Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What is a book?

Just when we thought we'd made progress in getting people to recognize eBooks as books, we start muddying the waters again with how much interactivity we can put in an eBook! I'm really not going to be a curmudgeon about this, but watching Liza Daly's demo at IDPF Digital Book 2010 really got me thinking about the future of the book again. You can take a look at her excellent demo at the Threepress Consulting Blog.

It strikes me that we can come up with all kinds of demos to show practical applications of possible technology, but only time will tell whether our cool technology will actually be adopted for general use, whether it will be limited to very specialized applications, or if it will go the way of the irritating and ill-fated "blink" attribute in HTML. There are really two fundamental questions regarding the adoption of technology in any artform, and I include books as an artform.
  1. Does the technology solve a problem that currently limits artists?

  2. Does the technology inspire new uses that expand the art?

The motion picture, for example, may not have solved a specific problem that early photographers had, although some of the technology regarding the speed of film and developing techniques certainly had a positive impact on still photography. It did, however, inspire a new artform. There are still photographers, perhaps in greater number today than ever before. There are also movie-makers and videographers. They are not necessarily the same people, even though they have common roots.

So when I look at new eBook interactive technology, I can see the development of some new artforms that may or may not have the take-up speed of motion pictures. I don't see adding interactive maps, satellite views of the Seattle Waterfront, and a video poker game to my noir mystery book (For Blood or Money) just because the detective lives and travels around Seattle, has an office on the waterfront, and plays poker. Frankly, I think that would detract from a novel. It might, however, be a great project for a new medium--maybe even one that I'd like to explore. I just wouldn't sell it as a book.

I recently adopted one of my on-line novels (Stn. George & the Dragon) as a stage play. While there are words in common in both renditions, the play is vastly different than the novel. It is a different medium. In the same way, I think the introduction of vast amounts of interactivity in what was a book and then an eBook heralds the introduction of a new artform. I can see some incredible developments in the area of textbooks and learning materials coming as a result of eBook interactivity. I can also see a whole new entertainment medium being born. I guess what I don't see is an effect on the novel. On the other hand, if someone solves significant problems like good adaptation across different device sizes, variable spacing and hyphenation for justified text, and page turning speed on eInk devices, that could solve some real problems with eBook novels.

In summary, the terms "book," "eBook," and "interactive eBook" may describe advances in technology, but they do little to define the artform. This will be done by people writing novels, textbooks, and interactive entertainment.

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