EXTRA ETHER: eBooks Gone in 5 Years?

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Will Entrekin, Exciting Press, The Prodigal Hour

The distinction between “the Internet” and “books” is arbitrary, and will disappear in 5 years. Start adjusting now.

In the words of John McEnroe, you cannot be serious. Haven’t we all just staggered over to the ebook reality, gotten down with our digital selves, and tried to ease away from those visions of dustcovers dancing at our launch parties?

And now Hugh McGuire is here to tell us ebooks aren’t going to make it, either? Well, yeah, in a way. Despite what may seem like odd timing. After all, we know that eBook Revenues Topped Hardcover in the first quarter, per the Association of American Publishers, as Jason Boog at GalleyCat has dutifully reported.

It sounds like ebooks have taken over, stand well back, and anybody saying otherwise is just…talking TEDx-y. That’s where McGuire said it. TEDx Montreal.

There’s a very big distinction that people make, that certain kinds of words and sentences go into books…and other kinds of words and sentences go into the Internet.

McGuire’s idea of the distinction people make was borne out by a tweet from Guardian columnist and author Damien Walter, who wrote:

Books are researched, written, edited, published, marketed…and hence paid for. The Internet is ego noise, hence free.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Will Entrekin, Exciting Press, The Prodigal Hour

Hugh McGuire

McGuire, of course, is someone we know.

He’s the creator not only of the PressBooks production tool, which “makes it easy for authors and editorial teams to generate clean, well-formatted books in multiple outputs,” but also of several approaches to audiobooks. Something of a serial startup guy.

He co-edited with Brian O’Leary the seminal Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto, which has enough meaningful, thought-provoking essays in it to keep you muttering to yourself from the tiki bar back to the pool for the rest of the summer. Have a look if you haven’t seen its free online version.

But here’s McGuire, going on at TEDx Montreal:

It’s worth asking why it is that — given that Project Gutenberg has been around since the earliest days of the Internet — we haven’t seen a large embrace of reading on screens until very recently.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Will Entrekin, Exciting Press, The Prodigal Hour

From Hugh McGuire’s TEDx Montreal presentation

Why is there a widely perceived assumption that more important work goes into books?

Why are only “ego noise” and other less worthy writings considered right for the Net?

McGuire points out that both Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPhone arrived in 2007. He says he read War and Peace on his iPhone. (There could be a battery-life advertisement in that, I’m sure.)

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Will Entrekin, Exciting Press, The Prodigal Hour

From Hugh McGuire’s TEDx Montreal presentation

Despite the burgeoning expansion of ebooks, however — and their emblematic status as the icon of the digital revolution — McGuire points out that ebooks are a lot more similar to web sites than they are to traditional books.

The catch?

Publishers are deathly afraid of the Internet. And they have very good reason to be, because the Internet is famous for gobbling up business models and spitting out total chaos.

The look and feel of ebooks hasn’t been too scary yet, he says, “because ebooks looked pretty similar to books, in terms of the structure of the business and what we can do with them.”

And this is where McGuire heads straight for your comfort zone:

It’s a problem because in order to get this similarity with the past, we’ve ended up constraining ebooks and making them look a lot more like print books and a lot less like the Internet.

Linking out, for example, McGuire says, and other fundamental forms of online interaction that we might expect on the web aren’t normally supported in ebooks:

You can’t link to a canonical version of an ebook. You can’t link to a specific chapter or a specific page. You usually can’t copy and paste. You can’t even leave a comment in a central place.

And, as we know, there are louder and louder comments to the effect that book apps aren’t making as much sense as we thought they would because they’re expensive, closed systems by comparison to HTML5.


So this poses a question to all of you as readers: Would you have more value if books were available in print and ebooks and a web version, or if you just had print and ebooks?

It’s clear what McGuire’s choice is. He offers a couple of strong examples of deeply interactive projects. One is the YouVersion interactive Bible site. Another is one he describes as an extensively structured online rendering of the 1912 journal of Robert Scott’s expedition to the South Pole, “a beautiful web experience,” each element of the journey tied to Google Maps.

What you won’t get from this 13-minute talk is the answer.

And that’s the reason to watch this video. That’s the point we all need to get now: there is no answer.

