Ben Cameron at the Huffington Post has noted an essential difference between print volumes and their electronic versions: rules of process, i.e., how they get used by readers.
In his introduction to the 2009 edition of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Doctor Who writer Russell T Davies praises the tattered old paperback copy of Douglas Adams' sci-fi classic that he carried around in his back pocket in his school days. I had one too and I loved it just as much.
Davies ends his introduction with, "Maybe ebooks are going to take over one day, but not until those wizzkids in Silicon Valley invent a way to bend the corners, fold the spine, yellow the pages, add a coffee ring or two and allow the plastic tablet to fall open at a favourite page."
In a word, it's the experience incurred in one's use of a thing that defines its substance. And it gets worse:
There are two ironies at work here. First, I read that introduction on the ebook version on my Kindle, which the publisher digitised straight from the print version of the book without a second thought. And second, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the book that Adams' book is about, is an ebook. Here is how Adams describes The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: "...a device which looked rather like a largish electronic calculator. This had about a hundred tiny flat press-buttons and a screen about four inches square on which any one of a million 'pages' could be summoned at a moment's notice."
He has just described my Kindle.
Ironies aside, Cameron actually does an enormous service in thinking about his paperback turned e-book this way. He informs us that E-Books have rules of engagement that print volumes don't.
The rule of process for a paperback are easy:
Step 1: Pick up.
Step 2: Open.
Step 3: Read.
Step 4: Close when finished (Optional).
Step 5: Place in a secure location (Recommended).
The rules of process for an E-Book are rather more complicated:
At the moment publishers are quickly churning out ebook versions of the mainstays of their print backlists. But more often than not they are doing so without giving a moment's thought to making even the simplest of changes to the printed book. So we end up with an introduction to an ebook that sings the praises of paperbacks or ebook cover images taken straight from printed books that boast of illustrations - when the illustrations have been stripped from the ebook editions.
Rule 1: the contents do not always reflect reality.
That's a cheap shot--there are plenty of print volumes that don't reflect reality due to their age, the limitations of the author, or the fact that they're not meant to inform as much as propogandize--but it bears thinking about. A more precise statement would be that the contents of an E-Book does not always reflect the medium. Part of that is human nature. It's just plain impossible to keep with with every new thing that presents itself and very little of the new apps, coding languages, or gadgets take advantage of how people think or behave. We adopt to the tech, not the other way around. Meanwhile a publisher needs to make money now, not lay the groundwork for what will be happening in five or ten (or fifteen or twenty) years. Shortcuts are taken, expediency wins over c0ntext. That thirty year old introduction is taken verbatim from the print edition and slapped into the electronic version. Stuff happens.
Rule 2: E-Books are naturally fragile.
I think that Russell T. Davies said this better in the above quote than I could. Print books don't break when you drop them, short out when you spill coffee on them, or disappear into the ether when a publisher stops producton. E-Books (and their readers) are known to do all that. Show me a Kindle that has survived as well as the Edwin Smith Papyrus and I'll rethink my position.
Rule 3: E-Books are often published as afterthoughts.
This is starting to change as publishers and editors who are used to working primarily with electronic editions come into their own. That said, when the big five publishers and their subsidiaries try to do this, the results are rather like what Cameron describes in the case of Douglas Adams: a direct port into a what is essentiqally a giant PDF. At the moment, small press publishers and writers who write for niche markets have a real advantage over the giant. Want the really cool electronic titles? Keep an eye on that space.
Cameron concludes by noting what should be obvious to us to live and breathe among these gadgets:
Certainly Douglas Adams was a pioneer of computerised content including game versions of THG2TG, so my guess is that he would have been pushing forward the boundaries of book technology - a fact that should play to his publishers' strengths. By and large publishers are creative people. Creativity is what they do well and enjoy. And with creative publishers technology can be used in ways that expand traditionally printed books. The app version of Stephen Fry's Chronicles, My Fry, was a great example of this. Recognising that it was a book for dipping in and out of, Penguin Books created an electronic version that emphasised the index so that readers could move about the book in a non-linear, topic based way.
So, with all that technology has to offer now, why am I reading a science-fiction novel about an electronic book in an electronic format that pretends to be a paperback?