MP3s, eBooks, Digitizing and ‘The Experience’

So, the iPad is here – massive Dom Joly iPhone? half a laptop? eReader? The Daily Prophet for Muggles…?

I read a couple of people on Twitter making claims that it was going to ‘kill books’. In response I tweeted this quote from Douglas Adams, which I got via Neil Gaiman:

“Nothing is as good at being a book as a book is.”

And commented that eBooks ≠ MP3s for written words.

So what’s the difference? Why are book-sellers in a different position to those who were in the business of selling music-in-bits-of-plastic that are now crapping themselves that their livelihood is vanishing?

Firstly, digitally downloadable music is the most malleable, useful format ever for music, and we lose nothing in the quality of experience by going that route. Sure, the quality of files sold on iTunes is lower than CD, but don’t forget that CDs are just containers for digital music – they’re overly large computer discs – and that the audio on them is of a quality deemed acceptable to all but the most audiophile of listeners. With digital downloads, there’s nothing to stop us upping the quality to the point where the changes are undetectable – 24bit, 96k files are probably about as good as you need to go before the changes are imperceptible. We can do that, and once the headphones are on, or the speakers are playing the music, the experience is the same as any other format for listening to recorded stereo (or in the case of DVD-A, 5.1) music. Nothing is lost, portability and positively variable quality is gained. If you want the experience of popping something flat and physical in a slot while listening, you can make a piece of toast at the same time.

eBooks are a whole different proposition – the act of reading requires us to continually look at the thing we’re reading from. That’s what reading is. Otherwise, it’s memorising, and the act of memorising requires us to read – or listen to – the words before we learn them.

So books and eBooks aren’t just a delivery mechanism – they are the stereo system as well as the record. They are carried around as part of the experience.

This isn’t to say that eBooks ‘aren’t as good as books’, just that they AREN’T books. They are a wholly different way to consume the written word, with all kinds of fun multimedia potential too, but also with all kinds of issues surrounding readability, shareability, discovery, portability, flexibility, the ability to scribble notes in the margins and the format for gifting.

Comparing once again with music – if I want to give someone a CD, it’s quite possible for me to record a digital file onto any kind of transferable media I like and pass it on without losing anything. The same can be done with an eBook, but it’s much tougher to transfer from eBook to book – the cost of printing a document of book length at home is not comparitive with the cost of dubbing a CD and printing a nice picture on it.

Readability is a huge issue – the Kindle gets round it by using ‘E ink’ or ‘virtual ink’, rendering it much easier on the eyes, but making the screen much less multi-purpose. As far as I know, no-one yet has done a hybrid E-ink/normal screen. So you have the variable use of an iPad-style screen with its eye-strain issues for longer documents, or the Kindle which is a one-trick pony, all be it a fairly brilliant one trick pony.

The Kindle is utilitarian – it does its one function very well, without too many concessions to pointless stylization. The iPad may well be used by a lot of people as an eReader, but the experience won’t be the same as reading a book, it won’t be any more portable than an individual book, won’t fit in your back pocket and even if it did, would break if you sat on it.

This isn’t an anti eBook rant – I love the idea of downloadable, sharable books, I love the idea of subscribable news, of blogs and newspapers and novels living side by side in harmony, like Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney, but it’s worth considering the fundamental differences and why, as I said at the top, eBooks ≠ to MP3s for the written word.

….if you don’t believe you, go and download my eBook… for free! 🙂

Join the Conversation


  1. It’s notable that Apple’s iBook thing is a discrete offering with its own app and store and such. Also it’s just a vehicle for an established, open eBook format. This isn’t anything revolutionary – it’s just another way to sell mainstream publisher content.

    Now, if Apple were to do something with packages of digital content, like the web pages we used to build before Blogger emerged, something like those Apps that aren’t really Apps but little multi-media websites, and gave anyone a chance to sell them through the store, then that’d be interesting.

    See also:

    1. Pete, did you see the BBC stuff about the new ramped up audio format that allows you to bundle up to 32Gb of additional content with each track? sounds a little like what you’re saying. I’m looking forward to more innovation in both file formats and interface design. this still feels like fairly rudimentary stuff…

  2. Steve, I totally agree with every word you’ve written…and yet I think that, on balance, I don’t agree.

    For you and me, everything you’ve written is true, because that’s how we grew up reading – paper books, newspapers, magazines, etc. To this day, if I have to read anything significantly long I’d much rather have it on paper than on a screen.

    But I strongly suspect that the next generation – by which I mean those that have, from childhood, had lots of online material available, and who have grown up surrounded by laptops, Wiis, PlayStations, etc., I suspect that for this generation paper will be the weird experience, and online the norm. And so I’m lead to conclude that the book, while perfect at being a book (I too like the Douglas Adams quote) will in time be end-of-life’d because, while perfect, it will get to be insufficiently better than whatever-by-then-we-call-the-thing-thats-second-best. And the Kindle will be completely forgotten, just like the once-successful Wang word processor.