It’s human nature to think the publishing industry’s upheaval is deadheading us into a stable, static, dependable solution to all the business’ confusions and upheavals. Surely this will calm down eventually. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life. Right?

Wrong. For some time now, Virginia Quarterly Review’s Jane Friedman has been trying to wean readers away from the standard idea of “The Book” as the inevitable goal. Here she is, in a piece from October, asking “What is your killer medium?”:

The book is often assumed to be the most authoritative and important medium, but that’s only because we’ve all been led to believe that (through a culture that has created The Myth about the author as authority). It’s a Myth, neither good nor bad. Just a belief system that, increasingly, we’re all moving away from.

The new norm may be no norm.

And for those already exhausted, already reeling from change and surprise and so much confusion and contradiction, the message is all the more important. Look for some peace with this. “Start adjusting now,” as McGuire puts it. Because holding out for a final answer, Regis, might be the worst mistake you could make.


The important thing is that we don’t know. We don’t know because the Internet is this wide-open place where amazing things happen when we start to put data on it. We never really could have imagined what email did to mail, what Twitter did to conversation.

McGuire suggests we think about books “as great data sets that could be explored in new ways by people once they were opened up on the web.” Because:

The future of what we do, once we start to put books into this connected/network world is totally open, and that’s a very exciting thing for people who love books and who love the web.


Join us Thursday here at JaneFriedman.com for Writing on the Ether, the Day After the Fourth edition, presented by Ether sponsor Will Entrekin and his Exciting Press book, The Prodigal Hour. Save us a sparkler, will you?

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Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) is a journalist and consultant in publishing. He's The Bookseller's (London) Associate Editor in charge of The FutureBook. He's a featured writer with Thought Catalog (New York), which carries his reports, commentary, and frequent Music for Writers interviews with composers and musicians. And he's a regular contributor of "Provocations in Publishing" with Writer Unboxed. Through his consultancy, Porter Anderson Media, Porter covers, programs, and speaks at publishing conferences and other events in Europe and the US, and works with various players in publishing, such as Library Journal's SELF-e, Frankfurt Book Fair's Business Club, and authors. You can follow his editorial output at Porter Anderson Media, and via this RSS link.
Posted in Writing on the Ether.


  1. People laugh, but I am constantly pointing to the Archive of Our Own (www.archiveofourown.org), the amazingly popular fanfiction site created by fans, in regards to the future of publishing. This site allows for a variety of reading experiences, has extensive metadata associated with each story, and allows for both chaptering of stories or the creation of series. Ask yourself, “What is an ebook?” as you scroll through the site. I encourage everyone to look at that archive objectively, as information science professionals and as writers, and think: what if this software was on MY website? (It can be, it is opensource.) What if a publisher used this kind of software to “publish” stories?

    More food for thought, I suppose, but I think the answers DO exist, just not in the mainstream as of yet.

    • Right, good example, indeed, of a developing format option, with its own lexicon and ethos and experience to offer. I think more and more of these divergent options will be arriving — which is what Hugh McGuire is talking about — and in time wider acceptance of them will be commonplace. As usual, the battle over terms can be the hardest part of evolution. :) Thank for reading and commenting!

      • I think the main thrust of this debate that “We don’t know”, as has been stated. We’re currently in the same sort of experimental phase as the early writers and early printers enjoyed (?). Which is both inevitable and necessary. We don’t have a singular form for digital books/narratives, so we mimic old media forms because they’re reassuring and we know how they work. We look for definitive answers, in terms of forms (ebook, HTML5, tablets) even though we are not sure of the question yet. McLuhan discussed this at length. What’s for certain is that some form or forms will become established, but it may take a long time for this to happen. The tablet and the ebook may well be obsolete in 5 years, but they might not. Who knows? And don’t believe anyone who tells you they do.

        • Yes, well said, John. No one does know.

          And I’m glad you referenced McLuhan here, too. One of my favorite comments of his from The Medium is the Massage (sic) is this:

          “All media work us over completely.”

          If nothing else, I believe it’s safe to suggest that, as an industry, publishing is being worked over, quite completely.

  2. This is a tricky point. EBooks have made a lot more people reading. Yes by the convienence but also the font size etc.. Bookstores have closed or downsized the printed book sections. I like both printed and ebooks for different reasons.

