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?’

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Category: Publishing
  • AdamGurri

    I’m not sure it’s quite right to say that fiction is “safe” vs non-fiction. The challenges that traditional, straight-text fiction will face are the same that traditional, straight-text non-fiction will face–there will be more interactive and visually rich alternatives.

    The thing is, fiction has basically already fallen off of this cliff; it fell off of it years ago when TV and movies and comics started seriously competing in the same space as prose. And video games have been giving us interactivity for decades now.

    The web and the digital sphere in general are just going to multiply the number of options available to us, and give birth to entirely new forms–as the essay you quote discusses. But the written word has been facing ever steeper competition for people’s attention for a very long time.

    What I’m trying to say is, I don’t think it’s useful to say that prose of any sort will really be replaced–it’s simply going to be entering a more highly competitive arena. This goes for non-fiction as well–someone who just wants to publish a book of essays is going to have to compete against the super interactive, infographic-heavy websites out there, just like someone who wants to publish a novel is going to have to compete with Mass Effect or an interactive webcomic.

    Basically, it continues to get more awesome to be someone who loves content, and the markets for content continue to get more competitive and diverse.

  • Christopher Wright

      Non-fiction straight text will still have a place. If you need your information portable and you can’t rely on an internet connection, it’s hard to beat a user manual. Keeping your documentation separate from your application is a good idea for those situations when you want to use the documentation to troubleshoot why the application doesn’t work.

    eBooks have an advantage over paper books in that they’re more portable (you can fit an entire documentation library on an SDcard) and are, in some cases, cheaper to produce. And a tablet makes a fair documentation reader because you can get away with providing screenshots in the documentation, etc. But the author was talking about interactive media specifically, and I don’t have any real experience with that…

  • T.L. Bodine

    Speaking as a foodie, I’m also not sure I agree with the supposition that cookbooks are entirely supplanted by websites.  If that were the case, all of the prestigious food-bloggers I know wouldn’t be releasing books!  While I certainly use the internet to find recipes, I still buy — and read, cover to cover — plenty of cookbooks.  A good cookbook is more than a collection of recipes…it’s a personal treatise on food, something that can only be fully appreciated as a coherent whole — what’s included, what’s left out, the text that cones with recipes, the choices an author makes.  Maybe these bloggers getting cookbook deals is a short-term happening and it won’t always be that way…but for this generation of foodies, at least, it’d be a real shame to lose cookbooks entirely. 

  • Thip

    Hmmm… Agree AND disagree. Books, i.e., fiction storytelling, are not safe from the web, but interactivity is against their nature. If you think about what storytelling really is – as distinct from other kinds of entertainment – it becomes obvious. 

    My purely personal IMHO-theory is that fiction storytelling is qualitatively different from non-fic and games. Non-fic is LEARNING, meaning you want to be able to search, pick, ask questions, etc. Games are role-playing, virtual or not. Fic-stories are (clunky description, but it’s the best I can do) guided daydream hypnoses which you want to lose yourself in. You do NOT want interactivity – it would break the very spell you’re trying to allow being cast on yourself.

    If that’s true, then the DELIVERY of the text that runs you into, and through, your “guided daydream” can easily be e-text, presented on any non-intrusive reading device. Doesn’t matter which one, as long as it is easy to forget it’s there, so’s you can sink into the daydream. 

    And I think you are quite right that the sole reason that e-books are still in the “horseless carriage” stage (i.e., they mimic their paper predecessors) is that the novel-as-a-book, i.e., as a self-contained “chunk”, is still the easiest (only?) way to monetize the damn thing. You’ve written lots of splendid analysis of the depressing difficulty of monetizing web fic right here on Novelr.

    So I think fictional storytelling is quite safe from interactivity. It is not, however, safe from the web. Meaning it is not safe from the challenge of monetizing them when the reading public realize that e-books are just “proprietarized” webpages with pagination – and are made so purely to drive said reading public to pay for the pleasure of reading ;o)

  • Eli James

    Thank you for giving us a good argument for cookbooks, T.L. I must admit that I google for recipes (and save them to a local file on my computer) more often than I flip through cookbooks. But then again – that’s me, and I don’t cook as much as a lot of people.

  • Eli James

    It’s too hard to generalize about non-fiction’s future as books, I think. Non-fiction is too large a category to generalize effectively. Certainly it’s more obvious for some kinds of non-fiction than others – reference books, for instance, as opposed to idea books.

  • Eli James

    I’m not sure I want to say that straight-text novels will compete against interactive/visually rich fiction. It strikes me that the two are very different things.

    But yes, publisher do argue that books compete with video games and movies and Youtube videos. It’s a different argument, though – one that I’m not making here. 

    What I wanted to focus on was the ability for websites to replace books today, which was something that was unheard of just a few years ago. This strikes me as having huge repercussions for certain portions of the publishing industry. 

  • JohnnyPat

    It depends on what your definition of “non-fiction” is. Cookbooks and reference materials might be converted to apps and websites, but long-form journalism, essay, memoir, biography…these require the same deep immersion engagement as long- and short-form fiction. 

  • Bree Chittim

    “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. “I don’t agree that the benefits of web cookbook publication is a valid comparison to discount fiction going html5. I enjoyed your article and am on the same track generally though. One thing to consider about fiction going webby is: people integrate into story, it’s juicy and if it’s good they want more – think of the last time you finished a great book and felt a loss: that’s where fiction gets into bed with html5 and web delivery – best example – Hunger Games Trilogy. see: Why The Hunger Games is not Harry Potter, & Why We Should Care by S.OFlynn.  Cheers.

  • saeed

    Thank you for giving us a good argument for cookbooks, T.L. I must admit
    that I خرید vpn for recipes (and save them to a local file on my
    computer) more often than I flip through cookbooks. But then again –
    that’s me, and I don’t cook as much as a lot of people.

  • Eli James


    Sent from a mobile device.