Ebooks should be books


Now that the software and hardware of ebook reader devices is becoming more mature, ebooks really have the potential to take over the publishing industry. In this literature study I first present an overview of the advantages and disadvantages of ePublishing. Next, after I have discussed the key aspects of the ‘reading activity’ as distinct from other information activities, I will describe how ebook reader devices could support this activity in different usage settings (educational, office, entertainment). I conclude with a discussion of the competition between eBook readers and tablets. In the appendix a review of the current state of development, including a technical dissection of the ePub format and an evaluation of the eReader devices that are currently on the market, can be found. Finally I include an annotated bibliography of important articles, as well as a regular bibliography of all sources used.


eBook reader devices (eReaders) have been the great promise for the future of (digital) publishing for at least a decade now. Back in 2000, these devices used regular LCD screens and storage was still an important limiting factor. These days, eReaders use specialized eInk displays and storage is so cheap that it is no longer a relevant problem: in 2000, eReader devices had about 2MB to 32MB storage capacity. Today, gigabytes of flash storage only cost a few euro.

The difficulties with normal LCD screens are that they are often very reflective, which makes reading in sunlight difficult, and that they are back lit, which is hard on the eyes in case of long reading sessions. In contrast, eInk displays deliver much better readability because they are less reflective and don’t use back lighting. eInk works as follows: every pixel is a small plastic capsule filled with a liquid that contains a small amount of ink that is electrically charged. By changing the polarity of a current running behind the capsule, the black ink can either be attracted or repulsed, which makes it possible to show either a black or white pixel. The disadvantages of eInk are that color is currently not possible and that page transitions are relatively slow (about 1 second per page transition, where a normal LCD screen often refreshes around 50-100 times a second).

Both storage and screens have been improved, but despite these serious technological advancements and overal functional improvements, eReaders are still not omnipresent. Of course a few devices have sold quite well, but overal the market was only about 1 million units big in 2008, of which the Amazon Kindle sold about 45%, Sony sold 30%, and the other device manufacturers about 25%.1


The potential market for books and publishing in general (magazines, periodicals, journals, documents, etc.) is enormously bigger than one million readers. How can we explain this failure of eBook reader devices to really break through and become the standard for publishing in the 21th century? After all, the advantages of eBooks and eReaders are obvious.


For one thing, ePublishing is more sustainable than classical publishing. We have become so used to paper, that we often forget how inefficient and wasteful it is. Most printed material (such as for example newspapers, advertising and magazines) has a short lifespan. Even many books are only read once or a few times and spend most of their life standing on the book shelves.

A recent report2 concludes that the CO2 reduction that could be achieved with the help of ePublishing is potentially enormous. Already in the current market state, the total amount of CO2 reduced by the use of eBooks is equal to the amount of CO2 that is produced by the production of eReader devices (463 million Kg). According to this report, the total savings in CO2 emissions (extra production minus extra reduction) could already grow to 2.85 billion Kg by 2012, because of the fact that less books have to be printed. With ePuCO2blishing, to read any amount of books, only one device is needed. The report concludes that in terms of CO2 emmissions, the break even point is already reached when 22.5 books are read on one device (they used the Amazon Kindle). Read at least one book more and save the planet.

Of course, not all factors of sustainable publishing can be measured in terms of CO2 emission. Sceptics have for example pointed out that building eReader devices requires all kinds of special metals and plastics, which are harder to acquire than trees, and that these devices also use more energy than paper.3 However, they forget that printing books also requires a lot of technical devices (which use metals, plastics and energy), as does the distribution of physical books. In addition to this, physical publishing requires a lot of ink. Most eReaders are very energy efficient, only using energy when a page is changed. Also, since people are buying elektronical devices anyway to use in other activities and if these devices would also be usable as eBook reader devices, the added consumption would relatively lower. Finally, energy consumption can potentially be made completely ‘green’ with the help of sustainable energy sources like solar and wind energy. What all this shows, is the need for a complete analysis and comparison of the entire production cycles of both classical and digital publishing. Of course we will also have to work on a better recycling process for used technical equipment, in which we recover scarce metal elements and plastics.

