2012.05 History: April Feature: E-Books

Presented by Dave Weston, summarized by Holly McEntee

What are e-books? First Dave helped us understand what e-books are not:
  • e-books are not audiobooks. These are sound files (e.g. .mp3, .mp4, .wav).
  • e-books are not text files (like TextEdit, Pages, or Word documents).
  • e-books are not web pages (like reading the first chapter of a book sold by Amazon)
  • e-books are not PDFs. (Portable Document Format files provide an electronic image of text or text and graphics that looks like a printed document and can be viewed, printed, and electronically transmitted.)

Dave then explained that an e-book is a new type of computer file that presents the contents of a traditional hardcopy book in a digital format that is accessed by a handheld device or computer and allows a high degree of interactivity. While gaining in popularity, the e-book industry is still in its infancy. Traditional book publishers are struggling to maintain control over the distribution of, and the prices that can be charged for, e-books. This has resulted in different e-book formats, each proprietary to specific e-book readers. (Moby and ePub are the most popular e-book formats at the moment.) Specifically, it is the copy-protection component of e-books, known as Digital Rights Management (DRM), that differs between e-book publishers and sellers. This is why not all e-books work the same on iPads, Kindles, Nooks, and other e-book devices. There are apps that allow devices to read e-books that use other companies' DRM software — for example, there is a Kindle app for the iPad that allows iBooks to read Kindle e-books purchased through Amazon.com. However not all apps exist for all devices, and even where they do the user is forced to own multiple apps just to read their e-books. Also, due to the different file formats a third-party app such as Calibre is needed if you want to organize all of your e-books simultaneously.

The advantages of e-books were noted, including:
  • the reader can change the font size (helpful to those with aging eyes),
  • the lighting can be adjusted on the e-book device to the reader's comfort,
  • several dozens or hundreds of books can be carried around at a time in the e-book device (as opposed to toting several heavy tomes hither and yon), and
  • e-books of course use no paper in their production (The environmental friendliness of this aspect is mitigated somewhat by the fact that e-book devices use electricity, contain metals that must be mined from the Earth, and are shipped to the US from halfway around the planet. Oh, well.)

It was noted that several schools, from grade schools to universities and tech-school programs, are moving to using e-books for their textbook needs. Embedded images, audio files, and weblinks to practice exams and discussion forums are among the features that lend themselves well to textbooks.

Dave briefly demonstrated how one could create an e-book from existing text documents, scanned images of hardcopy books, or within special e-book-creation apps. For example, the iWork app Pages has the ability to format text documents created within it to the ePub format ... which, coincidentally, is the e-book file format used by iBooks. The free app iBookAuthor (only available for OS Lion, and not for iOS) lets the user create textbooks with full color pictures and interactive content, although there are some limitations. We did not have time to talk much about e-publishing (the ability for authors to publish their work electronically without having to rely on book contracts with publishing houses) but suffice it to say that e-books and e-publishing give a greater flexibility to new authors and authors in speciality genre niches to actually get their work into the hands of readers.

The general consensus is that the concept of e-books is tremendously exciting, and as the industry matures we can expect the stability of the e-book format to improve, the variety of books available as e-books to expand, and for e-books to generally take hold in our daily lives the way so many other digital media have done.

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