3 The multi-flavoured e-book pie

What is a book?

To give a relatively simple and direct answer a book is “a volume of text, printed on fifty or more pages, bound between stiff covers, with certain generic features including a title page, contents, the sectioning of text around chapters, and the like.” In this definition, the printed book in itself is a technology, a means for rendering extended passages of text and images. It is the peculiar generic features of a book that make it immediately distinguishable from other renderings of text and images.

With technological developments since the beginning of the 1990s, this definition of a book has been questioned. Some predict that the traditional form and function of books will be replaced by the internet and various electronic reading devices, and the internet does have a number of distinct advantages over traditional books:

  • All its available information is instantaneously available;
  • It is more (hugely) expansive than any library or bookstore;
  • It is mostly free; and
  • It does not involve chopping down trees.

Alternatively, the view is that books are now everywhere. More books are being produced than ever before – people may be reading more text and images delivered through the internet, but at the same time, more books are being printed. Not only is the total number of volumes of conventionally printed books on the increase, digital printing technologies mean that many texts that could not have been viably produced, can now become a printed book.

The book’s textual forms and communicative apparatuses are to be found throughout the new electronic formats. Computer renditions of text and images are looking more and more like books. Books and book-like products are to be found in places where they were rarely found before. Content is being developed and designed for multiple renderings, to suit a diverse range of market and cultural needs.

(Cope & Phillips, 2006:4-6)

So how can we define a book now?

Before the distinction between content and its physical manifestation was so clear, publishers seemed to be selling products – books. The old definition focused on an object – a new one needs to focus on a function. A book is no longer a physical thing. A book is what a book does. A book is a structured rendition of text and possibly also images, which: (a) has a characteristic textual and communicative structure; and (b) has book-like functions because it is defined, registered and recognised as a book.

Books are recognised by the official allocation of an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) under which they are registered. By equivalent emerging forms of definition (i.e. electronic formats), registration should be done within the Digital Object Identifier (DOI) framework.

(Kasdorf, 2003:19, 27; Cope & Phillips, 2006:6)

Unlike the traditional definition, a e-book does not have to be printed – it can be rendered in many ways, including electronic-visual and audio (talking books). A book is not a thing, but a textual form and a way of communicating – an information architecture.

(Cope & Phillips, 2006:7)

An e-book can be defined as a ‘text analogous to a book that is in a digital form to be displayed on a computer screen.’ It is thus an electronic (or digital) equivalent of a conventional printed book. The term has occasionally been used ambiguously to refer to either an individual work in a digital format, or a hardware device used to read digital books (e-book readers). E-books are an emerging and rapidly changing technology that can branch to include other formats, such as digital books designed to be listened to as audio books, or a CD-ROM of an encyclopaedia can also be seen as an electronic book.

(Cox & Mohammed, 2001:1)

E-books as a format

One should take the time to consider the physical problem of transitioning to electronic texts. A book is an easy piece of technology. You buy it, you open it, you read it. A digital book requires signing up to a vendor, exposing yourself to invasive marketing, selecting the right version, downloading the software, waiting for the device to arrive, registering on the device and finally enjoying a representation of the printed product you intended.

Therefore an e-book must have a very clear advantage to justify what can be a difficult purchasing and consumption experience. When done well, the e-book will perfectly fit the needed form. This has happened in fiction. Prose works well on a dedicated e-reader because it is physically more comfortable. An interactive children’s title on an iPad however, doesn’t necessarily feel like a book. It’s a different form of interaction. As some would say, interactive media are demanding on the reader.

Content culture

Publishers are now largely in the business of content. That is to say, that one no longer needs to commission a whole book necessarily. One can commission an essay here, a set of exercises there, a graph…. Existing in a global multimedia environment means that content should be adaptable for the intended purpose.

Educational publishers rather than commissioning whole titles, are focussing on themes and question banks, which may be catalogued in a content management system. This allows schools to subscribe to test databases, or for the publisher to create a book based on physical parameters, such as budget and page extent. Books like these can be seen as collections of content, which may be recycled for future products.

Trade publishers can make anthologies viable by producing them as digital only collections, or use short content for marketing, or making up open pages in book. Material is stored for re-publication when required. This also allows for other business practices such as syndication.

What is the point of e-books?

The printed book is a mature technology – it is familiar, portable and without realising it, most of us have spent a lot of time mastering how to use books effectively. So why should we bother with e-books?

