What are different book formats good at?

Hugh McGuire
12 min readMay 19, 2022

Part 2, of the Series: “What is a ‘book’ in the age of the web?”

Definition of PUBLISH as it appears in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, published in 1755.

This is part 2 of a 5-part series: “What is a “book” in the age of the web?.” In Part 1, I introduced the series, with the question: “Do (digital) textbooks matter now? Will (digital) textbooks still matter in the future?” My answer is yes. Parts 3–5 will cover: “Why the boundedness of books matter;” “How and why books must embrace the openness of the web;” “How books can be bounded and open, and what that means for books and education”

In this article I will tackle: “What are different book formats good at?”

1. Publishing, the Web & LibriVox

The word “publish” comes from the Latin publicare, “to make public.” Samuel Johnson’s definition was, “To discover to mankind.” By that measure, the web is the most powerful tool we have built to publish. Yet publishing books to the web is still seen to be a fringe part of the book publishing world. As with many fringes, this fringe has the greatest potential for transformative innovation.

In 2005, I started LibriVox, a global community of volunteer makers of audiobooks from texts that are out of copyright. LibriVox is an entirely distributed, self-organizing web community of volunteers, who find public domain texts they like (usually available from digital libraries like Project Gutenberg), chop them into chapters, divvy up the reading aloud of various chapters to various people (about half the collection is solo recordings), and then reassemble the resulting audio files into a complete audio book. The last step is to publish the final audiobook to the web, making it available for free to anyone with an Internet connection.

LibriVox was from the start a kind of experiment to think about different ways of approaching books, and what the web allowed people to do with them. LibriVox explored books from two axes. One axis was: “How can people make books in different ways using the web?” Another was, “What can people do with books if they are available on the web?”

The ethos of LibriVox will always be best represented to me by Kara Shallenberg, one of the first volunteers to join LibriVox, a homeschooling mom from California who has read, recorded and edited hundreds of public domain books for LibriVox — solo projects on her own, and collaborative projects with scores of other volunteers. Kara, like all LibriVox volunteers, made all these audiobooks available to the world for free.

Kara’s contributions to the LibriVox library represent thousands of hours of effort and care. Kara did (and does) all this because she loves books, because she loves reading aloud, and because LibriVox gave her a way to share these loves with the world, with no expectation of anything in return.

LibriVox taught me a number of things that have informed my interactions with books and the web. The fundamental insight is: (many) people love to interact with books, and with the right tools, the right community structure, and right incentives, groups of people will work together to do extraordinary things with books.

2. Digital and the book

The digital/ebook revolution has had a significant impact on publishing and reading. Ebooks represent about 20% of the market in trade books, and self-publishing blooming.

But while ebooks have changed publishing, they have not really changed the fundamental structures of the book market itself. Authors write books, publishers publish them and send ebooks to retailers like Amazon, which sells them to readers, who happen to read on a digital device rather than on paper.

Much more exciting is imagining how we can extend some of the principles of the web to books, such that the kinds of ways volunteers at LibriVox interact with books might be understood to be a fundamental property of some kinds of (web)books themselves. The web represents to me the most exciting space for books to grow and evolve, the best platform for us to find new ways to get, and build value with books.

3. The Formats: paper, fixed ebooks (PDF), reflowable ebooks (EPUB/Kindle), Audiobooks, and webbooks.

When people talk about a “book” they are often referring to the stuff in the pages between two covers, a physical block of paper with words and pictures in it. But of course there are other kinds of books, besides paper. There are ebooks: the PDF kind that is the staple of the academic world; and other ebooks of the Kindle/iBooks kind, the reflowable ebooks many of us read on our digital devices. There are audiobooks, too, thanks to people like Kara Shallenberg, as well as an exploding world of professional voice actors, publishers, and distributors like Audible. And finally there are — for me the most interesting — books on the web, which I will henceforth call webbooks.

I am most interested in the two bookends, specifically paper books, a deeply developed format with hundreds of years of embedded design evolution; and webbooks, the newest and the most radical version of the book with the most exciting future.

4. Paper books

Writing on tablets (the clay kind) dates to the Bronze age. The scroll first emerged in ancient Egypt, in the Fifth Dynasty around 2,400 BCE, possibly significantly earlier. The book — that is, pages bound together in what we would recognize as a book — is technically called a codex, and was first described in the 1st Century AD by Roman poet Martial who was impressed by the convenience of the format. By 600 AD the hand-written or copied codex had completely replaced scrolls in the Greco-Roman Western world. In 868 AD, a Chinese version of the Buddhist text The Diamond Sutra was printed using wood block printing, the first known book produced this way. In 1450 AD, the German Johannes Gutenberg developed the movable type printing press, which radically reduced the cost of books, and by extension the transmission of knowledge. Religious books, political tracts, natural philosophy, scientific texts, and ideas flowed like never before, arguably unleashing the modern world.

