For centuries, a book has been known as a collection of pages bearing text and images, bound together between wood, cloth or paper covers—an object that one can hold, touch, smell and see in one’s hands. Yet the form of the book has evolved; today, there are books made without paper, whose pages scroll on a screen. Called electronic books or e-books, these are texts in digital form which can be downloaded from the Internet and read on a computer or a special reading device. Though the book’s physical elements are rendered intangible in this format, an e-book, as a container and transmitter of ideas, remains essentially the same as its print counterpart—with a few marked differences.
The e-book has been around for decades in several formats, mainly to preserve existing books. It was during the heyday of palmtop computers, called personal digital assistants (PDAs), that publishers and technology companies jumped onto the bandwagon, setting up online bookstores and developing new e-book formats for display on desktop computers, PDAs and other handheld devices.
However, the technology available during the 1990s and early 2000s made it difficult to read e-books. Computers were too bulky to lug around, and existing device screens strained the eyes. Even dedicated e-readers were hampered by hard-to-read text, volatile memories and short battery lives. Thus, while e-books never died out, they were left in the background as the e-reading device died a slow death. It had sporadic revitalizations courtesy of companies like Sony and iRex (which has since closed and become IRX Innovations), but never really took off again until the advent of E Ink technology, and the birth of the Kindle.
Now, more reliable hardware are available to tempt even the most hardened supporters of the print book format. The notion of a few gigabytes’ worth of expandable storage plus a nifty few-centimeters-thick device, serve as primary attractions to buyers. But where would devices be without quality books?
Instant and global
Unlike traditional books, e-books are very portable. While one can be hampered by storage space or transportation in building a library of printed books, one can carry thousands of e-books in a single device. E-books can also be purchased around the clock from virtually anywhere in the world, without the hassle of waiting lists, long queues, or limited stock. Some e-books are equipped with features such as search engines and hyperlinks to online resources, sparing readers from manually going through indices or references.
There are also advantages for writers and publishers. Some works never see print or widespread distribution because of considerations like marketability or shelf space, but digital publishers and bookstores are not subject to these constraints. They have leeway to feature a wider variety of work and cater to niche audiences. Publishers also stand to profit from e-books, since they can produce any number of titles without printing, paper or shipping costs, while only needing to make one copy of each book.
Yet while e-book technology provides what conventional books cannot, technology is also the reason why e-books can become difficult to use. E-books come in different formats, each with its own strengths and limitations. Some formats better support text with graphics or tables, while others sport features such as bookmarks and hyperlinks. Readers must select the format best suited to their preferences as well as keep up with ever-evolving technologies.
One must also consider which reading device to use. Each has its own unique features and reads different e-book formats. PDF and EPUB formats are compatible with different devices, but other formats are tailored for specific readers. MOBI, for example, used to be made for the eBookman device; it is now exclusive to the Kindle by virtue of Amazon’s purchase of the Mobipocket company, which developed the format. And although e-books are cheaper than printed ones, devices are expensive and subject to software malfunction, diminishing battery life, and physical damage—while a printed book can remain intact for decades.
For many, the key difference between printed and electronic books is that the latter do not have the aesthetic appeal or sentimental value of the former; the novelty and convenience of e-books can never replace the sensory experience of reading an exquisitely crafted printed book.
Yet each format is bound to have its own appeal, and the e-book should not necessarily be viewed as a replacement of the printed book, but as its extension. The form might have evolved, but the purpose has not changed. Whether it conveys the writer’s ideas on paper or onscreen, a book remains a book.
This article first appeared in the Vee Press e-book primer, which was printed and given away at the Future of the Book conference on Sept. 13-14, 2010, and was later posted on the technology section of The Philippine Online Chronicles.