    1. I’m happy to concede that tech may (will?) change to facilitate things we can’t imagine right now – battery life and shareability are BIG issues here – but they experience still won’t be *the same* as a book.

      Choosing vinyl over digital audio is about how vinyl makes you *feel*, nostalgia or owning a great stereo optimised for vinyl and having enough records that it’s really not worth the energy to switch. The integration of a digital collection and an analogue one is easy and the experience interchangable. Not really so for books.

      As I said, it’s not that eBooks won’t prove to be better integrated with our tech-tied future – they may well – but the experience still won’t be the same…

      For one thing, books can still go where electricity can’t. 🙂

      1. Again, I agree yet maybe I don’t…

        …the work that Google is doing to nearly-automatically digitise vast libraries-worth of books will make the integration of digital and and analogue very achievable, just like the record labels making old material available as MP3s.

        …battery tech has improved in leaps and bounds in the last decade, entirely driven by the need to power mobile devices; no reason to think that this will stop anytime soon AFAIK

        …shareabaility…surely digitised media is the most shareable form? Certainly has been for music.

        …as for no electricity… you know how mobile companies are accelerating their 3rd world penetration? Solar chargers.

        Again, don’t get me wrong, I love books in many, many, ways, but I suspect that we will be the last generation that has this affinity for them.

  3. Morning all, interesting points made. The massive Dom Joly iPhone thought made me laugh 😉 The fundamental here is what people are used to. As Guitartim says, if you grow up used to everything being available electronically then I can imagine the idea of actually ‘buying a book’ (in the physical sense) would seem odd.

    Steve, I don’t know if this would tie in with the idea of physical ‘ownership’ that gets so much air in music circles? Maybe books (as we know them) will go the same way and in time everyone will just ‘rent’ content? Time, as ever, will tell.

    Personally, I love the ‘experience’ of reading a book, the whole tactile part of it and having them sit there on shelves and what have you, especially the sense that when I really get into a book, I’m fully immersed. I’m not multi-tasking or doing anything other than reading, something which I think is underrated these days. Here’s an article you might find interesting in a wider sense:

    I’m not a luddite (well, er………!) but I think it would be a shame for the ‘experience’ of books to disappear completely, however long that takes.

    Be well.

  4. Some facts about fiction
    I agree with Guitartim. In his ‘last generation’ bit and his shareability question. Whilst I don’t particularly like the idea of being on a train with 50 people all heads down into another plastic device and I have to admit I do like the idea of people still reading fiction. It’s hardly a dying art for our generation but what of the future? People read fewer books in general. You can barely give newspapers away. What are people doing with there spare time? Is TV that good? With faster download speeds will the net be our primary enter/infotainment centre? What will the 2030 Ikea catalogue look like without a huge section devoted to bookshelves because we won’t need them anymore?

    Gah, I love books. I love technology. But let’s get some points straight…

    I’m a print romantic.
    I’ve been trained as a designer for print and I get off on something coming hot off the press or the smell of a freshly purchased book. Also, I’m nosey. I like the idea of a book cover acting as a piece of self promotion when its on someone’s table or openly read on public transport. It acts in a similar way to some compatability question on a dating website: the ‘I know you’re reading Harry Potter matey, adult cover or not’ factor if you will. Or wondering if I should get into Balzac to make me seem more intellectual. eBooks hide that. They become nothing more than extended text messages. I can’t tell whether you’re laughing at; Private Eye or some 3rd world economic crisis in The Times.
    I also lament MP3’s destruction of having a physical presence to substantiate having a really nice printed gatefold album cover (big enough to put on your wall where a bookshelf may have been). eBooks will have the same issue. Sure, chuck a 33k jpeg in there somewhere. I think squinting through the pixels I can see the authors name. It’s not rocking my world.
    Physically having something you’ve parted your money for seems like a great exchange (even if its merely packaging). And something the iTunes generation have had to bite the bullet for. Men especially are – for want of a better word – ‘Completists’ and going to great lengths to fill space with Bowie’s entire back catalogue or Seasons 1-8 of Buffy to proudly display like some nerdy peacock. Men now gauge their music collection in how much time their music collection last (4 weeks if you’re asking) or how much diskspace it takes up (I have my own server farm in California just for my Cure collection). Will books go the same way? Will I be measuring my books not in actual physical space, but how many words my iPad has or geek stats such as ‘4.2 trillion words, but badger is only mentioned 24 times’?

    The ‘can I borrow that after you?’ factor
    The argument about them not being books is a good one. They’re not. They could be much more.
    This will happen in our time. Trust me. Editable story lines, character name changes, you decide. I’d liken it to books like Warlock of Firetop Mountain where you basically had various storylines all chosen by you. Why stop there. Alternate endings. Animated illustrations. The book literally could come to life. Let’s Avatar it up and have 3D type and content. Why not? Perhaps by altering the content means you could become the author. With your name on it would your friends be more interested in it and therefore participate in it also. Who knows. But it sounds great fun.
    You may be thinking, would you alter a classic? Would you deface the Mona Lisa? Nope, its great where it is. Would I also look at a Banksy version of it? Yes, why not? Would a Banksy version make me want to see the original? Yeah, then you can make a comparison.