Another important advantage of eBooks and ePublishing is concerned with the availability of information. Many books that have been printed in the past are now out of print, and because of relative low customer interest, it is not economically feasible for publishers to reprint those books in small quantities. If you want to read one of those books that are out of print and won’t be reprinted, eBooks can be your solution. Because eBooks have (almost) no storage costs and don’t require a large investment to be reprinted (as normal books do), they can be sold on demand and for a low fee. At the same time, all works that are in the public domain (which means copyright has expired for these works) can be downloaded and read for free in eBook format.

In general, because the internet reduced publishing costs (creation, production, advertisement, storage and distribution costs) to almost nothing, publishing isn’t something for the elite any more. Anyone can create a text or ‘book’, present or sell it on a website and advertise it using social media networks. The publishing industry has shifted from being very vertically organized, top-down and elitist to a horizontal and more egalitarian organization. Of course this also leads to a lot of bad works (as we see for example in the numerous quick rips of public domain works), but in the end the better works will be appreciated most and get the most attention, because social media enables very quick and direct feedback.

A third advantage lies into the integration of the activity of reading into the overal human communication process, and possible extension and improvement of the ‘reading activity’. Reading has always been a very distinct activity, separated from playing, browsing and direct communication for example, because books just don’t allow for many different use cases. Books are good in one thing: to be read. However, electronic books can possibly become more diverse. Features such as a touch screen and connectivity (Wifi and cellular networks), allow for an extension of the reading activity with for example advanced annotation and crossreferencing options and real time updates (of errata for example). It may however also be the case that the activity of reading is deterioriated by these enhancements. We will examine this issue in more detail later in this essay.


But first we also have to take a look at the problems of ePublishing, because they are most likely the reasons for the fact that ePublishing has not become the publishing standard of the 21th century yet.

The most important problem with ebooks has been the reluctance of the publishers themselves against ePublishing. This is both a political and an economical problem. Because ePublishing allows almost any person to publish almost anything by him or herself, it introduces the risk of the publishers themselves being not that necessary anymore, and this of course implies a loss of power and possibly income for the publishers. Still, if the publishers do not make the same mistake that the music (and at another scale) the movie bussinesses have made (that is: trying to enforce outdated bussiness models onto a market with a completely different, more open, organization) there will most likely be room for the professional experience that publishers have. However, it will probably be the writer ‘hiring’ the publisher instead of the other way around. Of course this will also mean that power will shift from the publisher to the writer. But for the creative market, this is no problem. The economic aspect of this problem lies in finding new bussiness models that work. This will probably be models in which admiration of and support to the artistic genius will be more important than advertisements. In these models, copyright will have to be enforced not by means of copy protection, but by means of copy integrity, which ensures that someone may be able to copy a work, but it will still be the work of the original author, who will get the credit, fame and admiration.4 History has shown that users will pay for quality content that is theirs to keep, exactly because they can keep it and they want to support the artist they admire.
Currently, eBook pricing is nowhere near optimal. Often, digital versions cost almost as much as their physical ‘originals’, because of the fear of copying.

Another disadvantage of ebooks stems from the fact that they simply are not real books. According to the famous german culture critic Walter Benjamin, mass production of art works leads to the ‘shattering’ of their ‘aura’. The ‘aura’ of a work of art is determined by it’s uniqueness (restricted exhibition, authenticity, etc.). In the case of mass production, there is no uniqueness, and thus no aura. This is the reason that viewing a mass produced poster of Kandinsky’s ‘Composition VIII’ can never match standing in front of the real painting. And likewise, downloading mass ‘produced’ (or illegally ripped) eBooks can never match holding the real first edition manuscript of some great literary work. However, the influence of this problem on the use of eBooks should be minor, because regular publishing is also mass reproduction. It is only in the case of rare (and especially beautiful) editions of books with low print runs, that currently published books can be said to have aura. In addition to this, while ebooks themselves may not have aura, hardware gadgets (although also mass produced) such as eReaders may have aura themselves, if they are particularly well designed. Also, ‘digital aura’ may lie in feeling more ‘connected’ to the author. The part of physical books that may be the most difficult to recreate digitally may very well be their ease of use. Paper books are among the easiest objects in the world, exactly because they only have a very limited number of uses.

