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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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Comments about Why Plain Text Books Are Here to Stay
(Comments are closed.)

Yes! Plain text rocks. I'm a techie, I love tech stuff, I'm a reader, and I'm fond of change. Nevertheless I find plain text to still be very satisfying when I'm reading for pleasure. The interactive texts will be invaluable to our students, but I believe that there will always be a place for just plain old words!
Frank Lowney  2013-02-15 07:26
There is some truth to what you say, especially with regard to fiction. However, eTextbooks present a significantly different case and should be discussed separately. I try to illustrate this point in my own iBook, "The Coming ePublishing Revolution in Higher Education" ( where linear and interactive media make the case much more effectively than text alone.
Today;s writers haven't yet learned how to use this new medium to its full potential. Like movies before the "talkies" or before "technicolor" or like font abuse during the desktop publishing revolution or like the Internet was before the web, it will get better and more expressive.
That new level of communications mastery won't come easily or rapidly but it will come. You can see it developing among the digital natives who were born to this stuff.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-02-15 08:18
I think you're correct that textbooks are the genre of books that benefit the most from all the interactivity, but I'd argue that perhaps that's because the material in textbooks shouldn't really be conveyed in book form at all, but through actual teaching, dialog, and hands-on work. The textbook is merely a convenient way to put all that information in a single package that fit with production and distribution methods of the time it was invented.

This is a bit of the larger app-not-book trend. Something like a bird identification guide is far better as an app than as a book, since the book was merely a convenient (at the time) way to output a database. It's much more sensible to have an actual database instead, in the form of something like iBird Pro.

But none of that is to say that original work that is not merely a database or the on-paper distillation of something better done in person should be full of multimedia. Some titles will work well that way, but they're not inherently better or more advanced because of it than those that stick to pure text and static graphics.
Michael Kazlow  2013-02-15 14:19
I have 40 year old textbooks that I still refer to today. What hardware will someone have 40 years from now that will play these enhanced e-books.
I am so glad you wrote this. Personally, I don't mind text. However, what I do mind is text on conventional media like paper back or hard cover books etc. I hope everything eventually goes to etext. For those of us who are blind, this would mean much quicker and easier access to most any type of written word. to much multimedia would probably do us more harm than good.
Jesse the K  2013-02-18 19:51
I'm officially sighted, and approaching sixty, and ePubs mean I can read (with the font set on "stun") and hold the book (iPod Touch is lighter than a magazine.)

I want to believe that settling down with Unicode and ePub will address @Kazlow's issue. I want to believe!
Not only is it more difficult to create enhanced texts, from the point of view of drafting, editing, programming, copyright clearance, indexing, and other tasks; it is monumentally more difficult to create a coherent narrative structure. This applies equally to non-fiction as to fiction. A great part of the pleasure and the instruction taken from reading derives from immersion in an author's view and ideas. Enhanced books can be like channel surfing, where you forget what you were watching. Deep, reflective absorption in a static text really is a climax technology. Primers, textbooks, DIYs and "dummies" will benefit from the new formats. But anything more than 2" deep, we have had that licked since the early 19th century (wood pulp paper making books truly affordable).
Geoffrey Russell Grant  2013-02-19 02:08
This is getting too textnical! Text allows your imagination to hear and visualise, where video does not. It also allows you to proceed at your own pace. Radio is similar in some ways when it is compared to video; it can add music or accents or emphasis which you might find hard to produce in your own mind while reading, but there's a lot left for your imagination to do. Audio books come somewhere in between; very handy if you find reading difficult (poor eyes, maybe lack of comprehension or vocabulary, even driving a car or doing a task with high physical and low mental demands) How about 'being at a live event'! There you can allow your listening and your eye to go where you wish it to, not just where the cameraman or the sound crew think you will find interesting. Who knows, there may be a real world out there somewhere, even if it is not intuitive!
Layne Hoppe  2013-02-19 03:49
As you and Tonya struggle for a balance between books and talk, you might want to consult Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow. Books are more the latter, talk more the former. While they are complimentary, they are certainly not the same.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-02-19 05:05
Ooo, looks fascinating - I'll have to add it to my list.
Duane Williams  2013-02-19 11:00
Is it accurate to summarize your thoughts by, "Some books will remain text-only, because their content isn't suited to enhancement by multimedia"? Many novels might fit in that category. I suspect that many textbooks do not.

Magazines are not books, but look at what's happening to magazines. Take The New Yorker, one of the best publications, even in its print version. The iPad version is multimedia, even though the magazine is still largely text and static illustrations. The multimedia content isn't intrusive. It's there as an enhancement for those who wish to use it. Even in something as textual as a poem, The New Yorker iPad edition is likely to have a little link to an audio version, the poem read aloud by the poet. You don't have to listen to it if you don't want to, but it's there. How can that not be better than a plain old book?

