17 Responses to “What Is a Book? The Definition Continues to Blur”

  1. Renaldo

    The book’s 500-year history is not a static one, it has evolved and undergone numerous changes over time. Incunabula were generally meticulously crafted works of art, and single editions could take years to produce. In the 19th century many books, including those of Dickens and many others, were serially published in magazines to make them more affordable for people. I have a shelf of German Reclam books, which are small, uniformly sized paperbacks originally intended to be sold in automated dispensers much like cigarette machines of the past.

    The leap to digital is a big one, but the books on my iPad still possess most of the elements that are familiar in books, even turning pages. The concept of the book is being worked on and retained in the digital realm, regardless whether it’s a Nook, Kindle, or iBook. Researchers will distinguish between a ‘book’ and a ‘work’, with the latter representing the intellectual content of a book. In stable times the book and the work were so intertwined that people used the terms interchangably: “Have you read the book Paradise Lost?” What’s meant here is of course the work, not the book, since for the questioner it is typically irrelevant whether the 1692 or the 1984 editions are being referred to. In less stable times the work becomes decoupled from the container, which can make things problematic. I just “read” Steven Pinker’s latest “book”, by which I mean I just listened to the audio book. Nonetheless, we can still have a rich and wide-ranging discussion of the work (if you had read it), and I would never have to mention that I didn’t really “read the book”. Interesting times…

  2. Hi. Yes, it’s a very interesting time. I can see a rise in shorter ‘flash’ fiction as well continued growth in the ‘indie’ movement. It’s a really interesting time to be a writer or a reader, in fact.

    Best regards


  3. Interesting that the main form discussed here — long form journalism — had a long and healthy history in print before going into a steep decline. Why should it be viable online when it so recently ceased to be viable on paper?

    I suspect the answer is the reader’s ability to select more freely what suits their taste. That seems to me to be greatest difference that the Net makes. As David Weinberger pointed out in Everything is Miscellaneous, the power to organize content has passed from creator to the consumer. Long form journalism in magazine format means I have to buy half a dozen articles for every one I want to read (as physical records and CDs mean I have to buy a whole album for the sake of one song). Online I pay only for what I want.

    Our appetite for story and argument, at whatever length is appropriate to the matter, has not changed. The difference between the economics of paper and the economics of bits lies in who wields the power of selection.

    I suspect that this will meant the death of the bound book as a form of collection — paper encyclopedias are all but gone already. Book may come to mean “long form narrative”, without respect to media. In fact, I believe this is the emerging definition already. But language is a democracy, and not all the votes are in yet.

  4. An angel that spoke unto Dr. John Dee (probably through the mouth of Edward Kelly) already said back around 1500 that “books would be published in ways that Dee or any other could not evem imagine”, or words to that effect.

  5. I think the most important aspect of the discussion is the use of long form content by people who would normally not been part of the ‘published author’ group. Company leaders, consultants, diplomats now have easy access to a fast and effective distribution process. Couple that with a smart social media campaign and they have placed their content in front of their target audiences.

    The question can just as easily be “what is publishing” as it is ‘what is a book’.

  6. I agree that with the technical advancements things keep adding in the definition of book. But i strongly disagree that deleting a book is simultaneous to burning it because it can again be brought back in the same way.

  7. Gordon haff

    You write that because Byliner is online only, it’s costs are likely orders of magnitude lower. That’s contrary to everything I’ve seen about ebook economics that suggest a relative small portion of costs are related to the physical media. As a new business specifically focused on electronic media, I’m sure Byliner can save costs in other areas related to traditional publishing houses but I still strongly suspect we’re still talking well under an order of magnitude. (if anything I suspect that the more interesting angle of byliner’s business model is the suggestion that they are focused on proven authors–though it’s hard to imagine that being sustainable.)

    • Thanks for the comment, Gordon. I don’t know whether the savings would be an actual order of magnitude or not, but I was referring to the difference between a full book publishing house — with editors and marketing staff and accounting and all the other things that a large firm needs — and a small startup publishing e-books for download.

      • I think perhaps you might want to examine your arguments here, then.

        When it comes to new, previously unpublished works, the only way to drop the cost of editing is to drop the process of editing, and if you want to publish quality works, you can’t do that. The same goes for marketing. The only real cost savings with digital publication is in printing, transport, and warehousing. Printing costs are cheap already – not AS cheap as online distribution, but not the greater part of book distribution costs. Transportation is a bigger piece of the cost, but one that’s traditionally been covered by retailers, not publishers – so with online distribution, you’re shrinking this cost, but you’re also taking it on yourself. Warehousing also tends to be a retailer problem; even remaindered books generally find a space that doesn’t cost the publisher eventually, either through remainder book stores or through destruction of the books.

        You can, of course, make books cheaper by dropping editing and marketing, and pushing publishing costs onto the authors. It’s called being a vanity press, and I don’t think anyone would argue for it as a good model.

      • Here’s where the savings come in. Cost of book – COB for a trade paperback will run in the $1.50 to $2.00 range for an average print run. There is no cost for a ebook file once it is created. There are additional costs for creating the ebook files but they are fairly inexpensive, running around $.40 or $.50 a page for B&W. The other large saving is in fulfillment and storage and even large, inventory write-downs. Returns, and damaged returns in particular, are included in your P&L for each book. Print On Demand does remove this factor but POD costs ARE more expensive. Maybe 50 to 75% more than traditional runs.

        Publishers are making solid money on ebooks. Not enough to save the big houses but lots of little, smart ones will do well.

      • Neil Levin: $.40-.50/page for epub conversion seems excessive (for a new mss.); costs are under $1 for converting directly from paper copy. From a properly formated electronic mss. (one you’d send to a printer), the epub conversion should be approaching zero add on since you can usually output directly to epub from most desktop publishing packages.

        On a broader note, I’m sure most of the readers here realize that publishing/authoring/selling is one of the oddest markets out there (the recording industry is pretty screwy too!). Author advances, bookstore returns, royalties based on a list price that’s rarely ever an actual selling price.

        We also always hear about “real” publishers offering editorial guidance and weeding of chaff. I’d argue that the Big Six have increasingly abrogated this responsibility by skimping on the editorial side (esp. copy editors and proofreaders) and focusing marketing only on the top of the list with pre-sold bestseller.

        The start-up, nimble, epublishers have a chance to focus on authors and what publishers should do, nurture authors.

    • i’m not sure what you’ve read, but i know there’s a lot of outright lies going around in an attempt to justify ebook pricing. one blog post comes to mind that attempted to claim almost 1/3 of the cost of ebooks was related to “digital warehousing”. this was on top of the stated cost of servers and bandwidth.

  8. A book is paper with words printed on it, bound together with a cover that gives its contents context. An ebook is words organized on digital pages and saved in a digital format, that uses a cover image thumbnail and meta tags to give its contents context. At the root of this question is the way words are CONTAINED. Books and ebooks and magazines and whatever else we come up with to bundle and distribute words are merely containers that contain content. Context distinguishes its container and content.

    What is a book? That definition will not change. Ever.

  9. Book is a media which holds information. It shouldnt matter if it is on paper or SSD. Tearing apart or burning a book is destruction and delete from hard disk is the same.
    So every time you download a Bible or Quran and delete it from your hard disk, you are Pastor Terry Jones. :)