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Is It An eBook?

Google just released another installment in its media project, Editions at Play, and it got me wondering: Did they release an ebook?

It’s been a long time since Editions at Play got much press, so I should probably first explain what it is. This is a project Google started in 2015. It now consists of a total of 9 works that were made using web technologies. Each one is located at its own web domain, and most are free to read.

For as long as Google has been developing Editions at Play, they have called these works books, or digital books, or ebooks. And for just as long, I have pointed out that the story may be on a website, but that doesn’t make it a book.

I have in fact said that so often that I was going to drop the issue but then a few weeks ago I found a discussion on KBoards where a bunch of authors spent three pages trying to convince a developer that the online manual he had developed was not an ebook, and should not be called one. (I have not seen his manual, but it sounds quite similar in concept to Editions at Play.)

So tell me, who is right?

Is the latest Editions at Play work, We Kiss The Screens, an ebook?

The authors on KBoards would say no. "People expect something they can download and load on an ereader if you say ebook. Information stored on a website behind a paywall does not meet that requirement," one wrote. Another added "To me, the defining characteristic of an ebook or digital book is that I can put it on my own device and read it offline."

As I see it, the folks behind Editions at Play have confused the content for the container. Book, ebook, and website are all containers for content. Putting a story on a website doesn’t suddenly make the website a book because the content is not the container.

What do you think?

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Harmon April 21, 2019 um 11:04 pm

Define "book". This is nothing more than the ancient disagreement between the prescriptivists and the descriptivists.

I have an iPad Mini.

On that iPad Mini, I can download The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes from several sources, & read it using the Kindle app.

Or on that same iPad mini, I can go to and read it on a web page using Safari.

For what reason is the content read on one app on an iPad Mini an ebook, but the same content read on a different app on the same iPad Mini not an ebook?

Is it that one can also be read on a Kindle ebook reader? But they both can be, thanks to the Kindle browser.

Is it that to some extent, the version in the Kindle app/reader can be highlighted or copied or otherwise marked up? Does that mean that if the publisher decides not to implement that capability, the ebook is suddenly not an ebook?

You might as well say that On The Road is a book in codex form, but not in the original manuscript scroll.

In short, the content IS the book.

Or as Bo Diddley put it:

Now, you can’t tell the honey, babe, lookin' at the bee
You can’t tell an apple lookin' at the tree
Can’t tell the sister lookin' at the brother
Can’t tell a book lookin' at the cover

Nate Hoffelder April 21, 2019 um 11:45 pm

A book is a type of container for content. It usually consists of paper sheets bound or glued in a stack. See CODEX.

Harmon May 10, 2019 um 12:43 am

Thought you’d like this. I recollect the source as a book by Chuck Klosterman:

"And since books are way, way older—The Epic of Gilgamesh was written somewhere in the vicinity of 2000 BC—it seems impossible that we’ll ever stop using that term, even if the future equivalent of a “book” becomes a packet of granulized data that is mechanically injected directly into the cerebral cortex. We also have too many ancillary adjectives connected to books (“He’s only book smart,” “She’s a real bookworm,” “The pigs are gonna throw the book at him”) to jettison the root word from the lexicon. Many people use physical books as art objects in their homes, and the Library of Congress would need to be hit by a nuclear weapon in order to disappear. It’s possible that no one will buy (or read) books in some remote future, but we can (tentatively) assume that people of that era will at least know what “books” are: They are the collected units containing whatever writers write. So even though future writers might not be producing anything resembling present-day books, that’s still how society will refer to whatever works they are producing."

Harmon April 22, 2019 um 12:42 am

A codex is an example of a container, not the universe of all containers.

What if you have a stack of papers – is it not a book unless it is bound? Will a paperclip do? How about numbered pages, which provide a mental binding rather than a physical one?

You can’t just say "content" without describing what the content consists of. What’s on those bound pages, or does it not matter? Does mere gibberish qualify? Can a book exist without content having meaning?

Apply the container definition to ebooks. What’s the container? The iPad? The app? Some apps but not others?

In defining "book" or "ebook" the nature of the container is irrelevant, except that perhaps a container of some sort is an aspect of the definition. Necessary, but not sufficient.

But then, is an audiobook a book? What’s the container – an iPod? But if that’s the case, how is it different from content on an iPad mini?

I say that the first essential quality of a book is content with meaning, the second is that the content is provided to the reader in a form having a discernible pattern conveying that meaning, and the third is that the content is bounded, in the sense that it has a beginning and an ending in a physical or digital manner. Finnegan’s Wake to the contrary notwithstanding.

Will Entrekin April 22, 2019 um 9:03 am

Well, an ebook is technically just a portable webpage. Like if you go to a webpage and do the "Save as" function and download it to your desktop, you’re basically making an ebook out of it. The simplicity is actually what made me realize I could easily create Kindle books; before Vellum, I used to actually code them myself, and I was comfortable with that coding because doing it for an ebook was basically the same as doing it for MySpace blogs, and later WordPress' source editor. It’s all HTML tags; for a while, I was creating the .txt file in Adobe Dreamweaver and then importing that HTML into Mobipocket.

Vellum is, I think, just a (spectacular) WYSIWYG html editor that generates the ebooks, whcih again, are just contained webpages, whether you’re looking at epub or mobi or whatever.

But all of that is to say I do think it is the portability/container factor that defines the ebook itself. The Paperwhite, when you think about it, is just a screen that displays self-contained portable webpages as long documents. I wouldn’t consider this blog an ebook; it’s a website. You could compile some posts into a document designed for themed reading, and I think that would be closer to the requirement.