Image of pages from Diamond Sutra 868 AD (British Library, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Diamond Sutra 868 AD (British Library, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Depending on how you wish to calculate, humans have spent anywhere from 500 to 5,000 years optimizing the design of books on paper. Along the way, there were incremental changes and improvements in how we presented books, as well as jarring and significant changes in the ways we go about making books. The design evolution shaped books for any number of factors including cost, portability, legibility, comprehensibility, ownership, and aesthetic pleasure.

Paper books come with a host of visual cues related to their physical presence, all of which help in placing, remembering, and reminding us of those books. These physical characteristics are fixed and embedded in the books themselves. Paper books have a fixed color, cover and spine design, page size, fixed and designed font choices, paper, and margin choices. They have texture and a tactile existence; they live in a specific space; they are on our bookshelves; they can be stacked in piles, and rearranged. Finally, you can hold books, move them, take them with you, you could cut them up (though there is a taboo about doing this), you can send them in the post, write notes to yourself or your lovers in them, give them to a friend.

Beyond simply “reading,” there is something deeply important about the physical manifestation of a printed book that allows the tactile and conceptual parts of our brains to interact in ways that reinforce each other, helping forge deeper memories of the paper book and the knowledge held within. We keep bookshelves in our homes for this reason, as a cue to memory, signifier of importance. Here’s a bookshelf of mine:

Picture of a bookshelf with books on it.
A shelf, with books, in an order that means something to me.

5. Ebooks: PDF, ePub, Kindle, and Audiobooks

If paper books come with the power of hundreds of years of design heritage, ebooks and audiobooks come with their own powers: convenience, availability, portability, and accessibility. You can find and get millions of ebooks instantaneously, some for free. You can carry thousands of ebooks on your mobile device or dedicated ereader in your pocket; and you can even adjust the fonts to your preference. The typical paperback might use 9pt type like this:

Paperback version of “Book Was There”, by Andrew Piper
Paperback version of “Book Was There”, by Andrew Piper

But I occasionally wake up at 3am, and need to read to get back to sleep. When I do, I adjust my Kindle with large fonts, a design choice no print typographer would ever consider. My 3am Kindle usually looks like this:

Image of a Kindle with large font settings.
My late night Kindle font settings.

In the academic world, the PDF book still reigns supreme: you can download them, email them to colleagues, store them however you like on your computer, and perform searches on their contents. If you are working with academic texts, you are almost certainly working with PDFs or paper.

The audiobook lives in its own world, which adds a new dimension of convenience. You can “read” while you: drive, cook, clean, run, or undertake many routine or manual tasks.

These digital book formats primarily bring convenience to reading.

But the web can bring much more.

6. Webbooks

A webbook is a book whose content is displayed on the web. This concept is not new. Indeed it goes back to the earliest days of networked computing, when, in 1971, Michael Hart decided to type a copy of the US Declaration of Independence into a computer that was one of the 15 nodes of ARPANET, the network that evolved into the internet. Hart would continue to type the contents of books and put them on to the Internet. Hart’s passion eventually became Project Gutenberg, which grew into a worldwide network of volunteers who continue to create free webbooks out of public domain texts.

Here for instance is the Project Gutenberg webbook of Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” (which incidentally was the first LibriVox audiobook; I read two chapters).

Screenshot of the Project Gutenberg version of The Secret Agent.
Project Gutenberg’s webbook of “The Secret Agent”

All the words from the book are there on a web page. You can read them, copy them, and download them.

We can be more sophisticated in terms of display and readability — nicer fonts, page layout, responsive to different devices, better optimized for reading comfort. For instance here is, Bumble bees of Unama’ki: A Guide to Becoming a Buzzing Naturalist, by Hannah Kosick, a cool book on Pressbooks about bees.

Screenshot of the Book Info page from the webbook Bumble bees of Unama’ki
The webbook version of Bumble Bees of Unama’ki, on Pressbooks

Webbooks are of course already all around us, even if they aren’t really embedded in our consciousness when we think of a book. In the first essay in this series, I mentioned Pressbooks, a platform I’ve worked on for a decade, which mainly supports open education publishing in higher ed. But many educational publishers have moved to delivering their book content via the web. It makes sense: the cost of distribution is essentially zero, and you don’t have to worry about a second hand textbook market. Importantly, educational webbooks can include interactive quizzes and exams, homework platforms and even embedded chats with tutors.

