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Is the "e" in ebooks the new blink tag?

How one vowel creates a limiting design paradigm

Do you remember the blink tag? My gosh, I do. This was back when we were indiscriminately mixing our content and presentation, our HTML and our CSS, our data and its display. Usually you’d be graced with this tag in some horrible sort of “40% off!” fashion.

40p_off.jpg

We’d all grimace at this abuse of the web (and even the most common sense of design). Why? Well, besides the tag itself being obnoxious, this was a classic case of taking your content and manually controlling how that content would look. That little bit of data — “40% off” — was inexorably and permanently linked with a bit of formatting — the <blink> tag.

And you all know about this, whether your knowledge is localized to the blink tag, or just produced in a growing separation-of-content model for web design and development. Hardly anyone intentionally and consistently mixes content and presentation in web pages these days. CSS (and SASS, in some circles) simply makes it too easy to keep your style separate from your content.

So here we are in 2010, all design-sophisticates, separating our content from our style. Well, on the web we are. The more I listen and watch and involve myself in ebooks, though, the more I find myself thinking about the blink tag again. And while I think the term “ebook” is useful and possibly necessary for intelligent conversation, I just wonder if that little “e” in front of “ebook” might be on its way toward becoming the new blink tag.

I won’t draw this out. I’ll make it simple. Right now, I’m typing into Movable Type’s editor. I’m typing words, and sentences, and paragraphs. And MT will take those words, sentences, and paragraphs–my content–and display it on the Radar blog, formatted, styled, easily consumable by web browsers and RSS readers.

Typing-in-MT.png

At no point has it even occurred to me, until right now, that I’m in fact typing e-words or e-sentences. I’ve not thought about adding an e-carriage return to separate this e-paragraph from the next e-paragraph.

How absurd would that be? Come on. I’m just typing. I’m creating content. Plain old raw content. And it just so happens that my content will be delivered in a particular format (a blog). I suppose if O’Reilly wanted, they could assemble this content with a bunch of other content, and print the sum of all that content into a book. It wouldn’t be an e-book because its content started out digital. That’s just as silly as saying that because content first lived in printed form, and then was released digitally, we have a digital print book.

Web 2.0 Expo San FranciscoSo why the “e” in ebook? Yes, I know there are some naming issues. We have to use language, and we need some means of distinguishing a book bound with glue, printed on paper, from a book that lives purely in the digital realm. I get that with every bit of my editor-laden, grammarian being. Communication requires a distinction.

But I’m increasingly seeing the ebook treated as more than just a language distinction. I see people creating content with a specific display paradigm in mind. The content assumes a certain width of screen; a certain font size. Images are being inserted not because they belong, but “because iPhone and iPad users will expect more imagery.”

Really?

So just because your image is easier to look upon than a blink tag, are we not returning to a very bad time in the history of the Internet?

So let’s be clear: I’m saying something that isn’t overly original, but bears saying (again). The first group/publisher/company/person who moves away from the ebook and to content–content that can be delivered to a variety of media, digital and non-digital, with display and style applied separate from and after content creation–wins. They’ll have lower costs involved with taking content and making it available on multiple platforms. They’ll have content that can adapt to new formats quickly, because there’s no “un-presenting” content before it can be repurposed for another platform.

distribute.jpg

Sure, we’ll always have ebooks. But can we all hope that this becomes a term based on a distinction in display format and medium, rather than a fundamental distinction between one type of content and another? I’m really not up for another blink tag.

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  • BmoreKarl

    Um. Should 75 percent of the text of your page be blinking? (I’m on up-to-date Firefox running on a Mac)

    I thought O’Reilly would be ahead of the game on presentation, but it’s really hard to read a page where the text is only there 50% of the time.

    Maybe you forgot that in printing the tag, some browsers would interpret it as a command?

    hmmm.

    ;)

    (my own wlink tag)

  • Brett

    Ha ha, BmoreKarl, now that’s funny. MT escaped the brackets in the title, but let them go untouched in the body of the article. Needless to say, it’s been fixed.

    I’m trying to decide if I’m embarrassed, or it’s just a great case-in-point.

