Book Apps: Why are we still calling them books?

I don’t know about you, but when I hear “e-book” I automatically think of something that can be read on a Kindle or Nook (or on one of their associated iPad apps). Basically, text that was written for a print medium and slapped into a digital format. Yeh, they’re convenient (I can download one in minutes), they’re cheaper (though only marginally), and they’re more easily accessible (who wants to carry around 50 lbs of books?)… but they aren’t exactly innovative.

In 2010, Ideo put forth their ideas for the future of the book, proposing designs for 3 different types of ereaders that seemed to focus on three user groups: pleasure readers, business professionals, and academics. I’ve posted this video before, but I think it’s worth reposting:

As far as I know, Ideo never planned to produce a prototype of these models–they just wanted to see what they could come up with.

A year later, in 2010, there seemed to be some promising advances in ebook design with Al Gore’s Our Choice. (There’s a pretty cool TED talk video on it featuring one of the book’s developers, Mark Matas ). Our Choice was the first full-length interactive book apps of its kind, incorporating pictures, videos, audio, maps, and infographics in with the text.  And from a design perspective, I actually think it was beautifully laid-out and fairly intuitive to use.

And, of course, companies like Kno, Inkling, and CourseSmart have come out with e-textbooks that have interactive content and features that are supposed to encourage engagement with course materials.

More recently (as in just a couple weeks ago), ran an article titled “Are Apps the Future of Book Publishing?” The article reviewed several different book apps.  Authors and app developers are playing with some pretty cool ideas, such as:

  • extra features, like original manuscript pages and video clips of the author
  • interactivity, where the reader actually helps drive the story along
  • “soundtracks” that play throughout certain parts of a story

Although none of the books mentioned in the Forbes article are exactly like the models proposed by Ideo, they’re getting closer. And in doing so, they’re moving further and further away from a “book.”

This makes me happy. Very happy. I’ve written before about how the codex book is an inadequate metaphor for an e-text interface. And I’ve commented on how e-books (like those formatted for a Kindle) are spatially disorienting. The format of the traditional book just doesn’t work in a digital medium. Why must we work so hard to re-create a “page-turning” experience?  Maybe now that publishers are exploring the possibilities of creating individual apps, we can break out of that codex mold.

So when do we stop calling it a book?

O.E.D. defines “book” as, “a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers.” Last I checked, there is no print, pages, glue, stitching, binding, or cover on an “e-book!”

What should we call it instead of an e-book? Okay, you’ve got me there. (Give me a break–I don’t have my PhD yet.) But please, can’t we lay that God-awful term to rest?


9 thoughts on “Book Apps: Why are we still calling them books?

  1. Hi Laurissa,

    I stumbled upon your blog from Mark Guzdial’s ComputingEd, and it’s awesome! Thanks for writing it! I only found it yesterday, so I haven’t caught up with all the posts yet (though it kept me up rather late last night), but I’m looking forward to reading through it more thoroughly.

    I really enjoy your thoughts on e-texts and education. I’ve been working on a prototype interactive “e-textbook” for CS2 (when you figure out what we should call them, please let me know), and I’d love to hear what you think about it. I’m trying to address some of the issues you bring up here and in About Face Part 2: how can we create a learning experience that uses the tablet medium more fully and increases the effectiveness of out-of-class learning time through interactivity? It’s not polished yet, but I intend to try it with the summer semester of CS2 at University of Illinois (starting in a week).

    Well, I could talk about it for a long time, but I’d rather send you a copy and hear what your impressions are, if you’re interested.

    And thanks again for your blog!

    • Thank you for stopping by to check things out and say hello, Jack. So glad to hear you’ve enjoyed the blog. It’s mostly just me thinking “out loud” and trying to untangle the mess of information in my brain. If you have any thoughts, feel free to chime in! I gladly welcome input from the CS side of the playground.

      I’d love to see what you’re working on for CS2–sounds really exciting. I think there are a lot of possibilities to do some really amazing things with digital texts (nope, still haven’t figured out a good name yet!) to enhance learning. I haven’t even thought about how you could use them for a CS class, so I’m definitely intrigued. Shoot me an email anytime:

      • Thanks! Your thinking out loud is more compelling than a lot of deliberate writing.

        I sent you a copy by email :). Most of my thinking about education is centered around teaching Computer Science, since I majored in CS and only discovered how much I enjoy teaching after becoming a course assistant.

  2. I don’t have the actual OED in front of me, but the definition you cite is listed in Google and the secondary definition is: 2. A literary composition that is published or intended for publication as such a work.
    This defines the “book” as a conceptual work and does not limit the format of the book to a bound physical object. I have very little experience with interactive book apps, so perhaps the app itself is ultimately what you are referring to in your post, but I disagree with your premise that a book can’t be digital in form.

  3. Hi Laurissa Greetings from Melbourne. Thanks for a great post on “ebooks”. It’s astounding how fast things are moving. My interest is in video and video blogging. I had an ebook developing in my head but your post has me heading back to the drawing board. Thanks!! I’ll take a look at your other posts in the coming days.

  4. Pingback: Saturday Fiction Writing And Indie Publishing Round Up #10 |

  5. I am going to say that physical books will be getting the new definition applied to them and may turn into a backward definition at some point. Like ebooks or digital books will just be called “books” in the next couple years and physical books will become “physical books” to distinguish them.

    Similar to the way “hardcover books” books were just called “books” until the advent of the paperback in the 30s. No one said “hardcover books” before then, because books only came in one format. They only became “hardcover” after the paperback was invented and became more prevalent as a way to distinguish them.

  6. I would also comment that “page turning” is somewhat valuable as that is what the reader is used to. There are dozens of examples of “legacy” movements or sounds that are applied to digital versions of things, but that are actually totally unnecessary. The most common example would be the “click” noise of a shutter on digital cameras. Utterly unnecessary but people expect it so manufacturers keep it there.

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