Screenshot of the chapter Pediatric Resuscitation, from Rosens Encyclopedia of Emergency Medicine.
A medical book on the web. With a PDF of the chapter.

There are countless other platforms and places where books happen primarily on the web, from the hugely successful Wattpad, where aspiring writers can build communities, feeding into a commercial intellectual property juggernaut, with 100 million monthly readers and writers; to the more niche world of open education and open access publishing, represented by not just Pressbooks, but also Manifold, LibreText, Pubpub, and others.

7. Webbooks, beyond reading

With a webbook, we can do most of the things we’d like to do with a book, starting with reading it. But the magic of the webbook is everything beyond the reading. Everything beyond mere transmission of information and ideas from the book to the reader.

Because webbooks are of the web, they make easy use of all the things we expect of the web: webbooks are findable, they are searchable, they support audio, video, interactive quizzes. We can easily apply analytics to measure engagement, so that for instance in the context of education we can identify where learners are getting caught, having problems; we can easily and instantaneously analyze what books are popular, what parts of books are popular. Using a host of native and standard web tools, we can build comment sections, or web discussions in the sidebars, or we can get people to sign up for email lists.

Versions of all this happen all the time on at least some webbook platforms, but this is all still scratching the surface.

In his 2008 article, some 37 years after Michael Hart first copied the Declaration of Independence, and published it to the web, Kevin Kelly wrote: “The internet is a copy machine.” Kelly means “copy” in multiple ways. The web “copies every action, every character, every thought we make while we ride upon it.” But he also means it in that most obvious way: it’s trivially easy to copy information on the web and manipulate it new ways. This radical fact makes the web a scary place to publish a book. It also opens, I believe, some of the most exciting possibilities.

8. The Web: What more could we do?

At the beginning of this article, I wrote about LibriVox, this thriving niche of a web community that takes digital books, disassembles them, reinterprets them in audio, and puts them back together into something new. LibriVox is enabled by the web, and in some ways it is deeply radical in its approach to the question, “what can we do with books?” But in another view, there is nothing radical about LibriVox at all.

Even those who only read paper books do this taking apart, reinterpreting, and reassembling of books all the time. What is a book club, or English Literature course if not taking apart a book? We read, we discuss, we pull pieces of the text apart, put them in new orders with our own words and meaning around them.

In theory, the web makes “doing things with books” easy. But tools are needed for this to work. Project Gutenberg was the source of texts for LibriVox, and the community cobbled together a series of easy tools and processes to help people record themselves reading the texts, and publish them to the web. Similarly, Pressbooks, and the open education movement it supports, is built on the notion that it should be easy to take an existing book, add a chapter or two here; take a chapter or two away there; rearrange a few more chapters, add a video, add quizzes and exams.

Another magic power of the web is the ability to easily build connected communities. Communities of writers, communities of readers, and communities of those in between, the people who might “do things with books.”

Together these two transformative properties introduce a possibility: what if educational webbooks could be easily adapted and optimized to help various groups of people and individuals learn faster and more deeply? What would that look like? What if educational books were built with community as part of the design, with tools to help a committed community foster the ongoing improvement, supplements, or even real time engagement with learners?

How can we take the webbook from simply being a good way to transmit information, ideas, and emotions, and transform it into a more powerful way for a community to help learners to use and build on information, ideas, emotions?

This is the potential power of the webbook, and in future articles I’ll explore these ideas more fully.

9. Conclusions

The paper book has evolved over hundreds of years as a highly optimized tool to transmit knowledge. Ebooks (both PDF and EPUB/Kindle) continue that design tradition in digital paradigms, adding improvements of convenience, access and accessibility, if losing some advantages of the physical book.

The webbook however presents new and thrilling opportunities.

I dream of a future where we expect a book to live first on the web, for the web to be the core node of that set of knowledge contained in a book. And from this core node we extend different formats — paper, ebooks, audio — suiting the different needs of different readers at different times. More importantly, from this node we can grow a connected community, of readers, of learners, of educators. A community of people interested in adding to or building on that central node, providing alternate or better paths for learners.

To unlock this future we need to radically rethink where the book stops and where the web begins. And, critically, of course, we need to think about the business models, intellectual property schemes and incentive structures that might underpin such a universe.

Coming in part 3, I will dig deeper into the boundedness of the book, and why I think that boundedness is a critical feature of the book; in part 4 I will examine the openness of the web and how this can impact books; and finally part 5 I will try to bring together these ideas of the webbook, boundedness, and openness and the implications for a new way to think about books and education.

[Thanks as always to Brian O’Leary for feedback, and Leigh Kinch-Pedrosa for feedback and especially patience.]

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