    Also interesting that Safari ignores blink but Firefox doesn’t.

  • Mac Slocum

    @BmoreKarl: Ugh. Sorry about that.

    Hope your eyes didn’t bleed too much!

  • Michael R. Bernstein

    I think you’re underestimating the impact of the medium on your writing. Don’t bloggers insert outgoing links “because blog readers will expect more links” to some extent?

    In fact, while you weren’t typing e-words or e-sentences, you were typing up a *web* page, and that almost certainly did inform your writing.

    ‘Style’ does not solely apply to formatting, but also to the content itself, at least insofar as the word ‘content’ applies to a string of arranged words, rather than to some notion of abstract knowledge.

    Is “because iPhone and iPad users will expect more imagery” that much different than our expectation that magazines will (on average) be visually richer than bound books? Thnak our expectation that blog posts will in turn be shorter than magazine articles? I do agree that it is premature to declare the characteristics and our expectations of a young medium, but it isn’t unreasonable to anticipate that those characteristics and expectations will in fact be somewhat different than their antecedents.

  • Xavier Badosa
  • Brett McLaughlin

    Michael-

    I actually agree with your premise, which might seem like I’m contradicting myself. Rather, I think we have limited our content for way too long based on the medium. So what you’re proposing is that we enrich our content based on the new medium; I say something functionally identical: we enrich our content, because we should. It’s just that we finally have a device that can display that enriched content well.

    I plan on writing a follow-up to this and Dale’s wonderful Hypercard piece later this week on just this idea: does my suspicion of writing content aimed at a particular device mean we don’t take advantage of that device? Doesn’t that in fact limit our creativity and good use of that target device? No, not if you think about things differently. So great comment, and I hope my follow-up addresses it in much greater detail than this quick comment.

    -Brett

  • Paul M. Watson

    I waffled something similar to a friend in dead-tree publishing awhile back and he said it takes a whole team to get “content” from the author into a usable format in a book and another team to get it into an eBook. Everything from the obvious (editing, typography) to the non-obvious (where to break a sentence, where to insert a diagram) etc. He said authors will even get in on the act of where to break a sentence and that page size can be chosen based on it (so that you don’t miss the impact of an important sentence because you have to flip over the page.)

    So it seems easy in the digital world but the devil is in the details. If we are just talking about raw access then fine, but there are finer points to reading content that the medium defines.

    Agreed that the technology that streamlines the process will have an impact though. I’m just not sure we can install an extra WordPress plugin and have it ;)

  • Karl Fogel

    Wonderful post, Brett! I’ve been having a vaguely uneasy feeling about the word “ebook” for a long time, but hadn’t really thought about why.

    @Michael Bernstein’s comment: good point. But on the other hand, in practice the continuum along which writings tend to fall is more about ephemeral-vs-longterm than about online-vs-print. For example, when I’m writing a carefully researched and thought-out piece, it will have about the same number of links or references no matter what format it’s intended for (note how even when they appear only in treeware, “serious” books are heavily linked-up with references).

    Also, with such pieces one is more likely to be aiming for something approaching format-independence anyway — you want it to work both on the printed page and online. This can extend to optional inclusion of images too, especially now that we’re moving toward a world in which the reader (rather than the publisher) may have the choice of whether or not to bear the expense of printing color images when making a treeware version.

  • clarev

    XML, baby, XML. Check it out.

  • John H

    I’m all for minimising assumptions about whatever medium content is delivered on, but sometimes the medium and the message are inexorably linked.

    Consider a pop-up book. Consider those board-books for babies. Consider pamphlets designed to fit in pockets and through letterboxes. Consider design-heavy coffee table books. Consider glossy magazines, for years carefully designed for a specific paper size, and now a real challenge to adapt for iPhones and e-Readers.

    Yes, it’s reasonably easy for a novel or a typical tech book. But it’s not always so easy for other kinds of content, and so somebody has to do the work of fitting the content to the medium.

  • Juande Santander

    Pounding on what John H has said, I think this essay “Books in the era of the iPad” is well worth reading:

    http://craigmod.com/journal/ipad_and_books/

  • Phillip Fayers

    I think you’re right on the multiplatform content thing. Safari goes a little way towards that at but not far enough at the moment and even Safari has an odd pricing model, the inflexibility of which will limit take up.