    • And that’s a very logical and respectable stance to take. Many share it. All these forms can co-exist and be enjoyed for their various benefits. I think the “threat” is primarily in the minds of alarmists and folks who feel afraid of change … which is inexorable but hardly negative if we don’t want it to be. Thanks for reading and commenting!

    • No, lol, no need to hoard, neither is going away fast, if ever. We’re actually adding range, in the long run, rather than taking away. Thanks for reading and comemnting, Christine!

  3. Basically, if ebooks disappear, so do books. What he’s really saying (not sure if he articulates that) is that the idea of a “book” is what’s at stake. He may be right. The “book” is a concept tied to technological limitations of the past. “Narrative”, on the other hand, is something that can be in a “book”, on a “page”, spoken out loud, told in a song, or drawn in a picture. Digital media allows all those to co-exist, along with other methods of expression that only exist in digital medium. BUT, the idea of the “book” is not going to go away in 5 years, so ebooks will be around a while. People don’t change essential paradigms that quickly. I’d say a generation or two. By then, the idea of “book” will no longer matter, and “books” will be something studied in history classes (if those exist as we know them), although the word “book” will continue to be used for things that are far removed from what they meant (as is usual with language).

    • That’s well-said, Erec, and of course you’re right that the idea is much less about ebooks going away than about a comparatively fast (in historical terms) evolution of the term “book,” on into new forms of “transmedia,” to grab a much more recent term. I’m not as stuck on the traditional hardback and paperback forms, myself, though I love them and I recognize the paranoia some feel about their lessened presence. (I was very early into e-readers.) More important, I think, is the freedom for creative artists to generate the layered formats they need to really kick their projects into new dimensions and bring us stories and other intellectual property without the constraints of previously locked-in ideas (of, say, what constitutes a “book”). Thanks for reading and commenting, good to have you.

  4. So writers can’t just write anymore? Are all writers going to have to become content strategists?

    I would also like to take responsibility for Hugh not being able to finish his presentation. That was me throwing him the curve….

      • I think more writers than not are going to need to learn to think in terms of content strategy. At least during this stage of major disruption, the “good publishers” who are available and ready to do the work of content strategy are going to be at a premium. Many have yet to emerge. Many traditional publishers are trying to develop their new selves, if you will. And many writers are going to try various forms of self-publishing — in many of *those* cases, they’ll have no choice but to be the strategists of their own work.

        • By “content strategy,” are we referring to marketing or branding over multiple media platforms, or is it the composition and transmission of the *work* itself that now needs to be strategized?

          • Well, certainly, the composition and transmission are being subsumed into “content strategy,” I’d say, Stephen — others may disagree with me, of course. I’d point to some of the transmedia efforts, for example, in literature, the type thing we talk about at the annual StoryWorld Conference (this year it’s in Hollywood in October http://ow.ly/c0ZKo ). Much of this work emphasizes development of the literature itself with its evocation in mind from the outset.

            But overall, I’m sure that “content strategy” would more readily be expected to refer to marketing or branding, and, as you say, involving multiple platforms.

            In fact, it’s quite possible for you to formulate it as you wish these days. A fringe, if trying, bonus of being in an era of great upheaval. :)

            Cheers, and thanks for commenting,

          • generally, I think the writer’s job is to write; the publisher’s job* is to connect the writing with the reader. “content strategy” then is: “figuring out how best to connect writing with reader, and make money from it.” … BIG CAVEAT: lots of writers have/will become their own publishers, and take on the publisher’s responsibilities.

  5. I like Hugh McGuire but I don’t know what he’s talking about. The reason that ebooks haven’t taken over with Gutenberg is b/c millions more people read JK Rowling than, say, Theodore Dreiser. To the point that ebooks are like the web b/c they’re both HTML. This might be eye-opening to someone who’s never seen HTML code. But that’s like saying music and talk radio are the same because they are both produced by radio waves.

    Finally, to suggest that ebooks have been constrained by “mimicking” print books: all they’re doing is mimicking a manuscript – words on white paper. It’s a pretty efficient way to get ideas across. Some books will get more interactive, which opens up new vistas for certain writers, but it’s hardly necessary for every novel. He’s actually advocating that books become obsolete by doing what ebooks have “failed” to do. As if merely reading words is primitive. No: that’s what reading is.

