When is an e-book not a book?

I read The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore today and I was gobsmacked. The e-book is filled with glorious pictures, marvellous animations and engaging interactivity.

Of course, this isn’t the only title that takes advantage of its medium. For example, Rob Brydon has added audio and video components to his autobiography Small Man in a Book, while the textbooks on the Inkling app include animations, quizzes and social study tools.

The marketing copy for The Fantastic Flying Books calls it “an interactive narrative experience” that “blurs the line between picture books and animated film”.

Inkling “turns paper-based textbooks into engaging, interactive learning experiences while staying compatible with the print book for classroom use”.

All this got me thinking: where do we draw the line?

When is an e-book not a book…?

A laptop, Kindle and other devices a table.

The definition of a book

To me, a “book” is a collection of written words that together form a story. The text activates the mind and fires the imagination. The process is often assisted by illustrations.

Of course, the definition of a book can no longer be limited to sheets of paper bound together. The relentless march of technology has ushered the concept into an electronic format. Arguably, the introduction of multimedia elements is a continuation of that evolution.

At what point, however, does the nature of a book transform so much that it becomes something else?

Semantics, semantics

If we replace text with an image, we call it a picture.

If we replace it with illustrated motion, we call it an animation.

If we replace it with a recording, we call it audio or video.

If we combine all of the above, do we not call it an online course…?

When you think about it, a media rich e-book is what a pedagogically-sound online course ought to be:

  • engaging
  • interactive
  • learner centered
  • logically structured
  • founded on storytelling

Sure, it’s linear, but so are many online courses! In fact, authoring tools like Lectora leverage the metaphor of a book – with terms like “pages” and “chapters” – to arrange the content. (Besides, I don’t think linearity is necessarily a bad thing, so long as the learner is empowered to navigate as they please.)

But it may just be semantics after all. In this digital age, when convergence is inevitable, perhaps labels become inconsequential.

As Shakespeare’s Juliet observed, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.

6 thoughts on “When is an e-book not a book?

  1. Thanks for a great post Ryan. I’m absolutely fascinated by the Inkling concept. My background is veterinary science and I’m really interested in innovative teaching and learning, which I did not get when I was a student. It’s really opened my eyes to what is out there and I’m excited by the potential.

  2. Thanks Rebekah.

    My background is in environmental science :0)

    I wish the animations in particular were around when I was at uni!

  3. Gobsmacked – I had pretty much the same reaction the first time I experienced The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. I’ve been evangelizing it ever since! None of the other “book apps” that I’ve come across quite match it’s quality when it comes to the blend of beautifully done artwork, clever interactivity, and enchanting storytelling.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Anita. The Fantastic Flying Books has set the bar very high. On the other side of the coin, I hope it doesn’t discourage independent authors from self-publishing their own work. There’s room for everyone!

  5. When is an eBook not an eBook … is usually answered with “when it’s an App”. I don’t want or need any more Apps, what I need is a publishing platform that can encourage the mix of media forms in one single easy to use and easy to publish format. ePub3 is as close as we’re likely to get for some time.

    The question is what’s the hold up? Is it the content and infrastructure? Is it the big publishing companies and their reluctance to relinquish hold on an out-dated model of publishing and royalty earnings? Is it our reliance on App developers to produce an App, not eBook, to deliver this interaction and engaging content?

    Which ever, we need continual development in this area and, for me, it’s obvious we can’t rely on ‘big’ business to help change .. perhaps a kickstarter campaign … ?


  6. Good questions, David. I’d say the answers to all of them are generally “yes”, and I’d add that we are also reliant on DIY software to proceed independently. On this point, I hope the likes of Calibre continue to evolve.

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