Finally, standardisation is an important issue. Paper books are static, and it doesn’t matter if different books have different paper sizes, or different physical contructions. However with eBooks, different eReader devices should be able to make the same book available for reading. Since these devices often have different manufacturers, different hardware and software capabilities, and different screen sizes, eBooks should be adaptable to these different eReaders. This could be done either by reformating eBooks on the actual device itself, or by publishing a separate preformatted version of the eBook for every possible device. This last solution is obviously very inefficient, given the high number of different devices available on the market. This means that reformating on-the-fly is the only viable option to solve device differences. However, there are also multiple eBook file formats, of which some (for example ePub and MobiPocket) support reformating, and some (for example PDF) don’t. Most devices support a list of different formats, but there is not one standard format yet, although the open ePub format is becomming more and more widely used. See the appendix for a technical evaluation of the ePub eBook file format.

From the standardisation problem follow a few smaller problems that have to deal with uniformity. With paper books, referencing and citing are easy, because there are physical page numbers that are the same in every copy. However, with reflowable eBooks, text may end up on different pages on different devices. Therefore, the classical method of referencing (naming an edition and page number) is unusable, and a new alternative method of standardised referencing is needed for eBooks. Here lies an important research opportunity. The same problem also occurs when you want to add a marker or bookmark on a page and want to continue reading on a different device. Also, because eBooks will most likely have more editions and revisions than paper books, a universal system of identification and version management is needed, for example some digital equivalent to the ISBN system is, possibly web or url based. Such a system would at the same time offer a lot of possibilities for users to review, rate and crossreference works, as well as store metadata.

Information Activities

Now that we have seen what the promises of and problems with eBooks are, we can divert our attention to an analysis of the ‘reading’ activity, and distinguish it from other information activities (activities that have to do with the creating, transporting, transforming or processing information).

In the last decade, digital information technology has radically changed the way we deal with information. Compared to the time when text on paper was the main information storage and communication technology, digital communication has not only made our information processing more interactive, multimedial and direct, but has also over time shortened the length of text we read, from books, to blogs, to microblogging, and increased the speed in which we create information. We have gone from a certain number books per year to many tweets per second. Social media and the use of mobile devices and social networks have stimulated the writing and reading of short messages, contrasting the books, articles and background articles of ‘old’ media.

If we distinquish different ‘information processing activities’, how does the activity of ‘reading’ compare to other activities like ‘playing’, ‘browsing’, ‘direct communication’. Here we are only concerned with activities of information processing that use existing information, not with those that for example create information. Of each activity, a ‘classic’ (analog) example and a digital example are given.

The activity of Reading

The activity of reading, for example reading the daily newspaper or Homer’s Odyssey, is a primarily solitary activity, that is focussed on the content of (mostly) text(s). Often these are long or very long texts in which a narrative unfolds or in which a certain argument is made. In other words, the content is heavily structured and goal-oriented. Reading is a mostly passive activity (the content sets the goals and fullfills them (or fails to do so)), except maybe for some optional annotation or bookmarking by the reader. The digital equivalent of reading (a book) is eReading (an eBook).

The activity of Playing

Playing a game, for example a card game, is either a solitary or (virtual) multiplayer activity, that is focussed on the experience of playing, and only seldom on the content of the game. It is often multimedia based (for example the use of cards, dices, textual questions/dialogues and other game objects). Some games are short (for example rock, paper, scissors), some are longer (for example adventureous role playing games). Most games are moderately passive (the game creates the goals, the player fullfills them (or fails to do so)). The digital equivalent of playing (a board/card game) is playing a videogame.

