ebooks: Footnotes & Hyperlinks

Since it was discovered that Amazon is selling more ebooks than actual books, there’s been a new wave of proclamations that print is dead and ebooks are the future. Here’s Megan McArdle:

Printing and distributing books is a large industry with significant economies of scale. If too few people buy print books, the cost of the remaining books will start to rise. Eventually, more and more applications will switch to the winning medium, even if individuals miss being able to flip through books. There will be specialty applications, but they will be very expensive.

The problem I see with this is that it does not seem to me that economies of scale are going to be the death of (or cause of irrelevancy of) the publishing industry. Publishing has become more flexible than ever. Print-on-Demand is a growth industry. The overhead on getting a book ready to print – absent other costs – has gotten so low that John Q Public can do it. The more expensive part, really, is product selection, marketing, and editing. These are things that you have to do whether going digital or print. And once you’ve done all that legwork for the ebook, why not offer a published version as well?

So will printing become more niche? Probably so. The gadgeteer in me loves it, but for the fact that DRM means that it’s not just physical books being tossed by the wayside, but actual ownership of the books. But I don’t think that it will ever reach the point of being actually niche. It still offers a product that eBooks don’t. You don’t have to worry about batteries. You can read during take-off and landing of airplanes. You have total ownership (including the ability to trade back and forth as much as you like). And it’s decoration. The first three strike up a crucial difference between CDs and MP3s, though the last part applies to both.

To me, the promise of eBooks is not as a replacement for printed books. Rather, it’s the creation of an entirely new medium. It doesn’t seem like the publishers have really caught on to it, though. The electronic nature allows eBooks the ability to do something that’s much harder to do in print. Namely, hyperlinks.

Never has this become more apparent than listening to the audiobook for the Game of Thrones series. Here you have an unbelievable number of characters and families sprawling all over the Seven Kingdoms. At the end of every book is an appendix giving a rundown of all of the families. Obviously, with a book you can always flip to the back, but with electronic text, you can simply tap on a name whenever it appears and be reminded. “Jacen Bloke, Duke of Westerland, son of Aron Bloke, twin brother to Jaren Bloke, died on the Battle of the Riverfront” and so on (all descriptions wouldn’t need to be the same – they might just need to contain the relevance of the mention).

My first attempt at writing a novel was a little over fifteen years ago, though it took place last year. Because I was dealing with a 15-year leap in time, there were a lot of various things I referred to that the main character wouldn’t explain in his narrative because everybody knows who President Tsongas was. So I used a lot of footnotes. Two of my four novels have, for different reasons, an obscene number of characters. I have an appendix in back to help keep them straight. Of course, it’s hard to put things in an appendix that don’t give away stuff that happens in the novel. Not a problem with footnotes or hyperlinks. I’m still developing in my mind a detective series in a fictitious state. There’s a good chance I would be using footnotes there the same way I did in the first novel I tried (and failed) to write.

But what can be done with footnotes is simply nothing compared to what you can do with hyperlinks. Books have a more standard beginning, middle and end. It’s much easier for ebooks to be fluid, to be able to go back and forth between the main story and background. Some people don’t give a rats arse about background. You could actually give readers the option to skip it. Or, if they skipped it and they wish they hadn’t, a single place they can go in order to see all of the background stuff.

Right now, ebooks are just books in digital format. Change that, and you change everything. You allow for the telling of different kinds of stories. You allow for something that makes printed books really obsolete, and not just because they don’t have a power button.


Category: Market, Theater

About the Author


7 Responses to Beyond Books With Batteries

  1. Logtar says:

    I never had those as a kid, but I have heard many that grew up here in the US talk about the… different endings depending on what page you flipped to.

    I have trouble with ebooks being just a new medium and not a replacement. What I had not considered that makes things a little scary is that a future without printed books and no electricity might might devolution in knowledge. The machines totally have us now. Maybe Steve Jobs is an evil robot from the future just laying the groundwork for our destruction from the inside.

  2. trumwill says:

    I think “choose your own adventure” has been made redundant by video games, when it comes to interactive storytelling.

    A future without electricity would suck for a number of reasons. I honestly think that textbooks will be books for some time to come. So I think that if worse came to worse, we’d still have those.

  3. Mike Hunt says:

    This would be helpful for Encyclopedia Brown and trivia books. That way you can look up the answer without accidentally looking at the next answer.

    In a way it would be like those old Magic Pen activity books.

  4. Abel says:

    A couple of thoughts:

    I’m offering paperback and ebook versions of the book I’m releasing next week but I did it more because of the genre: self help. It might be the only book that some in my target audience read all year.

    I think authors who just release eBooks are shooting themselves in the foot. Yes, you’ll get the die hard readers but paper books are still a big part of the market and some people still prefer them. (My guess is that most authors don’t want to take the time or spend the money on good typesetting.)

    “Right now, ebooks are just books in digital format. Change that, and you change everything. You allow for the telling of different kinds of stories. You allow for something that makes printed books really obsolete, and not just because they don’t have a power button.”

    Writer David Farland has started East India press which is going this route. http://eastindiapress.com/. “East India relies on a convergence of talent from multiple media. Printed pros meld with illustration, photography, filmography, sound design and music to produce a rich media literary experience. We feature our star collaborators, and their extraordinary work, here.” He’s going to include music, film, and more with the first book their releasing.

  5. trumwill says:

    Abel,

    I’m offering paperback and ebook versions of the book I’m releasing next week but I did it more because of the genre: self help. It might be the only book that some in my target audience read all year.

    Did you only release The Third in paperback? I’d thought you did both.

    (My guess is that most authors don’t want to take the time or spend the money on good typesetting.)

    Yeah. For indy writers in particular, I think expense is a big part of it. When I eventually gear up, I may release some eBooks-only, but mostly those I expect to be of pretty limited interest or I’d price them so cheaply that it would be more for publicity than money.

  6. Abel says:

    The Third is available in e-book format too. Well, most formats. The publisher still hasn’t gotten around to doing all of them yet. ~frustrated~

    I may release some eBooks-only. . .

    Nothing wrong with just doing just eBooks so long as you realize more people still read paper books (though that is quickly changing). But inexpensive eBooks are a good way to build up a fan base. I’m planning on releasing some free and 99 cent shorter stories (10,000 words or so) soon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

If you are interested in subscribing to new post notifications,
please enter your email address on this page.