A magic formula for ebooks

I don’t like the word “ebook”. I am one of the few people who still hyphenate e-mail, and so when I see ebook I think of it as a trendy word with plenty of hyperbole connected to it. Electronic isn’t what we use to describe this stuff, we call it digital. And yet d-mail never caught on…

Anyhow, when I say ebook, I really just mean long form text that utilizes this new set of standards and formats to essentially give the digital version of books and magazines. And when I say “magic formula”, I mean here are some thoughts on what would just be so kick ass, I gotta get this idea out there.

As for the actual formula:

OPDS-enabled server + “Code” repository + Reader application/device

What this adds up to is a collaborative and shared digital libraries. If you replace those values with actual software/hardware, you could get something set up that is relatively easy to maintain:

Calibre/Lucicat/Pathagar + Git + FBReader

Um, why?

The idea for this came to me when as I’ve been reading the Google Bookstore version of Pride and Prejudice. After just a single chapter I switched from the EPUB file to the scans of the original pages. There are just too many errors, and for some inexplicable reason, the last paragraph of each chapter is cut off. It sucks, because I really enjoy the interface, with the auto-formatting pages and optimal font size. Fortunately, on the tablet the original pages seem to be at scale, so it is fine reading it that way.

At any rate, I started thinking to myself, I wish I could submit the errors… and then it all came crashing down onto me. I don’t have to rewrite the entire book, checking for errors left and right. But if I catch one here and there, and everyone is doing the same thing, we could have a decent book, edited and published in no time at all! Of course, this is what the internet is for! We can map editions to versions! And push the changes to the readers so their books are always up to date!

! ! !

I am just so excited about this, because it is such a new way of thinking about books. Of course it raises a whole new set of issues, but this is a problem worth tackling! And while it would be a great way to decentralize the effort transcribe the classics, it also offers a new way of publishing for authors.

The other thing that I am excited about is the ability to share my personal library with people. I plan on collecting Public Domain and Creative Commons-licensed books, making my personal best of collection. With OPDS I can serve as a curator for my “friends” (meaning anyone on the internet). This is amazing.

One more thing! While I am not sure where this sits in the formula, or even if it just replaces it altogether, something to keep an eye out for is SiSu (Structured Information, Serialized Units). This seems to be ahead of the curve, and I am going to be investigating it more. The ability to create multiple formats and citing at a granular level is great, but I want to know how accessible the software is; we have to always try to make the software easier to use and available to more people.

We can truly achieve a paperless society in my lifetime.

This is a really interesting idea, but the English major in me sort of recoils. Why? Well, it makes sense on the face of it to try and correct obvious typographical errors, and having lots of readers encountering and correcting errors sounds great. But what if a reader corrects something that isn’t meant to be corrected? Let’s say there’s an archaic usage of a word that a modern reader decides to correct – or even worse, what if someone ran around editing Finnegan’s Wake or Ulysses because the words didn’t look right? If you were using a Wiki-esque format where changes could be reverted easily, that might not be too bad, but still… And we’re not even getting into situations like Shakespeare where multiple versions of the same play exist, or passages that various editors either excise or re-include based on their reading of what the canonical version of the play should be like.

This is a situation that I think a slow, non-digital process might be best. Maybe it’s a secret elitism at my heart, but I think it’s better overall to have an editor who’s very familiar with the work looking for errors and publishing, after long and careful consideration, a new version with carefully annotated corrections could appear.

What might be really interesting to me is an annotated version of a book – you could have the option to turn on user annotations. Let’s say I’m reading Pride and Prejudice, and I know something about the Regency British army that expands my understanding of the book – the officers left in England at the time were still in-country because they were the dregs of the military, rather than being the dashing paragons that Kitty and Lydia think they are. I can add a note with links and references for the interested reader.

This has problems too – and again this might be my elitism – what if someone decides to annotate with links to their Pride and Prejudice fanfiction?

Regardless of the issues, a classic group-edited by lay users could be a really interesting experiment. But I wouldn’t want it to be the only way to read classic literature, nor could I ever consider it “authoritative.” Which is an interesting thing to say, I realize, but I tend to locate authority in the writer more than the reader.

Interesting points, all. I took a seminar on Emily Dickinson, and, among many other things, we talked about the wars about her dashes. Some editors struck them out, thinking they were just handwriting ornaments. Some editors think they should be left in and think that they are the very essence of her work and that they mean certain things. One professor talked about some theory that the dashes lay on their sides, which shows a more lateral view (as contrasted starkly with the top-down hierarchy of Dickens, say, with God at the top and insects at the bottom).

Now that we have things like wikipedia to model ourselves after, the world of editing opens up, so it’ll be really interesting to see what happens when ALL of us (not just the people who work for prestigious publishing houses) get to decide what we read and how we read it.

I guess every wiki-ish community needs an elite of elders who decide what edits get to go in. They are the ones who get to decide that links to pride and prejudice fanfiction are out (because they belong in a fan discussion forum, not The Book Itself), but links to historical context are in (because they facilitate a better understanding/enjoyment of the book). It’s really difficult to edit something in wikipedia. My friend Peterson was just telling me yesterday about something mathy he found on wikipedia that was false (something about hyperbolic… somethings), so he tried to strike out the false sentence, but an editor said “where is your source?” which is a fair question, but math books only say the truth, not that something is not something else, so he doesn’t have a “source”, just a phd in math. So he gave up.

So yeah. I guess I’ve gone in a circle… even though it can open the debate up to be viewed by everyone, the decisions still have to be made by an elite. Maybe we can choose the elite, though, out of a wider pool of volunteers, and for reasons we trust. I guess that’s the thing. With the transparency of group editing, we will have to get “elite” editors that we have a reason to trust.