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What IS an E-Book?

What IS an E-Book?

k2-email_002_v251584110_How do you define an ebook?

I’ve been reading a lot about ebooks lately, and it’s made me realize that there are really two, entirely separate meanings to the word.

Well, yes, either way, the “e” stands for electronic, as opposed to the “dead tree” edition of books that all of us grew up with.

But as regular usage goes, I’m noticing variations.

Self-Produced eBooks

First, there are PDF, usually self-published texts that people sell on websites and blogs. “How to Make a Million Dollars in 30 Seconds,” “A Mother’s Guide to Crayons,” “101 Steps to Perfect Fingernails.”

These ebooks are usually written and “produced” by the author. That is, the author creates the PDF on her own. (For some ebooks, the word “author” is a word lightly used, too, since some people create theirs from PLR text that they’ve bought and simply reformatted on their own. Though, that’s fine, if you’re into that kind of thing. I’m not here to judge.)

Obviously, the quality varies greatly from book to book. I’ve read some eBooks that were practically works of art in terms of production value, quality of writing, and outright substance of the content. These are usually from “reputable” writers who make a point of giving lots of value for your money. I have a nice collection of them on my harddrive.

I’ve also read truly crappy ebooks. The kind that are written in a 20-point font and have 4″ margins so that they can eke out a few thousand words of text into a “100 pages of vital information!”

These self-produced ebooks–the bad and the sublime–may be available in a variety of ways. Free. Free with purchase. For $5, $220, $50, or even $100. They may promise riches beyond your wildest dreams, or just a few (hundred) great recipes for chicken.

“Published” eBooks

Second, there are the ebooks that you buy to read on your portable electronic devices. (Kindle, anyone?) These are usually electronic versions of published books. John Grisham’s latest novel. Seth Godin’s most recent brainstorm of inspiration. A romance novel to read on your commute to work.

These are (cough) “real” books, and come primarily as text files that you can download and read. Have you heard of Project Gutenberg?

A Little Confusing, no?

Am I the only one who finds the juxtaposition of the same word for two radically different formats/structures confusing?

The most confusing part is that you can’t discuss one type with the people involved with the other. If you start discussing the “future of paper books” with someone who’s just discovered how to upload text of the latest bestseller on their Blackberry, they’re probably not aware of those ebooks people are hawking on their websites. If you write and produce your own (high-quality, content-rich) ebooks, getting your text onto somebody’s Sony Reader is probably the last thing you’re thinking about … assuming it can even handle PDFs.

How fascinating that–for now at least–we can talk about Electronic Books and have two completely different things in mind. Sure, there’s some overlap, but not enough …


How long before self-publishing and “professional” publishing are interchangeable, thanks to the electronic age?


6 thoughts on “What IS an E-Book?

  1. Brad Shorr

    Hi Deb, Clearly, language does not move as fast as technology. People slap an “e” in front of just about anything to describe something new to them that’s going on online. You think you know what e-commerce is? I’m working on a few projects now under that label that are totally different. Fortunately there are writers around like you who take the time to point out the linguistic inconsistencies and vagueness so that our terminology can catch up with our activity. Kudos to you for being part of the upward march of the English language I love so much!

    Brad Shorr’s last blog post..Exciting New Resource for Chicago Entrepreneurs

  2. --Deb

    @John–And yet, you can’t dismiss paper books and magazines completely. (Nor would I want to.) I’d love to have a Kindle, but not only is the original unit $350, but the cost of each book to download is comparable to what I’d be paying for a paperback. The only thing I’d be saving is shelf space. (Which, yeah, can be an issue.)

    @Brad–Funny, I never really thought of myself being cutting edge as regards new language. What with my being so attached to, you know, grammar and proper spelling and all!

    –Deb’s last blog post..What IS an E-Book?

  3. Lillie Ammann


    I have a Kindle as well as an eBookWise reader (neither of which reads PDF, by the way). However, some e-books from “real” publishers do come s PDF. If it’s unencrypted, I can convert it for either of my readers, but if it’s encrypted, I can’t read it.

    I read e-books almost exclusively because it’s so much easier to read when I can set the font very large, and the e-readers are actually easier for arthritic hands to hold than paper books (especially hardcovers).

    Lillie Ammann’s last blog post..Ash Wednesday and Penitence

  4. --Deb

    @Lillie–I’ve heard that from a lot of people–that being able to adjust the font size alone is worth the cost if you need it, because it lets you READ. (Being able to read a book, electronically or not, would be worth a LOT of money to me if my eyes were bad enough … can’t imagine not being able to.)

    –Deb’s last blog post..What IS an E-Book?

  5. Ton van Hattum

    Hello Deb

    What you say about the price of Kindle and books to read on it surprised me a bit.
    I am rather happy with my palm zire 22. Among the reasons I chose it were the low price and small size. With it I can carry several books, a dictionary, a big scheduler with search functions and much more around in my pocket. That is pretty convenient for a mobile teacher.

    One of the things I do with it is reading (free) books I get from Gutenberg and other sites. With it I can read text, plucker and pdf files.