The activity of Browsing

The activity of browsing is a mainly solitary activity that is focussed on content, not specifically on the experience of acquiring the content. Browsing is generally text-based, although some multimedia elements like images, data visualizations or even more complex multimedia interactivity can be used. Browsing consists mostly of skimming short texts or annotations, and following references to others. Browsing is moderately active (the person browsing sets the goals, the content fullfills them (or fails to do so)). The digital equivalent of a library visit is browsing the internet.

The activity of Direct communication

Direct communication is an inherently multi person activity, that is often more focussed on the experience of communicating than on the content of the conversation (”how do you like the weather today?”). It is a short message based multimedial (the use of bodily and facial expressions, sound, movement and images) activity, that is very unstructured, and mostly active (all participants set the goals, and fullfill them (or fail to do so)). The digital equivalent of a face to face conversation is instant messaging.

It seems that the activity of reading is an ‘oldfashioned’ activity, because it deals with longer texts. Just like normal books, eBooks are about the distribution of longer texts. Activities like playing, browsing and direct communication deal with shorter texts, and as such fit better into the new media workflow. It might be the case that reading (in the sense of reading longer texts) will be completely obsolete in the future, but most likely there will be a lot of tasks where reading will still be necessary. This means there will be a market for eBooks.

Scenarios for the use of eReaders

In contrast to paper books, eBooks are also cost effective for shorter text. But there will also most likely remain a big market for longer texts, and thus for eReaders and eBooks, because there is a sufficient number of tasks that benefit from reading. What are the most important requirements for eReader devices to support these tasks?

eReaders could for example be very effective in educational and academic environments, where student papers (and corrections) as well as academic journals are very easy to acquire, read and process digitally. For this usage, excellent annotation and better citation and referencing mechanisms are needed in eReader devices.

A second scenario where the usage of eReaders could work very well is office or bussiness use. eReaders could be used for such diverse activities as generating and presenting bussiness offers, real time management reports and statistics, internal documents and administration, external publications (ads, catalogues), and customer feedback. In all these cases, the use of eReaders can cut costs dramatically. To make eReaders a viable alternative to normal paper in this scenario, they need to be as reliable and easy to use as normal paper and books, and the initial purchase costs of the device should be covered by savings in paper and ink (and increased productivity) during the device’s lifespan.

Finally eReaders can be used to replace entertainment books. People still read books and newspapers with longer articles. Availability of DRM-free content for a fair price (a few euro per title) is the most important succes factor for this category of eReader usage. Of course, eReaders will have to compete with the ease of use of a paper book as well.

eReaders and tablets

The discussion has risen whether eBooks should be developed as successors of paper books, or that they are completely different works. Mark Carden has written an excellent article about the possible use cases of eBooks,5 and he argues that eBooks are not books, because the new possibilities that digital books offer allow for new reading experiences that go much further than the traditional ‘passive’ reading experience. I agree with him that we should embrace the new forms of interactivity and communication these new reading experiences offer. Yet, I would like to add that those new experiences are not reading in the sense of the classical ‘reading activity’ and that we therefore should not call them eBooks. In order for eBooks and eReaders to finally take over the market from paper books, eBooks should be more like books, and eReading should me more like reading.

There is a clear separation of reading from the other activities in terms of the screen: because the reading activity is concerned with reading longer texts, screen readability is the most important requirement, and screen update speed (refresh rate) can be sacrificed in favor of readability. However, for the other activities, the refresh rate of the screen is more important than readibility of longer texts. Devices optimized for playing, browsing and direct communication, so called ‘tablets’, are appearing more and more frequently on the market.

