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Why Plain Text Books Are Here to Stay

The most breathless news releases and stories surrounding books today have one thing in common — they’re pushing the concept that the latest and greatest involves audio, video, and interactivity. Even the tools that get the most attention — iBooks Author, Inkling Habitat, Vook, and a variety of others — emphasize how they can take books beyond plain old text and graphics. The implication — sometimes unstated, other times explicit — is that these enhancements are the future of the book, that in enough time, all books will be bleeping and blooping and playing video non-stop while we happily swipe around in interactive graphics. Because, after all, who would want to sit down and read a plain old book when all that multimedia
goodness beckons? We’ve even been accused of buying into this ourselves, with our “Take Control Live: Working with Your iPad” experiment, which supplements 4 hours of online video with PDF-based notes and links.

Speaking as not just a publisher, but as an inveterate reader, I want to make clear that this is entirely wrong. There’s no question that authors and publishers have come up with new forms of the book over the years, and there’s certainly a role for enhanced multimedia in books. Textbooks are obvious examples, and it’s not hard to imagine certain other types of books and individual titles benefiting from judicious use of multimedia as well.

But you know what? Multimedia in books may be easier to create than ever before, and it may be easier to find and read enhanced books than ever before, but the overall concept is nothing new. Back in the early 1990s, Voyager (aided in part by our own Michael Cohen) created over 60 titles in their Expanded Books series. Those titles had most of what enhanced books have today, and while they were ground-breaking, they didn’t, to mix earth and water in my analogies, mark a sea change for publishing. In part, that’s because the hardware and software of the time was neither sufficiently powerful nor widespread — an iBooks Author enhanced book can reach far more people on an iPad today than a floppy or CD-ROM title of 1992 could.

Hardware and software limitations may have fallen by the wayside, but two other reasons why we still have plain text books remain in full force. First, it’s a heck of a lot harder and more expensive for authors and publishers to create an enhanced book than a plain text book, making an already tenuous business model even shakier. Second, and more importantly, the goal of book publishing is to convey information, and I see no indication that enhanced books are de facto better at conveying information in every case and to every reader.

It’s tempting to paint the world of books with a broad evolutionary brush, where natural selection determines which species survive and which are crushed under history’s heel, and that overly simplistic model fits well with the modern media’s desire for conflict and controversy. But while the form of the book is evolving — and will undoubtedly continue to do so — the ecosystem of books and information is such that each evolutionary change merely adds to an already diverse set of choices for authors, publishers, and readers.

So no, enhanced books won’t replace the plain text novel on paper or via a Kindle, nor the laid-out technical book with its screenshots and lists in PDF and EPUB, nor the toddler’s board book, nor the gorgeously illustrated coffee table book, nor any other type of book. Or rather, enhanced books might replace individual titles within each of those types, but as long as a particular type of book — in physical or electronic form — remains useful to readers and compelling to authors and publishers, it will survive.

Besides, if fancy audio and video were the ultimate solution for conveying information, I have just one word for you: television.

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