The Troubling Dual Nature of Books and Websites

Baldur Bjarnason wrote a really long essay two days ago on interactivity and ebooks, one that I think is worth reading in its entirety. While not entirely related to his central thesis, I’d like to point to a specific section near the end and talk about that instead:

I’m beginning to worry that ebooks won’t have any place in the future of interactive media. Interactive non-fiction will grow to encompass the markets that today are served by print non-fiction and it won’t look anything like a book.

In a way this has already happened. Reference books and cookbooks are being pushed out by reference websites and recipe blogs (emphasis mine). In a few years, non-fiction as a genre will be dominated by apps and websites, the exceptions being the fields that legitimately require long-form text to deliver their message properly.

I can’t think what those fields might be, but I’m sure they exist.
One exception might be textbooks and other fields that are bound by archaic institutional requirements.

Publishing is on a crossroads. It’s not just a question of how the form will develop but also who we want as an audience. As books lose their real-world presence, do we really want to just cater to a minority of voracious expert readers? A casual reader is never going to buy a bespoke reading device, but will buy an iPhone or iPad, where ebooks are competing with games, apps, websites, and comics.

Pretending you aren’t competing with other media on price, accessibility, and value, is a surefire way to kill off long-form reading.

At Books in Browsers 2011, Joseph Pearson of made the rather controversial remark that ebooks are simply ‘websites that are better paginated’. Everything else was better off remaining as a website.

Like many present at the time, I reacted rather negatively to his view. Then I stopped, thought for a bit, and realized that there was nothing I could think of that could be used as a counter example.

Pearson and Bjarnason have a valid point: dictionaries, recipe books and encyclopedias are not better paginated; they have little reason for existing as ebooks. Better that they remain as websites, where they are linkable, searchable, and editable. It is no coincidence that Wikipedia lives on as Encyclopedia Britannica dies.

Pearson’s remark makes more sense when you understand how ebooks work: the prevailing ebook formats are essentially bastardized HTML. And HTML, as we should know by now, is the stuff that websites are made of. If ebooks are but one conversion step away from websites, and the form of the website offers more benefits than the form of the book, why should anyone still publish such books?

(Let’s be clear, though: we’re not talking about fiction here. Fiction is — rather ironically — protected from this change, because the benefits of presenting fiction on a website aren’t as numerous as the benefits of presenting the contents of a cookbook as a searchable recipe site.)

One argument left in favour of ebooks in these categories is that of mobility. You can’t take websites with you! – you might say. But this isn’t true, or if it is; it won’t be true for much longer. Internet connectivity will continue to improve, as it has for the past decade. And even if it doesn’t — even if it we continue to experience connectivity blindspots, there is nothing to prevent us from caching websites in apps, the same way some feedreaders and read-later apps currently do.

Of course, everything about this idea is troubling. Books are easy to make money from; even ebook purchases are simple enough to understand as a business transaction. Getting rid of whole categories of books in favour of websites means throwing away all that is simple and understandable about the previous model, and diving into one where business models are yet unknown. It’s going to take some creativity to make money from a reference site; certainly more than it would take to sell an ebook.

The upshot of this is to not act surprised when the cookbook section disappears from your local bookstore. Cookbooks will likely drift the way of the programming reference book. Those are, believe it or not, being supplanted by Question and Answer websites like Stack Overflow! (When asked about his digital strategy, Tim O’Reilly expressed regret at not moving out of the technical book business and purchasing Stack Overflow when he had the chance.)

I find it funny that novels are safe as books, while all kinds of non-fiction genres are threatened and shifting to alternate forms. The lesson, I think, is to think about websites and books as two sides of the same coin, each side with a dynamic set of benefits and weaknesses. When the benefits of one medium outweigh the other, given a specific context (e.g.: pop-up books, picture books, cookbooks, novels …) we would soon see a shift from books being largely produced in one form to books produced in the other form.

Novels and coffee-table books are safe as books, for now. But other kinds of books may not be for much longer. The next time you start a book, here’s a question you might want to ask: ‘is this better as a website, instead?’

Possibly Related Posts:

Category: Publishing