Some of e-books’ advantages and functions (and thus the point of its development) include:

  • Portability: a large number of electronic titles can be carried around at once – from a library perspective this saves a lot of shelf space; e-books can be also be synchronised across multiple readers, meaning that you can start reading on your PC, and when when open the book on you e-reading device, you can carry on from the same page.
  • Instant access: the acquisition of e-books is a lot quicker than traditional library acquisitions / online shops are open 24 hours a day;
  • Accessibility: e-books can support various extra functions including the resizing of text as well as text-to-speech, which makes them more accessible to the visually impaired – i.e. better access for users that were excluded from printed books;
  • Searchability: it is very effective to search the full-text publication;
  • Annotation: you can make large annotations on an e-book and extract them later, without detracting form the book’s value;
  • Linking: you can highlight words and jump directly to dictionary definitions; it is possibly make rich use of cross referencing without having to change books.
  • Multimedia possibilities: adding enhancements such as animations, video and sound;
  • Breaking down barriers: some groups of readers might have different or more open attitudes towards books on a computer than they do towards printed ones; in fact, the Kindletm is popular among readers who are over 50 years old, who find it places less strain on arthritic joints (Benton 2009)
  • Environmental issues: the electronic make-up of texts saves on material and environmental costs of printing on paper, [but adds new costs with the use of petrochemicals in plastics and in the mining of materials for electronic components (such as batteries and capacitors)] ; and
  • Self-publishing: it is now easier for authors to publish directly .

(Cox & Mohammed, 2001:1-2 [adapted 2012])

The problems with e-books

Some of the problems which are currently experienced with e-books include:

  • Expense: dedicated e-readers are still expensive, and only a worthwhile investment for the dedicated reader;
  • Technological change: there is a risk of buying soon-to-be-defunct technologies (this is where the format issues come into play);
  • Limited availability of titles: not all titles are available electronically, nor is it possible to make them. Large format coffee table books, for example, rely on their physical form (consisting of glossy paper and rich inks) to be enjoyed;
  • Compatibility: there is not always compatibility across the different hardware/software;
  • Licensing: vendors do not always have suitable licences for distribution of texts;
  • Printing: you may not always be able to print the text from the reader or software;
  • Limited rights: rights of resale are very different from when a physical book is purchased (licences versus sales); and
  • Preservation issues: issues are raised we when get into long-term publishing of e-books – how will these texts be archived? How will it affect legal deposits?

(Cox & Mohammed, 2001:2-3 [adapted 2012])

A comparison with printed books

Advantages compared to print Disadvantages compared to print
  • The text can be searched, except when represented in the form of images.
  • It takes up little space – hundreds or thousands may be carried together on one device.
  • E-books can be offered indefinitely, with no out-of-print-date, allowing authors to continue to earn royalties indefinitely (copyright law permitting), and allowing readers to find older works by favourite authors.
  • The type size and typeface may be adjusted to suit the reader’s preferences.
  • Text-to-speech software can be implemented.
  • Texts can be formatted for independent platforms (XML formats).
  • Texts can be distributed at low costs.
  • Errors can easily be corrected.
  • E-books can by an easier investment for independent publishing houses, which can mean greater editorial and authorial freedom and more room for experimentation.
  • It is an inexpensive format for works that require colour.
  • E-books are an excellent format for works that benefit from search and cross-reference capabilities, such as dictionaries, reference works and certain kinds of textbooks.
  • Economically and environmentally viable by cutting down on paper, lumber and ink production.
Disadvantages from the user’s point of view:

  • Some files can be incompatible with new or replacement hardware or software.
  • The handling and storage of the files requires care in order to avoid damage or loss.
  • Printing is restricted in some cases.
  • Reading devices are relatively expensive and can be damaged like any other electronic device.
  • Batteries can run out – books do not require batteries.
  • E-books’ are not always cheaper.
  • Books with a high degree of multimedia can often be several hundred megabytes, making it a chore to download with a slower connection.

Disadvantages from the publisher/author’s point of view:

  • In some cases files can be hacked, or disseminated without approval from the author or publisher (some formats are more susceptible to this than others).
  • E-books are not normally a good format choice for works that have extensive and/or large illustrations (works such as art history, photography, large maps, etc.).
  • Depending on the distribution channels, the audience for e-books can be limited by device choice, or vendor.


Textbooks as candidates for e-books

Textbooks seem to be very good candidates for e-books. Textbooks can be extremely expensive to produce and there is usually rather intense competition between major publishers of school and tertiary textbooks. They often require lavish use of colour, elaborate layouts, and many ancillary materials for students and teachers. They are usually big books of many hundreds of pages long, and are printed in very large quantities (especially school books) – making manufacturing, warehousing and distribution a challenge.

(Kasdorf, 2003:11-12)

Despite the fact that it is a long-term team effort to get most textbooks to market, the market is very seasonal and driven by critical dates (e.g., school books are subject to submission deadlines); being available at the right time in the right quantities can make or break a textbook’s success. Electronic publishing addresses a lot of these issues. Colour does not cost extra in the electronic world. Size does not matter as much and the ‘manufacturing’ (printing) cost of an electronic book does not increase as the length of the book does.

Furthermore, an e-book can be searched electronically (for more effective study), linked to outside sources (broadening their scope) and can be supplemented by multimedia content. They require no physical inventory, carry no risk of making more copies than will be sold, have minimal storage and distribution costs, and they can be delivered instantly to the end-user.

