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The Evolution of the E-book: When is a Book Not a Book?

The line between what we call a “book” and something that’s just a really long chunk of published text — what you might call the “not-quite-a-book” category — continues to blur in the electronic publishing world. In one of the latest examples, Borders(s bgp) has joined forces with a service called Bookbrewer to provide a simple service that allows bloggers or anyone else with an idea to publish what is effectively an e-book, and get it distributed through all the major e-book platforms. In a similar move, Amazon(s amzn) this week launched its Kindle Singles program, which is also designed for publishing less-than-book-length writing online.

The Bookbrewer service allows writers to upload their content — which can be any length — set their own suggested price (within the boundaries set by the various e-book retailers like Amazon, Apple(s aapl) and Borders itself), then publish an e-book in the open ePub format that can be downloaded for the iPad, the Kindle, the Kobo or any other e-reader. The service has two tiers: one costs $89.99 and gives authors an ISBN, the universal book-tracking number used in the publishing industry, and the $199.99 advanced package also gives the author a master ePub file they can share or upload wherever they wish.

Amazon says that its Kindle Singles, which launched earlier this week, is designed for pieces that are between 10,000 and 30,000 words — or between 30 and 90 printed pages (about twice the length of an article in The New Yorker or several chapters of a book). The company said it’s looking for submissions from outside the traditional publishing industry, including “serious writers, thinkers, scientists, business leaders, historians, politicians and publishers.” It’s not clear what the Singles will cost, or how much of that revenue will make its way to the author.

[inline-pro-content] When the iPad was first rumored to launch, I suggested the tablet could become a platform for authors of all kinds to find a larger market for their works: not just authors of traditional books (many of whom love the e-book revolution for a variety of reasons), but bloggers and other thinkers with interesting ideas, academics with valuable research papers, anyone with something they might feel deserves a larger audience (although obviously not all of them will). In some ways, it’s like the early days of the Gutenberg revolution, when authors published short manuscripts and “chapbooks” and everything in between.

The advent of tablets and e-bookstores dramatically lowers the barrier to entry for these kinds of writers, who would previously have had to find an agent and a publisher willing to take them on (or self-publish via the web or a blog), and would have had to pay them a handsome share of any revenue as well. Now, through services like Bookbrewer and Kindle Singles, they can reach what is potentially a much larger audience, and maybe even make some money. Amazon and other e-book publishers pay authors as much as 70 percent of the revenue their books make. The e-book market as a whole continues to grow rapidly; the latest figures from the Association of American Publishers show that sales climbed 172 percent in August.

As Om has pointed out before, the book as we know it is undergoing a fundamental transformation, just as so many other forms of content are. People still read traditional printed books, and many will likely continue to do so in the future — but even more interesting is how the definition of what a “book” is becomes so fluid online. So is the book dead? Yes. Long live the book.

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Post and thumbnail photos based on the book by Antoinette Portis

2 Responses to “The Evolution of the E-book: When is a Book Not a Book?”

  1. Borders thinks their competition is Amazon and that they need to match feature with feature. What they should be focusing on is their survival as a bookstore first. Why would anyone publish a book with them when they are in danger of going under. If there survival is in doubt, it doesn’t matter what “features” they offer.

  2. I’m not quite sure I agree, at least in the context of how you’ve positioned it here. First, the concept of a “book” is pretty established. Amazon Singles is not portending to publish “books.” It’s about shorter material (whether that’s non-fiction or fiction) that has long existed as a writing convention. You seem to be lumping everything into the term “book.” I do believe that short-format writing is coming back into style. That’s why we launched Dime Novel Publishing (bringing back the dime novel format for e-books). I don’t believe that short-format writing is really related to the explosive growth of blogging or other “journalistic” mediums. It’s perhaps more driven by a changing consumption behavior and the accessibility of devices to hold multiple books at once. Think about what might have been a factor around reading a longer piece of content 200 years ago? Light? Sunset? The day was shorter and so short fiction was, perhaps, much easier to consume. As society changed and sunrise/sunset no longer defined the “day,” longer-form content could emerge and dominate. Now, with people constantly on the move and constantly connected, it seems that short-format content is on the way back in. Regardless, I think you need to differentiate not on the format of the material (i.e., long-form vs. short-form) but more on the objective of the material (i.e., novel, novella, essay, treatise, flash fiction, etc.).