I think that when a weekly magazine can take (appropriate) advantage of multimedia in its iPad edition, the writing is clearly on the wall for plain text books in a world of iPads. That does not mean that every book will end up with multimedia content. It means that multimedia will be added (and expected) when and where it makes sense, and I think that in lots of books (esp. nonfiction) that will be the case.

Can anyone think of a kind of textbook where multimedia content couldn't be an enhancement? And by multimedia I don't just mean audio and video. Static images count also.

Imagine a civil war history with links in the sidebar to high quality images of primary source materials (i.e. photos of letters, documents, historic photos etc), perhaps hundreds of them. You wouldn't include all those images inline in a book, but having them instantly available to the reader (if she wants them) is clearly an enhancement to be desired.

Imagine a math book with interactive content, e.g. dynamically created graphs illustrating student created formulas.

Imagine a biology book with videos of what can be seen in a microscope.

Imagine a physics book with videos of experiments being done in a lab. What a boon to students in schools that can't afford modern labs for their students.

Imagine a literary book with video, audio, and a large database of primary sources linked to the text of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets. The plays were, after all, not meant to be read; they were meant to be seen on-stage. So video of a performance is better than reading.

Imagine a Spanish text with audible pronunciations of every word by a native speaker. Even better, imagine a text that can listen to the student translate a passage aloud and provide feedback on the quality of the translation. You don't think that's possible? You just wait. ;)

Text-only books aren't going to immediately disappear, of course, but many of them can be enhanced on devices like the iPad.

What will drive plain old books out of the marketplace is not multimedia enhancements on the iPad, but rather simply the difference in cost of production. It is highly likely that printed textbooks will disappear and be replaced by electronic books on tablets, whether or not enhanced by multimedia. Once the paper copies give way to electronic copies, multimedia enhancement is a small, incremental, addition.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-02-19 11:03
Textbooks are the easy examples, of course, but I have to say, I don't really consider textbooks all that interesting. They are by definition distillations and summaries of original material, and are used primarily at lower levels of education as a shortcut to the kind of material that a teacher could present in person. It's a little like Wikipedia - I love it for quick lookups of material where a summary is all that's necessary, but I cringe whenever I see students using it as their only source. I think teachers would be equally as aghast at students citing a textbook in a research paper.

But I think you have to go beyond the "multimedia could be added to nearly anything" thinking to consider whether it really adds to the material. For instance, with a cookbook, it's easy to imagine all sorts of multimedia enhancements, but as an experienced cook, no, I'm not going to watch videos that tell me how to chop an onion. The form of cookbooks has evolved over the years to be a highly efficient method of conveying just the necessary information in the tightest space available, and for many people who cook, anything more would merely get in the way.

Also, as I think I said before, a multimedia enhanced book is different from the trend of books becoming apps. Some things, like birding guides, really are databases that are better presented as apps, rather than as static pages.

It's also dangerous to assume that just because multimedia is possible that it's financially feasible. Given the numbers in which most books sell, many authors and publishers simply can't afford the non-trivial costs to produce professional level audio and video and interactivity. That's one reason you see this in the textbook world - you're talking about either huge publishers with massive resources or individuals doing it as a labor of love (as with iBooks Author). But there is a vast publishing industry that falls squarely in the middle.

Finally, don't count out readers. You can listen to every TidBITS article instead of reading it, and yet a very small number of people do, as far as we can tell, and when we've done our live video TidBITS Presents events, one of the most consistent comments we've gotten is that some people would just prefer we write an article. Many (most?) people can read faster than they can watch or listen to something in real-time, and find video in particular inefficient (audio less so because you can multitask while listening).

Again, I'm not saying there isn't a role for multimedia enhanced books, or that they're a bad thing. I'm simply saying that they are not the be all and end all of the evolution of books, guaranteed to replace what came before. It's just not going to happen, despite what many involved companies would like us to think.
Karen Kirtland  2013-02-19 12:01
I agree with you, Adam. My contribution to the dialogue is this: Movies were supposed to kill theater, television, movies, and internet streaming, television. I think there is a place for almost every form of media, except possibly 8-track.

The point of comparison with acting is that different media provide different experiences. I love plain text in real books for the physicality of the experience - reading a ebook by the fireside just isn't the same, especially if you fall asleep and drop the reading material.

Facetiousness aside, multimedia presentation can be distracting. Most people read best when they read line by line, and that is easiest to achieve when the text isn't interrupted. Other forms of presentation have their place, and some texts benefit by their use, but as you point out, not every text needs or is improved by graphics, images, or interactive presentations.

The approach should be to use the media to fit the need - not the other way around. An anatomy text needs skeletons, and would be improved by being able to rotate the skeleton in three dimensions. However, I really wouldn't want to see Jack the Ripper's victims presented in full color from all sides, and an argument can be made that the horror elicited from the text would be blunted by the viewing of graphic images.

At least it would be for me. Sometimes imagination is the best multimedia presentation of all.