elf: Mozzie with Bonsai (Minimalistic)
elf ([personal profile] elf) wrote in [community profile] ebooks2011-09-10 02:25 pm

What's an ebook?

Ten years ago, when this question started going around and getting commercial attention, the answer was "it's a book you read on the computer." Followed by, "...or a special device made for reading books that you can read on a computer." Possibly rephrased a bit more formally, but the essential elements were: E + book, electronic book. Digital version of a book. Simple, right?

It was *relatively* simple when most people confined it to "digital versions of books that had been printed." The less-simple parts included formats and what's-really-a-book; Gutenberg started with a lot of txt files, which today is not considered an "ebook format," and it converts some things that were originally pamphlets or newsletters or magazines, not "books" as we normally think of "books."

Is a blog containing all the chapters of Tom Sawyer as separate posts, an "ebook?" Is a digital version of a fanzine an ebook? How about a comic book? Doujenshi?

But those, still, are simple questions. The core material was book-ish or at least paper-ish until a few years ago. We could argue whether a digital production of a Chick tract is an "ebook," in the same way we could argue that the original tract is, or is not, "really a book." While the various literary communities have never come to an accord on that, they've at least all reached an awareness of the question--someone has to define what printed material is "books" and what is not; any particular community or archive can set its own terms.

Then we got ebooks. And other e-texts. And blogs. And Lulu and Smashwords, and now the Kindle store and B&N's PubIt... and um. What makes a "book?"

Teleread's definition acknowledges If you’ve ever written a letter or a report on a word processor, then congratulations: you’ve created a very short e-book--which is so wide-open as to be useless. Which they acknowledge, and go on to point out that when people talk about "ebooks," they mean "books, you know, on a screen." Except that, several years ago, that meaning was more clear than it is now. What's a "book?"

It no longer means, "was published in paper." No longer means "over 35,000 words of content" or whatever various publishing houses set as their minimum for separate publications instead of inclusions in anthologies. No longer means "has the blessing of a mainstream publishing house;" while some individuals might hold out with the claim "self-published ebooks aren't real books," when mainstream publishers are vying for those authors' writing, prejudice against those works makes a lot less sense.

Smashwords has "ebooks" that are 1200 words long. A lot of my journal posts are longer than that. (I've considered polishing some of my meta posts & putting them together in an "ebook.") When single stories can be sold alone, what does that do to the concept of "book?"

Books have been, for the last several hundred years, of a length defined by printing realities. Too short, and the setup production costs were too much; you couldn't sell enough units to make it worthwhile. Too long, and you had the same problem in the other direction--and the additional issue that the hardware can't take it; paper books max out at around 1000 pages. (Don't shoot me for handwaving. Exceptions do exist.) Tolkien's epic story was split into three books despite being a single tale, in part because the publisher saw profit in that, and in part because printing it in a single volume would involve special technologies; glue-and-bind systems don't work well past a certain size.

Now we can sell books of 8,000 words, with the same setup costs as 80,000-word novels: almost nothing. Which leaves us in label limbo... is it reasonable for a short-story author to say, "I have 32 ebooks available at Amazon?" How do we acknowledge the difference between that and the novel-series author who says, "I have 5 ebooks available at Amazon?

Will authors start publishing small clusters of blog posts & story outline notes as ebooks, either for free or $.99 each, just to have more books available to drive up name recognition? Would it be unethical to do so?

I don't have any answers; I'm just pondering how the concept of "book" is changing with the removal of the page counts.
jumpuphigh: Dreamsheep in front of bookshelf with text "Books make everything better" (Booksheep)

[personal profile] jumpuphigh 2011-09-10 11:35 pm (UTC)(link)
This is something that I've been pondering. I say, "I have $number of books" on my ereader and "I have $number more saved on my computer" but what I really mean is I have that number of files which are on or available to be sideloaded to my ereader. That does include the magazine article on HP fanfic that I still haven't read. That includes the stories from AO3 that are 8,000 words. (I rarely download from AO3 if stories are 6k words or less. Those, I just read on my laptop screen.) It includes a free short stories that I've downloaded for free from elsewhere - although I tend to not read original short stories unless they are part of a larger universe that I'm already reading in. That includes a few tech manuals and a privacy policy/ToS from a website that I'm thinking of using but need to read before I'm willing to commit any personal data to the site for sharing or storage. So what I really should say is, "I have $number of ebooks on my ereader and $number of other files which aren't books as well." However, I'm rarely precise. If I start thinking about it too hard, I just say, "I have about $number of ebooks" and let that be that.
moizissimo: dammit, jim! (Default)

[personal profile] moizissimo 2011-09-11 12:18 am (UTC)(link)
As a reader, when I purchase a digital collection of words to read, I look at number of words compared to cost, and my history of liking the author or genre.

If someone said to me, "I have 32 ebooks available!" and I find out they're 1200 words each, I'd be miffed. Those aren't "books". A book takes me more than an hour to read. (Maybe, "I have 32 short stories available in ebook form!" IDK. I think I'm just being grouchy. Darn kids get off my lawn, etc.)
moizissimo: dammit, jim! (Default)

[personal profile] moizissimo 2011-09-11 05:42 pm (UTC)(link)
I think that "ebook" is different from "book", and that's ok. :) I also think it would be super cool if the NYT Ebook list dealt with every ebook, but I'm not sure that will happen. Well, at least not right away.

Still. As a reader, I will always define "book-length" as "something that takes more than an hour to read" unless said item is a journal article, in which case I will call it a journal article. :D
yourlibrarian: LibraryGeek-eyesthatslay (BUF-LibraryGeek-eyesthatslay)

[personal profile] yourlibrarian 2011-09-11 07:05 pm (UTC)(link)
It's an interesting question, though to me more a matter of distinguishing between "document" and "book" than print vs. electronic. For example, libraries have often discussed their collections in terms of "books" by eliding the book/document issue and simply citing however many catalog items they have. Thus libraries with Gov Docs holdings often had huge collections that were made up in large part of microfiche and single page items.

I think a lot of it also goes to the purpose of the content. Is it a story? Is it meant to be directly informational (most pamphlets, for example)? Is it a research study or journalism?

Will authors start publishing small clusters of blog posts & story outline notes as ebooks, either for free or $.99 each, just to have more books available to drive up name recognition? Would it be unethical to do so?

They may not have been assembling them as eBooks but a lot of bloggers have been reprinting their blog contents for some time now. And a lot of journalists and/or foundations are moving to publish, as "eBooks" expanded articles or a collection of articles. So I'd say this is already underway.

I would say that the term "digital download" is the best term for all the content that is designed through format or access to be read as a standalone item, and perhaps on a standalone device. For example, while I have some long meta posts too, I never designed them to be a particular type of reading experience. In fact, I think a lot of people have become writers or have written more because the online format has always seemed more ephemeral and thus more liberating because it doesn't generally demand the same careful attention to detail that used to be the province of officially published material. But lately even people who write comments online have gotten writing gigs from their efforts so you're certainly right that a lot of lines are blurring.
yourlibrarian: SynnergyBangel-the_baroness (BUF-SynnergyBangel-the_baroness)

[personal profile] yourlibrarian 2011-09-14 07:20 pm (UTC)(link)
I think your omnibus provides a good clue though. If there is a common theme or something to tie items together then there's no reason the collection couldn't be considered a single book (especially if short). On the other hand all books by an author even in a single file would still be considered a series. And magazines or similar timed publications are still serials no matter how short or long.

Interesting comment about how digital formats figure into it, and I completely agree about the need to realize what the industry is actually based on.