Electronic Books and the
Future of Publishing

Electronic books are a revolution in progress; and they are not revolutionary at all. They are wolves at the doors of hardcopy print publishers — and they are not. They are new this year — and they are old. They will restore to us the wisdom locked uselessly in libraries; and they will just sit there. We will carry them to the beach, or they will stay locked in our cabinets. And they are intensely interesting. Or they are sublimely boring.

So. What are these things that are all things to all people? Or, that are not?

Electronic books are a tool for reading. They're a way to present information to us, in a usable and transportable form. Printed books are the same.

Electronic books are dynamic. They are a package that contains changeable information. They can be updated. Their text can be replaced with new text.

We begin to see a difference. I've got a copy of Anthony Wood's autobiography that I've scribbled in and garlanded with Post-It notes. This is an interactive book. I have a notebook with loose-leaf pages; there are printed titles and calendars, and lots of blank lines that I fill up with things I intend to do. This is another interactive book. I've got an electronic version of some text from the Wood book, with more appended notes. This is an interactive book. It's an electronic book, because it lives in electron space, just as my printed books live in paper space.

Who cares about these distinctions?

My books are important to me because they have what I want. It is less important to me that they are electronic in nature, or that they are printed on paper (or mylar or sheets of gold) than that they contain the information and that I can retrieve it.

Understanding Books

What is a book? Is it the information contained inside it? Is it the text that contains that information? Is it the package that contains that text? Is there some pattern here? Hierarchical, perhaps? Level? Or is the structure not important; are the contents the only things that matter?

Before you can talk about books by kind, you have to think about what constitutes a book. I've thought up a kind of taxonomy of books (print and electronic and whatever) as an exercise in clarifying my thinking. From this taxonomy (or from your own head) you'll consider books as hardware; books as software; and books in terms of their design. I haven't finished it (if it ever can be finished), so not everything in this paragraph connects to a real place yet. Just like the real world.

Is it true that the past is prologue? Can we recapture it? What will happen to our common cultural inheritance? Is there a future for the written (non-media-specific) word? Will we still be human when we have transcended books, and experience information directly?

There's more to this than meets the eye.

Michael Ward
12 May 2000 / 14 September 2000