What is a “book” in the age of the web? (Part 1 of 5)

Hugh McGuire
9 min readDec 15, 2021


From the Archimedes Palimpsest Image Bank, at the Rochester Institute of Technology, “The earliest surviving Archimedes manuscript by about 400 years; it is the most important source for the diagrams that Archimedes drew in the sand in Syracuse, in the third century B.C. It is by far the most important evidence we have for the greatness of Archimedes.” See http://www.archimedespalimpsest.org/.

Background: “Can the ‘book’ remain relevant?”

Ever since I started thinking about the implications of the web on the world of books and publishing, when I started LibriVox.org (free public domain audiobooks recorded by volunteers) in 2005, I have been asked in many different ways: “Can the ‘book’ remain relevant?”

That is: can (should?) books retain their power and place as core transmitters of knowledge in the face of the unrelenting advance of other media forms and technological advances? More specifically, given my recent focus on grassroots open educational publishing at Pressbooks: Will books still matter as we develop new technologies to better teach and learn? Do (digital) textbooks matter now? Will (digital) textbooks still matter in the future?

My answer is: Yes!

Cover image for “Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto”
“Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto,” is a published collection of essays from multiple contributors, which I co-edited back in 2012.

I thought so when, in 2012, I co-edited with Brian O’Leary, “Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto” (Amazon, web), a collection of essays from authors, designers, technologists, publishers, and other people working with books, all grappling with the implications of digital and the networked world on the future of books. Almost ten years after this book was published, some of these ideas came and went, others became commonplace, but many of the ideas about books that we wrote about in 2012 are still far from mainstream. Today, there are countless examples of how the book has been reinvented with the web: the huge fanfic ecosystem on the web, Wattpad harnessing community and analytics to build a fiction juggernaut, Kindle enabling an explosion of self-publishing, and the move in the education space towards online, digital textbooks.

But while I think books, and in particular digital textbooks still matter now, our idea of the “book” must continue to evolve to deliver more.

For books to remain important, authors, publishers, designers, technology platforms, all of us involved in delivering books and the stuff in them must continue to build on our visions, embracing, in particular, what the web can offer to the enduring concept of the book.

This article is the first in a 5-part series in which I will address why books still matter, and how books must evolve. The five parts of this series include:

1. What is a “book” in the age of the web?

2. What are different book formats good at?

3. Why the boundedness of books matter

4. How and why books must embrace the openness of the web

5. How books can be bounded and open, and what that means for books and education

In this first instalment, I’ll address that first question.

What is a “book” in the age of the web?

1. Introduction

A decade ago I took a stab at making a platform-agnostic definition of a book — a definition of the book that doesn’t depend on paper and ink, but encompasses other formats such as ebooks, audiobooks, and most importantly, the web.

I had already spent a number of years on new models of publishing, first with audiobooks and LibriVox.org, which gets volunteers to make audio recordings of public domain texts, a project that creates about 1,000 new, free audiobooks every year.

Screenshot of homepage of Librivox.org.
Homepage for LibriVox.org. a community I founded in 2005, which gets volunteers from around the world to record and release free audio versions of public domain texts.

Later, in 2011 I launched Pressbooks, with the expectation that by building new, easy technology to make books, it would help spur new models of publishing. I wanted to create a technology that supported the easy and agile creation of ebooks, print books and web books (not yet really a thing in 2011). And, I felt, if we could make it easy and cheap to make books, starting on the web, we would see new and exciting models of publishing emerge.

By 2012, Amazon’s Kindle was taking off, and ebooks were becoming more than a curiosity. They were a growing phenomenon. With the growth curve of ebooks in 2012, many projected that ebooks would surpass 50% of the market for novels and general-purpose reading within the next few years. (As it turns out ebooks plateaued somewhere between 15 and 30% of the market by 2015 or so).

Given all that was happening in the book space, and given that I was actively thinking about new models of publishing enabled by technology, it seemed to me I needed a definition of a “book” that could apply as easily to paper as it did to digital and the web.

2. What is a book?

In “Opening the Book”, a 2012 presentation I delivered at the late/great Books in Browsers conference, I offered this definition of a book:

“A book is a discrete collection of text (and other media) that is designed by an author(s) as an internally complete representation of an idea, or set of ideas; emotion or set of emotions; and transmitted to readers in various formats.”

This definition ended up opening the abstract to the framing document for a W3C Interest Group’s “Web Publications for the Open Web Platform: Vision And Technical Challenges,” which was part of a (failed) w3c effort to define a web-based standard that would make books first class citizens of the web (a standard web object that a browser would understand to be a “book.”

