It’s kind of a strange thing, when you think about it. Paper books have been good enough for us to read for hundreds of years—but let e-books duplicate that same paper book form factor, and suddenly they’re “old-fashioned.” I’ve written on this subject before, but it just keeps cropping up again and again. The latest iteration comes in the form of an article from CNET a few days ago, suggesting that the proposed merger between the W3C and the IDPF would help to “modernize” e-books by moving them beyond mere words on paper.

Do e-books need to be modernized beyond mere words on paper? It’s really kind of funny that CNET columnist Stephen Shankland suggests e-books need to be able to imitate finger-puppet books and pop-up books—things that can only be done in a dead-tree form factor. A similar case is Jeff Radke’s ‘levon a,’ where important elements of the novel only work in a paper codex form factor. The thing is, when you get right down to it, the vast, vast majority of even print books aren’t finger-puppet books or pop-up books, or books that rely on author-created scribblings in the margins. Those are edge cases, and e-books probably aren’t ever going to be able to duplicate something exactly that relies on physical form factors like that.

But guess what? E-books have their own edge cases, like multimedia presentations. Just as you can’t make a pop-up book out of an e-book, you can’t put multimedia on paper. But are paper books “old-fashioned” just because you can’t make them play video? Indeed, we’re now seeing a number of digital projects now that can merge the best of both worlds, such as the Spellbound augmented reality project I covered at BookExpo America.

We keep seeing all these think pieces from people complaining that e-books are just books in e, and shouldn’t they be something more than that instead? But I want to know, where’s the consumer demand for all this? What actual readers have popped up and complained that their books aren’t doing enough for them? I have a sneaking suspicion that if the average consumer wants a book, they’ll read a book—be it electronic or paper—but if they want audio, they’ll listen to music or a podcast, or if they want moving pictures they’ll watch a video or movie. They won’t agitate for a book to become more like a podcast or a video—not when there are already plenty of perfectly good podcasts or videos out there.

Although I’ve groused about multimedia e-book projects in the past, my way of thinking is that, if the book you want to write requires multimedia—like that book on Mozart which presents examples of Mozart performances, or the Beatles Yellow Submarine e-book that features animations and movie clips—then it should have it, in order to be able to present the material as the creators meant. But the needs of the material at hand should drive the presentation—not the feeling that you should be doing more with this form factor.

Yet, that’s the form that all these think pieces seem to take: complaining that because we could do more, we should be, and what a shame it is that we aren’t. But “If you build it, they will come” only works in the movies.

There are things you can do with paper you just can’t do with digital—finger puppet books, pop-up books, levon a, coloring books, and so on. But there are things you can do with digital that you can’t with paper, too, such as multimedia. But the vast majority of the works people want to read work equally well in both, so why is there this need to feel like you’re not doing all you could be just because e-books aren’t all multimedia presentations?


  1. We have seen this cycle over and over again … start off with a simple device that does one or two things rather elegantly. And then the marketing depts and the 1% of super-users demand more and more additional functionality that the product becomes an expensive mess that does nothing well … and the market collapses.

    I just want ebooks to be books — texts, maybe graphic novels.

    I would love to see the industry focus on getting us a durable $25 ebook reader with long battery life and that doesn’t break easily, perhaps even user replaceable batteries (like the Alphasmarts that run on AA batteries) … that new cheaper “not quite eink” screen might be the thing that makes this happen. I believe the ebook industry would be well served by having “disposable” impulse-buy readers.

    Once you start adding in all of the multimedia stuff, they’re no longer really books … more presentations.

    Now get off my lawn, you darn kids.

  2. Yes, this… If I want to read, I want to read… The book is perhaps the single most successful type of media that has ever been produced. E-reading’s one big advantage is that it makes the book much more convenient. Being able to fit hundreds or thousands of books on a single small device is great… and I want it to replicate the experience of a book as much as possible. Sure multi-media has its place, especially in education… but for novels, and many, many other books, just keep it simple and elegant.

    Oh, and one thought on converged devices.. they can be convenient, but I have yet to find one that works as well as a specialized device. I like my android phone.. but I also remember how much faster it was to make a call with my flip phone. And while I am more likely to have my smart phone with me than my camera, I can still get a better picture with my 9 year old Canon point and shoot (let alone my newer micro-4/3rds Olympus).

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail