But What Is An Ebook, Anyway?

A Kindle Keyboard displaying text that says 'Books to get: Red Star over China Battle Hymn for China Saitch and Apter's book.'

Is this an accidental ebook?

 

My dictionary defines an ebook as ‘a book in electronic format designed to be read in an e-reader.’ It goes on to describe an e-reader as ‘a handheld electronic device for reading publications in electronic form.’ It’s certainly not a Gameboy accessory.

I’m unsure about the dictionary’s ideas on a few counts. Not every text that becomes an ebook originated as a book. On the Project Gutenberg there are short stories that were only intended to be printed in magazines. It’s also possible to convert any webpage into an ebook. Some texts become ebooks by accident, like the note that I saved onto my Kindle. I never thought of that as a book, yet it became an ebook. This could also happen to misplaced PDF files, although many of these are illegible on the kindle.

The description of an ebook as ‘a book in electronic format’ is also problematic in that a book, pamphlet, magazine or collection or books are indistinguishable from each other in an ‘electronic format.’ We can tell the difference between physical books and magazines through their different sizes, paper texture and the hardness of the covers. With ebooks, all you’ve got is nicely formatted text and pictures. I think it would be better to refer to ebooks as etexts, a term which would encompass everything from the lowliest misplaced note to the most lengthy novel.

I’m not so sure about the ereader definition. Many people read ebooks on their tablets and iPads, handheld devices that have not been exclusively designed for this purpose. Its also possible to read EPUB and MOBI files on a computer. I’ve read an entire book on a three inch MP3 player screen.

I’m still willing to accept that the definition of ereader as a dedicated ereading device, but I’d change the ebook definition to be ‘an electronic text designed to be read with an e-reader, but compatible with a range of digital technologies.’ That should stay relevant for a decade or two. The easiest thing would be to rename ebooks etexts, to avoid the problem of original intentions.

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