Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Essay: Playing Tricks with eBooks

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

I love eBooks, although for most people, I'm only interacting with it in one of its most rudimentary forms--via a desktop computer. I live in the Philippines, so dedicated eBook readers such as Amazon's Kindle or the Sony Reader is nonexistent (although hopefully, Apple's iPad will be changing that). And while mobile phones are prevalent here, sadly, I don't see cellphone novels becoming popular here.

As a reviewer, editor, and critic, I find eBooks to be very valuable. During awards season, what puzzled me was how people knew whether a work of fiction was a short story, novella, or a novelette? It's not like when I'm reading a story in an anthology, the editor or the author automatically identifies it as such. And I'm not about to count every single word. (An editor told me that it's six words per line and you count the number of lines per page.) But with eBooks, I can just highlight the relevant passage, and depending on the program I'm using, immediately get a word count or copy/paste it into my word processor and get a rough estimate.

Another useful function that I find handy, especially when doing research, is the search function. Want to know when was the first instance a character showed up? Or the last page they appeared in the book? Search! Similar to this is the ability to split the page or duplicate it. It's not useful in fiction per se, but if you come across a text that makes cross-references to another part of the book, instead of flipping pages, you can view them simultaneously. This is also where bookmarks can be useful.

When critiquing someone else's story--or reading someone else's comments on my writing--the format that I prefer tends to be Microsoft Word because of its feature to add comments and track changes to the document. It's a valuable tool to a lot of writers and editors but to some of them, what simply registers is that they're receiving an electronic document instead of an eBook.

Now my biggest problem with eBooks is that there's no one common format, and each format does something different. Take for example the lowly .txt file. Sure, I get the text, but it's ugly. Most likely the margins are wrecked and there's no typeface differentiation. What's starting to become prevalent these days is ePub, but the problem with ePub is that it's optimal for texts that don't use any illustrations (goodbye textbooks, picture books, or what is close to my heart, RPG books).

PDF is a mixed blessing. On one hand, most of the time, it's not really optimal for the device that you're reading it on. The popularity of PDF can be attributed to the fact that print publishers have to submit a PDF file to the printers, so it's simply a matter of copy-and-paste (and perhaps including an electronic signature or DRM for copyright protection). Despite following a book's traditional layout (the experience of which varies on the dimensions of the book and your monitor), it more or less gets the job done in terms of delivering the content. The illustrations are where they're supposed to be and the text is indented. Unfortunately, reading PDFs aren't great when all you have is a small screen (or a very, very large book).

Obviously, these limitations make it impossible to convert every single book. To this day, I don't think we'll ever see The Griffin & Sabine trilogy in eBook format. The charm of the book is in its tactileness. On the other hand, while it's possible to have an illustration-less version of one of my favorite children's books, Dinotopia, for ePub, it's most likely going to be more effective as a PDF--but even then, the art, I feel, will have less of an impact.

On the other hand, the various formats also make it possible to create new kinds of texts. When it comes to PDF eBooks, the most innovative industry right now is probably RPGs. They've done a lot with the format, everything from creating replicable cutout 3D maps to inserting multimedia into the file.

Most people don't count HTML as an eBook format, but I do, and honestly, the Choose Your Own Adventure-type narratives work best with HTML. Even the Encyclopedia Brittanica used HTML when it was originally released as a CD-ROM and it's a great format for reference books (just like Wikipedia... if only all the links were working and all the relevant keywords led to somewhere).

Even the humble .txt format would make, I think, a great poetry book, if there was an artist creative and daring enough to make use of the format. The appeal could lie in its simplicity.

These are, in my opinion, possibilities and the publishing industry in general is fractured when it comes to eBooks. Textbook publishers for example don't know what RPG publishers are doing, and the environment of romance eBooks is vastly different from science fiction eBooks. I don't think a convergence is inevitable, although a wise person could see how innovations in one field can be applied to another (as well as distinguishing the facets that can't).


Kaz Augustin said...

Hey there Charles! Happy New Year, btw. Microsoft Word isn't the only editor that allows you to track changes. I use the OpenOffice suite (the Write app for word processing) on my computers and one of my editors uses Word. We are able to send the ms back and forth without losing any of the changes' information.

And, like you, I'm also quite partial to HTML as an ebook format. For a novel, you need little else and it can offer additional benefits such as the Choose Your Own Adventure-type narratives you mention.

zz said...

hey, you've made a good case the pros of ebooks. I'm trying to figure out if e publishing is the way to go for my first novel... I still kinda have this fantasy about print being the ultimate goal, but do you think it will even be relevant in the future of publishing?