Electronic book can also be issued in versions for people with various forms of disabilities. Most importantly, however, they can be updated and customised relatively easy. But now a question is: does everybody have equal access to technologies in order to benefit from the publication of electronic texts?

(Kasdorf, 2003:12)

So why have textbooks not yet taken off electronically?

Textbook publishing involves a large number of people working over a long span of time and requires major investment. This is true not only for the publisher itself but also for a host of suppliers and partners involved in developing, editing, producing, manufacturing, marketing, and distributing textbooks. In this environment, electronic publishing is a disruptive technology. The participants in the process have well-established infrastructures, staffs and workflows. To tackle the heavy pace and deadlines of this type of publishing requires a comprehensive overhaul of the established practices.

With the huge investments involved in textbooks, their publishers are rightfully cautious about releasing them in a form that might easily be copied and pirated or given away.

(Kasdorf, 2003:12-13)

What’s more is that textbooks have an economic component attached to them. The re-selling of textbooks is a miniature industry itself and helps to reduce the costs of material over all. This is increasingly difficult in the electronic world as it is still uncertain when one purchases an electronic book as to whether they own it, or merely purchase the license to use it. What’s more is the investment in technology that students need to undertake as the electronic medium needs to tackle the portability on print textbooks.

Was 2012 the year of the e-textbook?

Many thought 2012 would be a major turning point for education publishing, but this never materialised. According to a study by the Book Industry Survey Group (BISG), only 6% of students made use of the core e-textbook when it was available. The same number as in 2011. What’s more, tablet computing is increasing, but the same study showed that less than 5% use the device primarily for studying. This begs the question of whether or not too much hope is being placed on tablet computing. Despite it’s potential, it is a device category more suited towards leisure than serious productivity at the moment.

Inspite of this though ZA Books was launched on 6 February 2013 to provide books for school children on the iPad. Interestingly though, they don’t solely provide textbooks, but leisure books and titles of interest for the market including much local non-fiction. ZA Books is a joint effort between local publishers. (See the Times Live article)

E-textbooks have been in the works for some time. In terms of content and structure they are well suited to digital production because they:

  • Often have multiple authors
  • Employ a variety of text and illustrations
  • Require reader interaction (questions)
  • Are structured into stand-alone logical chapters

However, modern textbooks are designed with a young reader in mind, and are intended to be attention grabbing and easily navigable. Furthermore, Apple has released the iBooks Author, designed not only as a authoring tool, but as a desktop publishing tool specifically suited towards creating interactive textbooks though in their own proprietary .ibooks format, and therefore requiring you to use their device.

The biggest problem here though is that it relies on school learners having an iPad. The proprietary format sees to that, and the high cost of tablet devices makes it difficult for the majority of learners to afford. What’s more, it is a custom version of ePub 3, meaning that Apple has created their own functions and descriptors that will only work in iBooks. The result is that the current standard cannot keep up with the platform, and the IDPF will have to continue to improve the ePub specification to match Apples quality and create viable e-textbooks which are more compatible with competing systems.

The textbook is well suited to digital form, but a publisher must carefully consider how students will access those books. A promising feature is to do so via the web, as cloud stored files or through services such as NookStudy, Inkling, or Safari. This allows ubiquitous access, so long as the student has access to a web-enabled device, with the necessary software.

Custom publishing

One area where textbook publishers have pioneered, however, is in the creation of custom versions. This originated with the practice of lecturers providing photocopies of book chapters, journal articles, notes, and other resources for their courses. These ‘coursepacks’ are usually produced by local copy shops. Consequently, some have done this responsibly, requesting and paying for permission from the original publishers to reproduce the various components. But others have not – leading to key rights-battles in the industry.

(Kasdorf, 2003:13)

Lecturers want to shape their courses to their own visions, and thus do not always want to use a textbook in its entirety or in exactly the sequence the publisher intended. In many cases they supplement the textbook with other relevant readings.

Many of the major textbook publishers have a great wealth of material from which to draw – which enables them to produce custom textbooks tailored to individual courses. Custom textbooks are often referred to as ‘course packs’, and when done well a single title can be made up out of other books, without obvious discontinuity.


(Kasdorf, 2003:14)


A increasing occurrence is the increase in self-publishing. Fueled by paid and unpaid firms, and a host of DIY tools, it has now become easier than ever to publish your own work. Authors can become responsible for all publishing processes, taking responsibility for editorial, production, marketing and distribution, and in doing so have control of their own royalties.

One remarkable trend in this field, is that self-publishing authors have become their own filtration system. That is to say that the “slush pile” has now become a living fluid thing. Self-publishing authors compete against each other through their own unique channels, and those that are successful are often later picked up by publishers. Reducing the initial risk involved in dealing with a new author.

For examples: see the stories of Amanda Hocking or Michael Prescott.

You will be exposed to some of these methods in theme 2 .



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