Tablets often feature high resolution, high refresh rate LCD screens and high speed networking capabilities and are as such very well suited for playing, browsing and direct communication. However, when reading a book, you don’t want to be distraced every time a new email or instant message arrives. Even direct hypertextual links to referenced books or documents and the lookup of citations in their original context probably are big distractions when reading a longer text. To a certain extent, annotation is also a distraction, but because you don’t leave the context of the reading activity, it often increases productivity in non-entertainment use case scenarios.

Ideally, given the completely different screen and connectivity requirements of reading and the other activities, a user would want to have multiple devices: a tablet for playing games, browsing the web and communication with other users, and an eReader device for reading books and articles. More ideally, because carrying two devices at the same time might not be something users want to do, one hybrid device that functions both as a tablet and eReader should be developed. This could be a device with either one high resolution, high refresh rate ePaper screen or two screens of which one is an ePaper screen for reading and the one is an LCD screen for the other tasks. The two-screen approach is already applied by a few manufacturers (see the appendix for details). For the (more ideal) one screen version however, a lot of progress in screen technology is needed. Of course this ideal one screen tablet/eReader hybrid could at the same time also replace the laptop, personal mp3 and video player, gaming console and mobile phone (possibly with a separate bluetooth headset).


The eBook reader device (meant for reading) has to be distinquished from the (internet) tablet (meant for playing (games), (internet) browsing and direct communication), because (especially the screen) requirements are very different for these different activities. eReaders should be optimized for reading longer texts without distractions by using ePaper and limited (or disableable) network functionality, while tablets (in order to satisfy the requirements of the other information activities) use LCD screens and high speed networking capabilities. Ideally those two devices should be combined into one device, so users don’t have to carry multiple devices.

To be able to replace books and paper, eBooks and eReaders will have to compete with the ease of use of normal books and paper. Besides screen readability, there are a number of other important improvements that need to be made to eBooks and eReaders to succesfully compete, such as fast and easy annotation functionality, low boot times and high page turning speeds, high quality reflowable content format that can be viewed on devices with different screen sizes, a universal standard for citing or referencing certain parts of eBooks and other texts. Finally, eBook content should have a fair price.

Eventually, eReaders will also offer improvements to the classical book and reading activity: better annotation (and more annotation space), automatic errata updates, hypertextual referencing, interactive examples or exercises in educational books, multimedia, multi-reader bookmarks. However, these are all improvements that can to be applied succesfully, only after the classical reading activity has been digitized.

If eReaders and tablets do not converge into a hybrid device that satisfies both reading and the other activities, it may also be the case that the activity of reading will not be exercised anymore in the digital era. People might use paper books for the longer text they do read, and continue reading more and more shorter texts instead of longer ones.

In the appendix, an evaluation of the current state of eBooks can be found. First, the open ePub format is analyzed, after which an overview of currently available or announced devices is presented. Finally, an annotated bibligraphy reviews some of the important articles on eReaders, eBooks and ePublishing, and a resources section lists informative resources.

[appendices removed, updated summary: buy the Sony PRS-650 or wait for the Notion Ink Adam]

  1. Kindle claims 45 percent of ereader market, BestTabletReview.com, 2009, http://besttabletreview.com/kindle-claims-45-percent-of-ereader-market-sony-claims-30-percent/
  2. E-readers a win for carbon emissions, Cleantech.com, 2009, http://cleantech.com/news/4867/cleantech-group-finds-positive-envi
  3. News Media Innovation, Convergence and Sustainability, Interview with Don Carli, Metaprinter.com, 2009, http://blog.metaprinter.com/2009/03/news-media-innovation-convergence-and-sustainability-interview-with-don-carli/
  4. Harold Henke. The global impact of ebooks on epublishing. In SIGDOC ’01: Proceedings of the 19th annual international conference on Computer documentation, pages 172–180, New York, NY, USA, 2001. ACM.
  5. Mark T.J. Carden. E-books are not books. In BooksOnline ’08: Proceeding of the 2008 ACM workshop on Research advances in large digital book repositories, pages 9–12, New York, NY, USA, 2008. ACM.

~ End Article and Begin Conversation ~

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