How E-Books Can Be Better Than Regular Books

What's to come?
Oct. 15 2013 11:33 AM

A Book Is Never Really Done

We need better tools to let us keep updating e-books after their publication.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos holds up the new Kindle Touch at a news conference during the launch of Amazon's new tablets in New York September 28, 2011.
Amazon's Kindle changed how people read books, and a program called Penflip might change how we write them.

Photo by Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

When I started writing my first book in 2003, I’d been blogging for more than three years. I’d learned the value of a conversation with my readers. Most importantly, I’d absorbed the obvious truth that they knew more than I did. So, with the permission of my publisher, I posted chapter drafts of We the Media on my blog. The result was a variety of comments and suggestions, some small and some major, that in the end helped me produce a much better book.

That experiment was an early stab at bringing the Internet’s widely collaborative potential to a process that had always been collaborative in its own way: authors working with editors. The notion of adding the audience to the process was, and remains, deeply appealing.

Why so? It wasn’t only the fantastic prepublication feedback that appealed to me. It was also the potential for thinking about a book as something that might evolve. Now, I never did write a second edition, but the conversation we created together was enormously helpful to me—and, I hope, to the others who participated—as I worked on new projects and, later, a follow-up book.

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The tools of online collaboration are still relatively primitive and often discouragingly awkward. But they’re improving, and I’m seeing glimmerings of hope that in a few years we’ll have vastly more capable systems. That’s particularly important because without better collaboration tools, we won’t be able to take advantage of the ways in which e-books can be truly superior to traditional print.

As British writer Charlie Stross—with whom I collaborated last week in an e-book experiment at the Frankfurt Book Fair—noted in a recent post, Microsoft Word, ubiquitous today for authors and their editors, needs to be replaced. Tom Scocca agrees. I rarely use it myself, but there are times when it’s the only way I can communicate with an editor. (I prefer to write in a plain text editor and then, if necessary, format in LibreOffice Writer; however, I find Writer even less stable than Word.)

The Track Changes feature in Word (and Writer) is, of course, one primary reason we all use it. (The other is that typesetters almost universally start with an imported Word document.) Google Docs doesn’t offer this kind of review feature, though it should. The closest thing I’ve found on the Web for this kind of collaborative editing is Poetica, an early version of an editing tool that re-creates much of the style—and I believe value—of traditional editing.

But we don’t do just text anymore. We “write” in mixed-media formats, incorporating charts, videos, and more into our work, and e-book formats still aren’t supported as well as they should be. I’m still looking, for example, for a great EPUB-native editor. The open-source Sigil is a fine start, but also very much a work in progress.

The most famous Internet collaboration is the one almost everyone uses, at least as a reader: Wikipedia. Editing isn’t terribly difficult, though not nearly simple enough for true newbies. Even if it were, Wikipedia isn’t a book with an author’s voice—and isn’t meant to be. Yet it shows many of the ways forward, including the robust discussions in the background of the articles. Wikipedia articles are also living documents, changing and evolving over time. Could books be like that?

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