What We Really Talk About When We Talk About E-Books

This post was inspired by a few of the recent complaints posted to TeleRead about e-publishing standards, and by some of the other more Luddite anti-e-book comments that have appeared here and elsewhere online.


I think it’s worth reminding both e-book-pros and the anti-e-book contingent that in fact all books have been e-books from the word go, for many years now. What I mean is that almost all new publications since the mid-1980s have been laid out in software and digitized in at least some stage of their life cycle from manuscript to print.

There seems to be a myth among some anti-e-book diehards that somewhere in the publishing world there is still a loving process of manual typesetting and handcrafted design going on, to produce real solid physical books. Well, as a longtime editor for print, let me remind you that it just isn’t so. Perhaps at the most arcane end of the artist’s book world this may still survive, but everywhere else, what you are looking at when you open any page printed in the past two decades is digital text that has been transcribed back into physical print for distribution to you.

Manuscript gets digitized if it isn’t already. Then, it’s edited in Microsoft Word or other packages; poured into page layout software; designed onscreen and then set on film, to be printed often half a world away for cost reasons.

Anyone in publishing will be familiar with the term “camera-ready copy” for print which is ready to go to press. Well, if this is all about cameras, where on earth does the old-style Caxton approach come in? All that has happened with the e-book revolution is that display technology and distribution mechanisms have finally caught up with the underlying products.

PageMaker debuted in 1985, and incidentally, gave Apple its first big push for wide adoption of the Macintosh (no relation, by the way). If books really couldn’t be read or distributed on electronic media, like, say, food, there wouldn’t be an e-book revolution. There is, because they have been e-books for years, but thanks to Amazon and the iPad, we have just woken up to that fact. And publishers who claim to defend the special qualities of print are engaging in special pleading, and perpetuating a myth that they know bears no relation to their own actual business.

Please note: I’m not saying this to devalue the words themselves. Just to try to get a little more clarity and honesty about what we’re really talking about as the medium in which we read them.

Paul St John MackintoshAbout the Author:

Paul St John Mackintosh is a writer, journalist and former book editor, with two books of poetry in print (neither of them e-books just yet, alas). Mackintosh is based in both Central Europe and Asia, and he blogs at paulstjohnmackintosh.com.