  • Maitri

    The word eBook has been around since the 1970s when Michael Hart made the first one and started Project Gutenberg. Back then, you and I were either not born or reading plain old dead-tree books. If you had referred to a book as an eBook back then, or even now in much of the reading world for whom eBooks are still a novelty, you would have been laughed out of town. It’s not a gimmick, but still sadly reality.

    Yes, eBooks are books, but not all books are eBooks.

  • siriuskase

    Come on, it’s just a format. Paperback books are books, but not all books are paperbacks.

  • timothywmurray

    I have spent much of the last year trying to reduce the use of the word ebook at the publishing house where I work. Peer reviewed journals have almost completely dropped the eJournals label. (Except for an event that I attended last week and has been running for a decade.) One extra complication with book vs ebook is that the word book is already overloaded, referring to fiction, non-fiction, popular non-fiction, scholarly non-fiction, cook books, pop up books, and little black books. I am in favor of deprecating the use of ebook, ecommerce, enews, ereference, and “newspaper website” (it’s just a newspaper and then it will go Chapter 7). And I’m not just being persnickety about linguistics. Karl Fogel in his comment mentioned references and other mention links. When we make unneeded distinctions we complicate and confuse our ability to actually refer with precision to a specific piece of content because our citation formats get bogged down in the formats. When I am citing a AP story in a newspaper should I cite the day in the dateline appeared or the day I visited the website? Should I link to it at yahoo where it will disappear in 5 days or at the AP site where it will persist? I would rather write a precise reference to the content that will mean the reader can identify what I am referring to wherever they find it.

  • bowerbird

    thank you, michael r. bernstein,
    for preventing this thread from
    being a total waste of time.

    -bowerbird

  • frederic abella

    Nice one.

    As Clarev sayd it is about separating content and display. So XML and css are dealing with that.
    This is what we see with formatted sites for pc or for mobile. Same content, different displays.

    It rings also a bell to me, as I really think we have to be/think in the target model which is one content displayed in several medias and not one content by media (book, video, music). From that point we will be able to separate what each of medias brings as its best capacity and use it to enhance the content.

  • Kathy Sierra

    Is it possible to even have this discussion without–as John H suggested–considering the type of book?

    I don’t think we’re spending enough time asking the most useful questions. This isn’t just about format, display, or content. Not about repurposing or porting. It’s not about “author once, deliver anywhere.” This is about asking people we have been crafting books (and other “content”) for what they hope to accomplish when they buy/read/view them.

    You may have an issue with the “e” in “ebook”, but I have a bigger problem with the “book”, and potentially even “content”. More than a million copies from the series Bert and I made are now in print, Brett, (thanks in large part to you), so I’m all about books both as reader and one who makes her living from them. But I think it’s time to quit thinking so much about books (and how/where to “e” them) and focus on what books have been providing.

    Or to badly misuse a Bill Hicks sketch, the big question is not, “What are you readin?” but “What are you readin’… for?” I completely disagree that the company that separates content from display “wins”. It is not about the content OR the display. It is about the [people formerly known as "readers"]. And as long as we’re focused on content rather than what people DO with (or as a RESULT of) that content, nobody “wins”. But we’re all in for quite an exciting adventure :)

  • Alain Pierrot

    In full agreement with Kathy’s remarks and phrasing.

    Authors, editors and publishers should keep in mind their readership experience.

    Consequently, they must at least consider how their production will be displayed/experienced.

  • Michael R. Bernstein

    So, perhaps we simply need to stop talking about ‘books’ (e- or otherwise) entirely, and instead talk about novels (and novellas, multi-generational epics, short stories, etc.), reference manuals, textbooks (oops, there’s that ‘book’ again), essays, and so on.

    It is interesting that we have several content categories or genres that don’t even have a non-book label for their content, like ‘business books’, ‘pop-science books’ and so on. So I wonder if some non-fiction genres that could take advantage of being freed from the constraints imposed by the printed codex will actually fail to do so *because* they drag along mental baggage attached to the word ‘book’.