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why On O’Reilly Radar, Hugh McGuire has made an interesting and provocative post that suggests that e-books may become more than just “digital versions of print books”. In fact, he suggests that “the line between book and Internet will disappear.” The thing is, I just can’t see why that should be right.

McGuire explains that, as digital information, there should be a lot more that we can do with e-books than we actually are doing with them now. The idea that e-books should be confined to being simply digital representations of paper text without additions or improvements, he feels, is there only because businesses are too scared to envision how the face of the publishing industry could change if the digital nature of e-books was taken to its logical conclusion.

What’s striking about this state of affairs — though not surprising, given the conservative nature of the publishing business, and the complete unknowns about business models — is that we define ebooks by a laundry list of things one cannot do with them:

  • You cannot deep link into an ebook — say to a specific page or paragraph chapter or image or table
  • Indeed you cannot really "link" to an ebook, only various access points to instances of that ebook, because there is no canonical "ebook" to link to … there is no permalink for a chapter, and no Uniform Resource Locator (url) for an ebook itself
  • You (usually) cannot copy and paste text, the most obvious thing one might wish to do
  • You cannot query across, say, all books about Montreal, written in 1942 — even if they are from the same publisher

McGuire adds that the EPUB spec is essentially a way of making a book into a self-contained website that doesn’t look like a website. Given that an EPUB e-book is a “website” already, he argues, all that is really necessary is for publishers to produce APIs that let e-books interface with the Internet to allow people to do far more with them than it is possible to do now.

Of course, there is a lot that McGuire does not say. Such as that for this to happen, publishers are probably going to need to give up on or at least radically alter the way they do DRM, because DRM is all about keeping e-books locked away from copying, and locked into that bookseller’s own specific platform. Opening books to web interconnectivity will at least require some considerable re-thinking of how that DRM works.

And I think there’s also a bit of “if you build it they will come” built into the assumptions McGuire makes. Do people want books to “live properly within the Internet”? I don’t entirely buy that people don’t want it to happen “because we just don’t know what business would look like” if it did. Maybe that’s how businesses think, but something that a lot of consumers are thinking about is privacy.

It’s evident that people are still worried about privacy, even if we now live in more of a panopticon age than ever. Witness the recent kerfuffles over Google’s Buzz implementation revealing private details of users’ accounts, Facebook’s ever-evolving privacy policies, and LiveJournal’s new crossposting-to-Facebook feature that threatened to include comments from private or friends-locked journal entries.

And books and one’s reading habits are often entirely private matters, especially if the books in question are e-books. Certainly when I’m reading I don’t want people intruding to ask me what I’m reading or how I like it. And erotica e-books have historically been very good sellers for the very reason that they have no revealing covers to give away what they are. And people are happy with that.

So when I think about Hugh McGuire saying that the distinction between e-books and the Internet may disappear, I then think of the average reader scratching his head and wondering, “Why would I want my e-book to be connected to the Internet? How will that make my reading experience any better? I’ve never needed my paper books to be connected to the Internet before.”

Given that nothing about actually reading a book requires that it be connected to the Internet, and a connection to the Internet could potentially reveal things that the person reading the book doesn’t want revealed, I’m just having a hard time seeing why this is all that desirable.

 
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