I think my definition still works.

It captures what is critical about a book: its boundedness, completeness, and the intentionality that goes into the creation of a book, while leaving open the question of what sort of stuff can go into a book, and how it’s delivered to the reader. Importantly, it leaves open new ways that the web and other technologies can build on the experience of the book, how we can build on community, adaptability, additions, analytics and more. This definition still helps me answer the question: “Will the ‘book’ remain relevant?”

It might be worth pulling apart this definition, and highlighting the core parts of it.

3. Multiple formats, always a book

The starting premise is that the format of a book doesn’t change its bookness. Whether a book is delivered on paper, in ebook format, in audio, or on the web, there is something essential about a book that doesn’t get lost. Each of these formats have different affordances — the different formats mean that people (whether authors, publishers, or readers) can do different kinds of things with them. But somehow the bookness of a book remains.

The starting premise is that the format of a book doesn’t change its bookness.

For example, print books are better for providing physical cues to help with memory and retention; ebooks are better for convenience, portability, and support for media; web books can be interactive in ways neither ebooks nor print can readily achieve. A future article will address these differences in affordances of different versions of a book, but the core idea here is that there is a bookness that is maintained by a book in all these different formats.

4. What is bookness, boundedness, or being discrete?

The next important idea in the definition is that a book is structured and discrete. That is, there is a bounded character of a book that is part of its core value, part of its bookness, part of what a book is, and why books remain important. A book is a full expression of an idea or concept. While no book claims to tell you everything you need to know about a subject, there is an expectation that a (good) book delivers the things an author thinks you should know about a specific aspect of a topic.

Cover image of Foundations of Neuroscience, by Casey Henley.

In the context of education, a book like The Foundations of Neuroscience, by Casey Henley, contains “the core things you should know about neuroscience as you begin your studies in this area.” Similarly, Introduction to Epistemology can be expected to contain not everything you need to know about epistemology, but rather to cover the basics of the subject of epistemology, as indicated by that “Introduction” in the title. At the other end of the spectrum, Advanced Library Skills for Physics Research can be expected to contain the specialized sorts of things that a physics researcher might like to know for a particular part of their work. A book, a good one, has a particular purpose: it contains what an author or editor thinks should be known about a topic.

5. What is within the bounds? What an author or editor has decided shall be there.

Of course no book is “complete” in the sense that everything you need to know is in it; but it is internally complete. Critically, there is editorial intent: an author(s) and/or editor(s) of the book have decided on a coherent set of content you should know.

Part of the value of a book — compared with, say the web, or a series of articles, or Wikipedia — is that there has been an editorial decision about what is included and what is excluded. The boundedness, tied with editorial intent, is critical to a book’s essence. As a reader and/or learner, you put your trust in those behind the book — authors, editors and publishers, in particular — that the most important things are there; and that someone has decided that these are the most important things (in), and those things are less important (out). In this context, the authority of the author(s) or editor(s) becomes critical as well: who has made these decisions, and can we trust them?

This certainly doesn’t mean that there is nothing else you can know, or that everything is correct, or that everything is clear.

But there is something about the selective decision-making about what is in and what is out that defines a bounded set of knowledge, a discrete package that authors wish to communicate and readers/learning can “know.”

6. Conclusion

Books do some things exceedingly well. As technology evolves, and as our reading and our learning move increasingly online, it’s important that we are clear about what we get and what we lose as we move away from physical formats to other forms, such as ebooks, audiobooks, the web, and other, totally different ways of learning and engaging with book content.

But, I argue both that the “book” offers much that readers don’t want to lose, AND that there is much more we can get from the web as a platform for books. At Pressbooks, we continue to think about the ways in which the web can enhance the idea of the book beyond just “an online version.” We continue to think more about how the web can help connect readers and writers, how the web enables easy adaptation and modification of (openly licensed) content, so that educators can build and improve books they are using to teach. We continue to think about how the web can be used as a medium not simply for transferring knowledge, but for connecting people, for building communities of educators, learners, readers, and writers around books. Some of this is already happening, but there is much more we can do with books on the web, and I look forward to exploring these ideas in future articles.

Coming over the next few months:

  • Part 2. What are different book formats good at?
  • Part 3. Why the “boundedness” of books matter
  • Part 4. Why books must embrace the “openness” of the web
  • Part 5. How books can be bounded _and_ open, and what that means for books and education

(Thanks to Brian O’Leary, who is always up for a conversation about the future of books, and kindly offered some advice on this article.)

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