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?

They could in the editing process if we use powerful tools from the software world. I’m thinking here of GitHub, the version-control system used by many software teams. What might a book look like created with GitHub? A team at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study has shown us with a dense (to non-mathematicians) volume called Homotopy Type Theory: Univalent Foundations of Mathematics. Andrej Bauer, an author and organizer of the project, explained on his blog that two dozen mathematicians worked together for about six months to create the book:

In the beginning it took some convincing and getting used to, although it was not too bad. In the end the repository served not only as an archive for our files, but also as a central hub for planning and discussions. For several months I checked github more often than email and Facbook[sic]. Github was my Facebook (without the cute kittens). If you do not know about tools like git but you write scientific papers (or you create any kind of digital content) you really, really should learn about revision control systems. Even as a sole author of a paper you will profit from learning how to use one, not to mention that you can make pretty videos of how you wrote your paper.

And as Wired.com noted in a story about the project, this was more than just an enjoyable project for some reasonably geeky folks: “If they’d tried to write this book by emailing each other files or using something like Dropbox, it would have been a complete mess. ... But GitHub made it fun.”

At least one writer (with pro­gram­ming skills) is work­ing on a project to make this kind of col­lab­o­ra­tion eas­ier than it is with GitHub. It’s called Penflip and has been described as “GitHub for Writ­ers.” I’m sign­ing up for the beta.

If books are to become living documents after their original publication—and I believe they should in many cases—we have another major hurdle: the book-numbering system called ISBN, or International Standard Book Number, a unique identifier created for commercial purposes. Any significant change to a book requires a new ISBN number—and that system is controlled by a single company that charges what I consider outrageously high rates for individual authors. And if you want to sell your book to libraries, ISBN numbers are pretty much required.

There’s actually a good reason for changing the identifier after significant alterations to a work. If we cite a passage from a book, we need to know what version of the book we’re citing, not just what page (or URL if it’s posted online). Wikipedia archives every edit made to an article, and you can cite any version of the article you choose.

It will get complex, fast, to apply this notion to books. But in an era in which some books can and should evolve, we should try. We should hack ISBNs and cre­ate a sys­tem that lets us con­stantly update our e-books and print-to-order phys­i­cal books in a way that doesn’t break cita­tions, even as it gives read­ers the most current versions.

The book world has already gone through major shifts in recent years, even if the biggest traditional publishers have tried to hold back the tide. We’re still early in this transition, perhaps the third inning if it’s a baseball game. When books can truly become living documents, it won’t be game over—it never is—but we’ll be in a much more interesting, and valuable, publishing ecosystem.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Dan Gillmor teaches digital media literacy at Arizona State University. He is the author of Mediactive.