and distributers, have yet to agree on what the epub3 standard actually is?

What about the writers? What are they doing about their workflow to include digital concepts when pitching manuscript to agents and publishers? Or maybe it doesn’t matter for now? It seems the jury is still out among book people regarding how much enhancement text-centric trade titles (fiction, non-fiction, memoir, etc) need. Now there’s even talk of a ‘lite’ version of epub3 that scales back the dimensions of interactivity as if the magnitude of the digital epic is starting to resonate? But my hope is that digital in its full glory will become the norm or at least an option (Amazon’s MatchBook gives a nod here to help print readers make the shift). If publishers are arm-tied with the technology and resources then maybe writers could future-proof their own content, if only in concept, to cater for an e-readership that that will make the shift in time to the enhanced experience? Shouldn’t a writer’s digital outlook be as important a decision to them as the ending of their story, the voice of their narrator or even the genre they are writing for? I mean, what if T.S. Eliot, who credited his editor Ezra Pound as ‘Il miglior fabbro’ (the better craftsman) hated what Faber did with ‘The Wasteland’ app? I’m sure he would have loved the app as most of us do, but at the same time Eliot seems to be the type who’d have chosen his craftsman as wisely when it came to digital as he did for print.

Orhan Pamuk’s 2008 ‘Museum of Innocence’ displays an enhanced sensibility in the form of his actual Museum in Istanbul where the narrator’s nutty passions take on an authentic quality (pic courtesy of ethnotraveler.com)

Orhan Pamuk’s 2008 ‘Museum of Innocence’ displays an enhanced sensibility in the form of his actual Museum in Istanbul where the narrator’s nutty passions take on an authentic quality (pic courtesy of ethnotraveler.com)

Isn’t enhanced digital a load more work for everyone? Yes. But potentially more market too if content can reach bigger audiences given that fused media is becoming more democratic these days than straightforward text. If I were an enhanced ebook publisher with a load of money (the tools may well be democratized but the money to pay for these tools and the resources to put them into production, for the most part, is not) I’d try to make every ebook have something in it to grab the most reluctant reader and non-reader too be it via film, animation, gaming, music, social networking etc so that the story could be enjoyed on expanded levels. But commissioning editors still have traditional workflows, they are not digital commissioning editors yet, a job that should require  technical, creative, editorial and producing skills and who knows what else. Actually, it’s a job that doesn’t exist fully yet. Writers are supposedly creative thinkers. Can’t they push the agenda? Look at Melissa Diem’s ‘The One About The Bird’. Diem’s poetry film may well be a literary shot in the vein but equally non-readers are not excluded, may even be encouraged to stray into a territory readership-wise they may never have discovered if it wasn’t for digital. Some writers are naturally geared for enhanced ebook. There’s much you could do with Kevin Barry’s ‘City of Bohane’, for example and Barry’s own reading skills (he performs like a pro) would be an asset. Or take Orhan Pamuk’s eerie self-referential work of obsession ‘The Museum of Innocence’ published in 2008. If the book had been published now or any time soon the actual museum Pamuk created in Istanbul with his prize money might have been an enhanced ebook (or similar) that displayed his narrator Kemal’s nutty passions globally so that anyone could stare at one of Fusun’s lipstick coated cig butts for hours if that’s what they wanted to do (I hear the enhanced ebook will be made eventually).

All this enhancement! A book doing it all for you? For shame! Isn’t that for lazy people who can’t read anymore? If there was truth in that, so what? True book lovers are not book snobs, nor should writers or publishers be. If that’s what readers are becoming, fine, or more to the point, if enhanced products will encourage lapsed readers and non-readers to love what used to be books? Fine.

Some writers are naturally geared for enhanced ebook, Kevin Barry’s ‘City of Bohane’ would make great ebooking

Some writers are naturally geared for enhanced ebook, Kevin Barry’s ‘City of Bohane’ would make great ebooking

The tactile is important to me, I adore the smell of ink,  I’d sit for hours with a print book and never leave the house but in another mood I’d watch/listen to Melissa Diem reading her work and feel the text just as much. It’s a different kind of tactile. It’s about choice and informality. It’s about leisure time and how you want to spend it. It’s about loving content as opposed to loving ‘the book’ and unless writers are just writing for themselves (which many do) then maybe they could add another turn to their already twisted arms and carve the industry out a bit here. Think of the alternative? Some well-meaning but completely misguided digi-editor miscalculating your characters’ assets in the future? Surely Pamuk, for example, can be the only true authority on the woman who flipped his narrator Kemal’s heart into obsession? Things like…what  would she actually sound like… or what her theme tune would be…or if she had a blog what on earth would she blog about?

[And the disclaimer; without prejudice, all views my own!]

8 thoughts on “Why does an ebook have to be a book anyway?

  1. Fascinating post Jen, as always.

    I suppose in some ways we’re in a period similar to that experienced towards the end of the 19th Century. New technologies (recording sound and pictures) can now redefine how we tell stories and the concern is how the traditional mediums will adapt, or even survive in their current form. I mean stories in the broadest sense, from definitive, direct narratives to the more sensual sharing of experiences. Only time will tell and no doubt we will follow many blind alleys along the way (the steam-powered car for example)

    Very few will have the complete skill set to fully embrace the new technologies so storytelling in the form of a novel could become more of a collaborative process, similar to film maybe but I suppose the basis of everything will have to remain the storyteller and their story, thankfully nothing has managed to replicate that

  2. Hi Jen, MatchBook looks interesting but with all of these ideas I do think it’s a little too early to really say what is good for the writer and/or reader and what is just a ploy to get more of the market. The idea of bundling both print and e content is interesting, I have seen it advertised on some DVDs, you buy the disc and can then download the movie onto a tablet or laptop. Ideally this saves the dilemma of what format you buy, as long as people don’t feel they’re paying twice for the one item.

    I could see a situation in the future where you could buy a book in hardback and the purchase cost would include the e version, that way you could keep the nicer hardback at home and use an ereader while travelling to work or on holidays. I’ve seen a huge increase in nicer ‘gift book’ versions of classics on sale in bookshops, obviously to capture the traditional book buyer with not only the content but also the beautiful object of the physical book. The same thing is happening in the world of music, online downloads are slaughtering the CD sales but vinyl is having a huge increase, the physical experience and the tactile pleasure of the object having a value in addition to the value of the content alone.

    The augmented experience you were describing is another avenue that hasn’t really been explored yet. The Wasteland App is one exception but I also remember a CD-ROM from a long time ago based on the works of Kerouac, maps, pictures and music augmenting the text. I think the real challenge will come with someone releasing a completely new piece of work in this format rather than rely on an existing classic, not that could be very interesting.

    Apart from all this guff hope you’re keeping well and I definitely think a get-together is in order.

  3. Well, I agree about the bundling of e and print together. And I love the step up in production standards for print, as you say, such beautiful gift books out there. Just one teeeny tiny moral dilemma about MatchBook, what about all those book pressies you bought in the past for friends/family? Do you pass the discounted (free?) ebook to them…or keep it for yourself? Hmmm.

    • Ha! Well I think that would be a matter for your own moral compass. I suppose the same would apply if you avail of a buy one get one free offer anywhere else. My own guess might be to say nothing unless specifically asked and practice your innocent look!

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