What We Really Talk About When We Talk About E-Books

This post was inspired by a few of the recent complaints posted to TeleRead about e-publishing standards, and by some of the other more Luddite anti-e-book comments that have appeared here and elsewhere online.


I think it’s worth reminding both e-book-pros and the anti-e-book contingent that in fact all books have been e-books from the word go, for many years now. What I mean is that almost all new publications since the mid-1980s have been laid out in software and digitized in at least some stage of their life cycle from manuscript to print.

There seems to be a myth among some anti-e-book diehards that somewhere in the publishing world there is still a loving process of manual typesetting and handcrafted design going on, to produce real solid physical books. Well, as a longtime editor for print, let me remind you that it just isn’t so. Perhaps at the most arcane end of the artist’s book world this may still survive, but everywhere else, what you are looking at when you open any page printed in the past two decades is digital text that has been transcribed back into physical print for distribution to you.

Manuscript gets digitized if it isn’t already. Then, it’s edited in Microsoft Word or other packages; poured into page layout software; designed onscreen and then set on film, to be printed often half a world away for cost reasons.

Anyone in publishing will be familiar with the term “camera-ready copy” for print which is ready to go to press. Well, if this is all about cameras, where on earth does the old-style Caxton approach come in? All that has happened with the e-book revolution is that display technology and distribution mechanisms have finally caught up with the underlying products.

PageMaker debuted in 1985, and incidentally, gave Apple its first big push for wide adoption of the Macintosh (no relation, by the way). If books really couldn’t be read or distributed on electronic media, like, say, food, there wouldn’t be an e-book revolution. There is, because they have been e-books for years, but thanks to Amazon and the iPad, we have just woken up to that fact. And publishers who claim to defend the special qualities of print are engaging in special pleading, and perpetuating a myth that they know bears no relation to their own actual business.

Please note: I’m not saying this to devalue the words themselves. Just to try to get a little more clarity and honesty about what we’re really talking about as the medium in which we read them.

Paul St John MackintoshAbout the Author:

Paul St John Mackintosh is a writer, journalist and former book editor, with two books of poetry in print (neither of them e-books just yet, alas). Mackintosh is based in both Central Europe and Asia, and he blogs at paulstjohnmackintosh.com.




  1. Print production moved to photo setting in the 60’s and digital prepress in the 80’s when digital electronic printing presses began to replace off-set. e-books and their associated devices were later. You could say that e-books are post-prepress versions of print books. In any case they are by products of the digital conversion of paper book production. (not the other way around)

  2. “All that has happened with the e-book revolution is that display technology and distribution mechanisms have finally caught up with the underlying products.”

    Well, yes and no. E-book formats like ePub produce an essentially different experience from print publishing, because of the flowability of text, changeableness in layout, and scaleability of fonts. This isn’t necessarily a worse reading experience, especially for those of us with poor reading vision, but ePub and many other e-book formats do create some design headaches that print designers don’t have to deal with, especially for books – such as children’s picture books – where the exact layout makes a big difference.

    Other than that, of course you’re right. I’m not sure when the big presses switched over to digitization, but my parents had a small typesetting business from 1974 onwards that used a photo typesetter. (My mother, who did the typesetting, must have used an earlier model of typesetter before 1977, but the one I linked to is the typesetter she eventually used. The thing was about the size of an upright piano.) Once the pages were printed out – with the most godawful chemical smell you can imagine – my father did layout the old-fashioned way: with a homemade light-table, an Xacto knife, and rubber cement. My parents were typesetting books and journals for academic presses.

    My comment on the typesetter in my 1975 journal (age 12):

    “Now, here comes the catch. This typewriter is computerized!

    “Not only that but it can type any [font] style on Earth!

    When your father is a book designer, you get excited about typefaces early in life. 🙂

  3. Getting excited about fonts and typefaces is one of life’s great pleasures. As are books. I am devoted to literature and reading. And physical books are always going to have a place – perhaps as the last resort when the Great EMP Pulse in the Sky wipes all the planet’s memory banks clean. But I’m very glad to see that all the comments on this post push the mechanization of the printing process back even further, as well as updating it.

    And yes, you can call ebooks a by-product of physical book production, but that only makes sense for so long as you have a reason for physial books to be the default distribution platform. They inevitably are going to become the core product as soon as a better distribution platform arrives; and lo and behold, it has.

    Btw, none of this is any excuse for the appalling ‘editorial’ standards at some publishers. The quality of Faber’s work on the Robert Aickman estate still makes my blood boil.

    Oh, and anyone who can help me turn my first poetry collection, from 15 years back, from a Word file into a decently formatted Kindle book, help please!

  4. Back in the 1980s, I remember articles in Writer’s Digest pontificating on whether word processors had a place (general consensus… they didn’t. Real writers stick with their trusty typewriter). Of course digital books, whether transformed at some point to paper or not, are the reality today. Of course eBooks of one type or another represent the future. A couple of years ago, people could shut their eyes and pretend that eBooks weren’t happening. Today, eBook denial is dumber than climate change denial.

    Rob Preece, Publisher

  5. E-books per se are not the enemy: the relative ease of unauthorized distribution via the Internet is the problem. Print books are far more tedious and expensive to copy and therefore pirate. A 400-page textbook, for example, at about a dime per page, runs about $40, maybe half or even a third of what the student pays. A 200-page novel would therefore be about $20 at that rate. About what publishers charge now to buy them.

    If Amazon, Smashwords, etc., allowed for self-pub authors to bypass e-books as a medium when submitting to their sites, the risk of unauthorized distribution (“piracy”) would be considerably mitigated, and it would save trees too since books wouldn’t be printed in advance (and therefore “wasted” on lost sales), but printed on-demand, a model which, as the British say, does exactly what it says on the tin. Only when the reader wishes to purchase the book would it be printed, and shipped to his/her address.

    It saves jobs with the postal service too, from going to Al Qaeda thugs working tech support at Amazon and Apple and filling orders via a PayPal database. Postal service jobs employ veterans, while tech support workers are in countries where, ironically, in the past 15 or so years they have died. The USPS/British Royal Mail (or whatever postal service exists in the purchaser’s home country) would then ship the book directly to the buyer just as Amazon and B&N do now. But this model would ensure that books are not stored in warehouses, and not only that, might in theory give more jobs to Americans even though most of the national electorate doesn’t want jobs anyway (another reason why companies who need to fill spots end up going with the Al Qaeda thugs working the phones for Hewlett-Packard).

    Save the paper books: Save the American workforce and defeat Middle East economic terrorism. Bring back call centers to the U.S.A. and the hell with Rajiv in Turbanistan.

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