      • Sure, I have no problem with these other options. I just don’t think publishers have been “looking backward” by offering the traditional
        format. Some books will benefit very well from other formats, for some it will be entirely unnecessary.

        Personally, I’ve found bookmarking and note-taking in ebooks to be incredibly versatile (on an iPad) – actually better than writing in the margins in a print book. My quibble is that the book needs to be transformed, or else be overshadowed by the web. Amazing things can be done with non-fiction. As a novelist, the idea that people need interlinking or visuals to spark the imagination is, I don’t know, depressing. Adding more distractions to some books will detract from the internal experience by making it all external.

        • You’re right, Henry, every work needs a specialized approach so we’re not imposing digital formats and opportunities where they’re harmful or superfluous to the work. I certainly don’t like the idea that we have to “entertain” readers with extra features made possible by digital. That said, I think there’s a lot we can do to legitimately and creatively explore storytelling techniques before we get into such wrong-headed add-ons. This is why I think the two examples Hugh mentions in his talk are so good — each is clearly deeply rooted in the type and role of the content, itself (one in the classic mission of the biblical scriptures, the other in the extraordinary journaling of Robert Scott in his unthinkable situation).

        • Again, my interest is less about the bells & whistles publishers/authors can add. I am much more interested in what readers can do with (web)books … that they cannot do with p or e books.

    • also: ebooks *do not* mimic words on white paper… you lose all sorts of things in ebooks that you have in print. scribbling margin notes in paper is easy, it’s cumbersome or impossible in ebooks (depending on your platform). you can easily lend paper books and give them away. not so ebooks. you can’t sell ebooks second-hand.

      in exchange, you gain all sorts of things with an ebook that you don’t get with paper. but you don’t gain as much as you would if you had ebooks + webbooks. and, note my interest is mostly around “what people can do with books” … which usually involves underlining them, sharing them, talking about them… all of which the web will allow us to do in ways we cannot do with ebooks (right now in any case).

  6. Fascinating. Thanks for sharing this, Porter.

    Maybe this is an identity issue. I wonder if some people will always want something solid, complete, “finished,” as the novelist he mentioned said. For them, the book will always be the perfect product. Others, the ones who are reading more blogs than they are books, will always want that shifting, connected, timely internet resource that may or may not be a “book.” Is there room for both?

    • Hi, Joe, thanks for checking in and commenting. I think there’s a lot to what you say about a certain desire for the physical reality of a traditional book. This attachment, however, has a shelf-life, pardon the pun. Over time, it will weaken, just as the attachment to vinyl records has weakened among people who once swore they would consider absolutely nothing else for their musical needs. Time and new capabilities lead to many surprises. Books are the sentimental butter churn for a lot of folks, it seems. They all swear they’re going to keep using it, even in the farm’s new, modern kitchen, damn it. :)

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  11. E-book will be for the masses, easy and cheap full of
    animations, links and music files designed for the average man, paper books for
    the upper classes highly educated and capable of concentration, paper books
    will be like a real treasure in the future.

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  14. Very interesting read, and certainly gets you thinking.

    I think we’re in for some big changes in the next 5-10 years. I think Social Reading could really boom, and this could change the way books are created (Ebook, HTML5, something new???? who knows)

    It’s hard to keep up, isn’t it?

    Matthew (Turndog Millionaire)

    • It is hard to keep up at times, yeah, Matt, which is one reason the alarmists can be so successful. The idea that all change is difficult and that we “just can’t take it anymore” is easily planted in a community strained by upheaval and worn down by bad management. It’s one reason there were so many “hot” responses to Hugh’s TEDx talk — some rather resentful “no way, José” tweets were flying around from people who seem to think Hugh was saying that all books will vanish, all hardcopies will be banned, all paperbacks will be shredded, and all ebooks will evap at midnight. None of which he said, of course, nor meant. It is our industry’s hyper-reactive period. And it’s got a way to go yet.

    • @turndog_million:disqus Books created by Social Reading … literary works created by committee, so to speak, or “mashups” of others’ works that are crowdsourced into existence? This will probably happen, but will the end results be worth reading?

      • the mashups, not so much. It’s basically just fan fiction. I’m sure you will get some good ones, but not so often.