    The readability issue
    Design periodical Émigré magazine once told us ‘People Read Best What They Read Most’. Though it was based on a typographic argument in the early 90s when Design/Typography was deconstructed by the likes of David Carson et al. The ‘deconstruction’ took design to a new level of art (strongly aided by Apple’s shiny new Mac II), it was strongly criticized for its legibility. However, the deconstructionists retaliation was to point out that Newsprint was once typeset in Black Gothic lettering, deemed unreadable now by our lazy san serif ‘The Sun’ reading eyes.
    What does this all mean though in context? Well, is readability is an issue on the new iPad for us? Tough. We’re slipping out of the target market. They’ll be some die hards in the future for vintage in much the same way as vinyls not dead to the dance generation. Hell, even in this age you still see people smoking a pipe. But if you get used to reading copy somewhere or on something then it’ll eventually become normal. Hell, it’s the job of the designer to get this right and keeping people like me in a job because making copy easier to read is part of the job description. Print, online or sprayed on a wall.

    So, I’ve no real point as you can tell. I’m just a big fan of fiction and by default will become a big fan of anything that promotes the writing of fiction. Having read this blogpost on an iPhone will I be an iPad convert?

    Only if it comes with a spine.


  5. I’ve read a few ebooks, but never on a dedicated ‘eReader’. I’ve used Palm PDAs and my current WinPhone. They work for linear fiction where all you do is scroll down, but I can see problems with things like reference books where you need to look up pages on a topic, make notes etc. But for that sort of reading I tend to use the web these days, e.g. for checking on how to use a programming function.

    As for newspapers, I shouldn’t think they work so well on an eReader if just copied over as a series of pages, but could work well in hypertext mode, i.e. like the web.

    I still read books, but that’s mostly out of habit and because they are easily available.

    I don’t particularly want a Kindle or even an iPad. I prefer general purpose devices so that I don’t need to carry several, but that always seems to be a compromise. My phone is a PDA, eReader, camera and audio player, but not ideal for all of those. It still allows me to have one device, with one memory card and one battery to charge and still do all those things whilst fitting in my pocket.

    I suspect that the book will be around for a while yet, but certain types of reading will move more to other media. The book stopped evolving a long time ago, but eReaders still have a long way to go. We are likely to see bendable, full-colour, touch screen, very high resolution devices with full connectivity within a few years. But some people may still prefer the dead tree version.

  6. I have Kindle. It’s a fine piece of equipment, but Kindle’s and iPad’s DRM makes a really strong argument against digital equipment of their ilk. I mean to have a book, but not to be able to make backups that work on a different make or model of an ereader is extremely frustrating. That raises the threshold of buying new ebooks pretty high – I don’t like the idea of single-use disposable literature. If I read in long form, I fully expect to read the text again several times (if it’s enjoyable and/or gives lasting value).

    Publisher O’reilly has it right: I can download the ebook in any format I choose for as long as I wish – the book is bought and paid for once.

    I really am disappointed to see Apple go into really draconian measures of content and device control.

  7. I got to try a couple of eReaders at a demo session put on by University Library staff yesterday. They had the Kindle and also the Sony PRS-600. Of the two, I thought the Sony (with touchscreen rather than the Kindle’s piddly little joystick) was the better device. Neither really grabbed me though.

    What would interest me would be a larger epaper device (small screens miss a lot of the benefits of printed text) that you could hook up to your computer and “print” to. In other words, a system that smoothly integrates with and expands the abilities of the rest of my computer set up, not another little DRM-fenced fiefdom.

  8. I love books and I also buy e-books. What I like about e-books is the instant gratification that I get and of course I can get sucked into the marketing hype that makes me want it! I’ll read the file and if it’s something I want around, I’ll print it or buy the book version (if available). E-books are just an extra experience for me and for marketers, a cheaper way to distribute.

    Mp3 files … I have a confession, well perhaps a few 🙂 I’ve never bought one, have I downloaded any, maybe a few. Do I buy CD’s or albums… not since 1978 and ahem and I’m a musician. I think CD’s are a piece of toast and miss those younger days when I would rush out to buy Stanley Clarke or Jaco, or Black Sabbath, Cream etc and oggle over the beautiful cover art and read every liner note.

    When Cd’s started making their mark on Vinyl I opted out of buying music, why? I didn’t like the fact that we were now being fed, by Major Labels that CD was it. I’ve always thought CD’s were an interim product while someone comes up with a new audiophile solution. 30 years we have waited while the Majors have plundered the population, and not only that but now we have a generation of kids that have grown up with shitty MP3 files (I’d be gettin mine free too!!!).

    Now can Mp3’s be put in their rightful place a tasters and teasers for a better listening product.

    I’m never going to replace my real books with whatever electronic device comes along. It would be like giving up my real bass for a keyboard or convincing myself that Mainstages slight delay is ok and can be worked around… bullocks.

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