I think this is similar to the "Was 50 Shades self-published" argument. Those who maintain it was generally rest the crux of their argument on the fact that James posted what became her novel on a fan-fiction forum/website. From there, it was picked up by a small Australian publisher, and then Random House. My argument is that it wasn’t self-published because posting online in a fan-fiction forum is not publishing an ebook.

Mileage varies.

Scott April 22, 2019 um 12:23 pm is a website that is not an ebook. is a website that is also an ebook.

The presentation of the content designates We Kiss the Screens as a book. A "book" is not limited to that which is presented in bound pages, just as not everything presented in bound pages is a "book" in every sense of the word.

Nate Hoffelder April 22, 2019 um 7:17 pm

In that case, since a dictionary is a book, is also a book.

Frank April 22, 2019 um 2:40 pm

I think all of those stories on Google Editions are ebooks.

Kate April 22, 2019 um 4:33 pm

'The authors on KBoards would say no. "People expect something they can download and load on an ereader if you say ebook. Information stored on a website behind a paywall does not meet that requirement," one wrote. Another added "People expect something they can download and load on an ereader if you say ebook. Information stored on a website behind a paywall does not meet that requirement."'

One wrote a thing, then another added the exact same thing.

You’re not usually this sloppy, Nate.

Nate Hoffelder April 22, 2019 um 5:17 pm

my pet bird died last night, and it’s my fault

Nate Hoffelder April 22, 2019 um 7:16 pm

I am sorry of my reply made you feel bad; that was not my intent. I’m grieving, and it is distracting me.

Len April 22, 2019 um 6:00 pm

I wrote something about this issue a while ago, in the context of a discussion of serial publishing, and the distinction between a novel and a book:

"People unfamiliar with the history of something tend to assume that what they’ve always known is the way things have always been. That’s why most people think the 20th-century model of publishing, which favoured the publication of novels in book rather than serial format (I call it the “Doorstopper Model”), is a “traditional” form of publishing. It’s not.

It’s also why we’ve more or less abandoned the basic ontological distinction between the novel and the book. They are not the same thing. The Brothers Karamazov (also published serially) is a novel; like all novels, it’s a book only in a secondary sense, if and when it happens to be produced that way."

I think that puts me in Nate’s "type of container" camp.

r.e. We Kiss The Screens, whatever it is, it’s terribly written. I mean come on:

"However, in a reversal of previous policy, Aphrodite argued against tradition."

I wouldn’t be surprised if it was written by some kind of AI.

Nate Hoffelder April 22, 2019 um 6:01 pm

Hah! It was co-written by an AI, actually.

RAD April 23, 2019 um 6:18 pm

I’d say the KBoards author of the online manual created an "online book". If you have book length content in digital source files, you can create a "build" or "workflow" that generates different targets including well-known eBook formats that can be read on any eReader that understands that format.

You can also create an "online book" from the same digital source files. The main difference is that the online book includes HTML/CSS/JavaScript to mimic the behavior of an eReader but this eReader "code" is tightly coupled with the content. Since the content is book length, the minimum eReader behavior that needs to be mimicked is "furthest point read" bookmark that is somehow persisted for each reader/browser (e.g. via browser cookies).

Besides having the "online book" at your own branded web site, you can also add Ads for monetization and Analytics for marketing and understanding reader engagement. You can also add behavior that engages readers in ways not possible in a standard eReader. This non-standard behavior is where Editions at Play seems to live.

Google has an About page that clarifies what Editions at Play books are:!/about

These are books with the dynamic quality of the Internet. That is, books that "… can be: data-led, locative, generative, algorithmic, sensor-based, fluid, non-linear, expandable, cookie-ish, personalised, proximal, augmented, real-time, time-sensitive, adaptive, collaborative, and share-y."

Personally I have no issue calling the "online manual" an eBook or more precisely an "online version of an eBook". I’d say that Editions at Play are books that push the boundaries of the standard organization, navigation, and interaction of eBooks.

Its not just about the content container but the packaging, distribution, discovery of the content as well. Editions at Play seems to have enabled a new reader engagement/interaction dimension to Online-Books/eBooks.

I apologize for my lack of timeliness in reading and replying to this post 🙂

Scott April 24, 2019 um 11:10 am

RE: "In that case, since a dictionary is a book, is also a book."

A dictionary is a book, yes. But it is not only and always a book. In today’s world a dictionary may be a website or app or piece of software. is clearly not a book.

Nate, I’m surprised you have such a literal, reductive, rearguard take on this when your opinions on electronic reading matters typically tend toward the forward-thinking. To each his own, I guess. We can’t all agree on everything!


Nate Hoffelder April 24, 2019 um 5:02 pm

I love seeing new things. What I don’t like is when people are sloppy about their labels, or when they intentionally misuse words to confuse the issue.

And FYI: Editions at Play isn’t a new thing. We already had websites. We already had stories on websites that used advanced web tech to enhance the text. The only thing new about Editions at Play is that its creators pretended they were doing something original while calling their creations "books".

Have you read the recent interviews of Ian McEwan where he talks about the "original" ideas in his new SF novel, the one that explores ideas that haven’t been new since the 1960s? Google is doing exactly the same thing with Editions at Play.

Lots of people have ragged on McEwan for his pretense that he is doing something original, and yet I can’t object to Editions at Play? That does not figure.

Allen F April 24, 2019 um 3:43 pm

What is a 'book'? A container holding words telling a story?

In which case anything holding words that tell a story can be considered a 'book'.

Back in the dawn of the internet there were sites where writers offered their stories on web pages (heck, one of them started my silly attempts at writing.)

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