        The thing that excites me more is the reading. Be able to share thoughts, quotes. Being able to see who else likes it. Who else is reading. Being able to easily share things with friends.

  15. Think of the internet as your teenager. When you wake up tomorrow it will probably be doing something else. I’m glad that I began publishing on the web in the nineties. It was the first thing I wanted to do when I realized what the internet was. Within six months I was publishing a biweekly broadsheet in print and online. I still remember seeing my first page after I uploaded via ftp. It was like the first print coming up in the darkroom developer tray…yes, I’m nerdy like that. I saw ereaders as temporary from the beginning because I immediately thought of html5 + tablet = future. Enjoy the ride and start thinking, ‘personalized hardware startups’.

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  26. Revolutions come and pass, and the uncertainty of the end-result is what makes life so fascinating.
    The previous three generations have grown up on books — covers, spines, the sensation of even-present weight in the hands, the intimacy of turning each page and feeling the physical shifting of weight as you take your journey from one end of the story to the other.
    Even today’s younger generation has done the same, but more have spent time pecking at keys and staring at white screens than they have the worn pages of their grandfathers’ copies of old Hemmingway books.
    Either way, we still read. and our society is driven by the desire to consume as much information as possible, as quickly as possible. Does this mean that “geeziz kriest” sometimes permeates through and enters into the mixture of literature and researched or well-conceived blog posts? Yes.
    Will that become the norm? I hope not.
    If it does, we will adapt, as always. Progress happens too quickly over too many mediums to fight anymore.

  27. So, in the future ebooks will end up becoming what they were back before ereaders came out?
    Like all the online serials and exe books and linked pdf’s and all that?
    Because what people really want is to be on the internet, instead of sitting there reading their Kindle at the beach or on the bus?
    And that’s why since all those quaint old ereading devices came out, electronic “book” reading skyrocketed and Kindle ebooks outsell all the rest of them?

    Is this kind of like the future in which books all have music on them, and videos and animation and interactiveness, but people keep buying them instead of video games?

  28. I think this whole discussion has been interesting, but has failed to point out the obvious difference between ebooks and web sites. One is generally paid content and the other is generally free. There are many examples of content being free or low cost in one format or medium, and being priced (at various levels in others. Is it a book? Or is it a two day seminar? Or is the seminar turned into DVDs? And is there an accompanying workbook? We will continue to have free web sites and some will be extraordinary. We will continue to have ebooks and they may evolve and contain new and more web-like features. What I am certain of is that publishers and self-publishing authors will want to control increasing amounts of content, and be paid for access and use.

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  30. Great look at how web content has changed things, I think the ebook isn’t going to go away but will have to adjust and change. There are some good example out there like Eliot’s “The Waste Land” on iPad (app) and others. Take a look at what Logos.com has done with a library system. An incredible ability to cross reference, search, and collaborate between books, but still a closed system. Eventually readers will demand an interactive reading experience, but the iPad and Kindle can deliver this right now, it’s the publishers who are holding things back.

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  32. I understand publishers’ misgivings completely: the music industry has been tossed about violently since the advent of music pirating and the impossibility (or unfeasibility) of controlling it.

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  35. The thing is, flashy websites might be fun, but I can only read as much as I do thanks to the nice, no-eye-strain e-ink screen of my Kindle. Until e-ink coms in colour and can play video, I’ll stick to separate devices for web and reading…

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  40. I dunno’ Porter…. I think eBooks will be the new norm, and without any type of interactivity or links to click on that take you off to a website away from your novel. From my experience (I’m 50+) and knowing my teenage daughter’s experience, we both like reading novels on the iPad. The iPhone is too small.

    The new iPad stays charged for a long time. With a full charge you have several hours of reading time, and then if you’re in the car, you can just plug it in if the battery gets low. If it starts to get dark out, while you’re reading, no problem….

    Plus… my eyes probably aren’t as good as they once were. Rather than getting a new pair of glasses, I can adjust the text size of the novel on the iPad, so its size is better suited to my reading position — whether it’s sitting on my lap with my legs crossed in my favorite chair, or laying on my back on the sofa. Or if I want to take it to bed with me… I don’t have to turn on the lights.

    I would hap-hazard a guess that eBooks are here to stay.

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