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.


  1. I find that links within the e-book to other parts of the e-book are very handy. Link to a footnote, read and return is even easier than a paper book. Link to illustrations, chapters, appendices, etc also. As for outside the book, how about linking to the author’s list of books available, at least it will be an updated version rather than all those that came before but none of those that came after. Authors could ask for feedback and provide a link. I remember reading a programmed book about studying for one’s private pilots license that was a perfect candidate for an e-book. Instead of going to a particular page depending on a quiz answer, one would link to it. Perfect, yet I have not seen this being done. On the other hand I am long out of school.

  2. Most of what Hugh is addressing regards non-fiction, informational reading rather than long-form-narrative reading. His concerns are about getting at the data currently trapped in books/eBooks with the ease and granularity already afforded when it’s been put on the internet rather than put in a book. What would make books better, for him and people like him, is the ability to quickly find or easily refer to the specific information they need from a book – which the current paradigm of eBooks doesn’t allow, and which he would like to see corrected.

    An important concept is that, generally, such changes aren’t applied in an either/or fashion. It isn’t “all books must become a seamless part of the internet,” it’s that many books (and their readers) would be better served by adapting eBooks to encompass some of the capabilities of we associate with the internet. We don’t need paper books to go away in order to be able to link directly to a specific chapter of an eBook, and we don’t need encapsulated eBooks to go away in order to be able to copy/paste a useful piece of info from another.

    Also, I feel that your privacy concerns are a red herring to Hugh’s statements. He isn’t proposing a social environment for reading (we have those: BookGlutton, GoodReads, Shelfari, LibraryThing, wattpad & weblit in general, et cetera), he is proposing that books become more like web sites. Re: privacy; in the same way no one knows what websites you look at unless you intentionally share them (Delicious, StumbleUpon, a weblog), no one would know what books-with-internet-like-features you were reading unless you chose to share.

    The easiest example of why you would want your eBook to be more like the internet is the ability to link directly to a specific page. When talking about the internet, you know what this means: You can refer someone directly to this page on teleread.com, and they can find the specific info you wanted to share. When talking about a paper book, there’s a literal page number to refer someone to, in order to get them to the information you want to share. Right now with eBooks, there is no equivalent. Right now with eBooks, it’s as though you could only refer to the title of the paper book or to the top-level-domain teleread.com, and people just had to find their way from there. — This is why you want your eBook to be more like the internet. This is how it will make your experience better. Go actually read his article (or your pull-quote from it) for many other examples.

  3. Just another silly article written to provoke reaction. He looks in an ePub document and sees xhtml and then looks at a web site and see html and wow… ebooks must be the same as the web ! duh …….

  4. The “improvements” that some people are looking to add to books aren’t really improvements at all. I read to ESCAPE my every day world–and that includes the Internet. I don’t want to be reminded about other references to what I’m reading, I don’t care what other people are reading or are saying about what they are reading and I definitely don’t want a video popping up to destroy what my imagination has created from the author’s words.

    If you’re the type of person who has to be socially connected 24/7, then, by all means live your life on the Internet, but leave my books alone.

  5. @chris … I was going to answer, but @teel’s response just about covers it. to add just one other comment: books being hooked into the web does not equal reading on the web. i expect the reader will be able to decide format: print, self-contained/unconnected ebook, or connected ebook (either synced or streamed).

    That is: the canonical version of a book is in the cloud, hooked into the net, with text/media/structure/metadata/design info specified. The formats that people choose to read in is their business.

    @January: why would books being hooked into the web stop you from reading a book uninterrupted? couldn’t you just read the paper version? or, if you wished, the ebook version uncluttered with bells & whistles?

  6. Doesn’t putting external links (hrefs) in already work in iBook epubs (perhaps extending the current epub standard), sending you to a page in Safari? I guess he’s thinking some something more.

  7. I can certainly see why I would would want to have links out to the Internet from eBooks. I spent a great deal of time on the Internet during the reading of my last three pBooks (admittedly non-fiction) looking at content related items. For me, it’s a step in the right direction.

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