II. A Different Nature

A Different Form of Book looked at the arguments surrounding the development of electronic versions of existing printed books. However, the nature of the hypermedia- or ebook extends beyond the printed book, in a change which is as fundamental and significant as the previous move from handwritten documents to printed texts. As feminist critic Dale Spender points out:


In fact, it is more appropriate to view the move from printed to e-books in terms of change rather than gains and losses, all change necessarily involving both. Spender adds later that:


Media & Structure

The first change in the nature of the ebook from its printed form lies in the ebook's ability to incorporate sound and moving images alongside text and still images. This ability is currently restricted by the storage capacity of hard disks, floppy disks, CD Roms etc and the speed by which computers can access information, meaning that, in 1997, most moving images are played in small "windows" rather than taking up the whole of the screen (in book terms, the image seldom fills the page). However, this does not detract from the fact that e-books already have the power to "show" as well as "tell" information in a way which printed books do not, combining sound, text and still and moving images to create a new [hyper] medium. Spender points out that:


The second change in the nature of the ebook is that, while printed books are separate and isolated, e-books which are stored and accessed online can be linked to each other via hypertext links. George Landow points out that:

Landow associates the development of hypertext with developments in post-war literary theory, particularly in France.


One way of envisaging the effects that hypertext links may have on the way in which we read electronic versions of traditional printed books is to look at the example of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's Chalet School series, containing 59 books originally published by W & R Chambers between 1925 and 1970. It is unlikely that Chalet School readers will be able to obtain all the books in the series, because some books are both out of print and had small original print runs in paperback and hardback versions; readers outside the UK will have particular problems. Yet many readers are keen to read every book, because they will encounter a familiar world and repeat their original enjoyment with each new story. In addition, the fictional world of the Chalet School encompasses two generations of schoolgirls as the original pupils grow up, leave school, return to teach and/or get married and have daughters who in turn became pupils; so readers want to know what happened next - or previously, depending at which point they first encounter the series. And most of the books are characterised by references to previous incidents in the series, with the titles of the books where these incidents occurred given as footnotes, encouraging readers' curiosity.

At the time of writing, 1997, readers seeking hard-to-obtain texts can turn only to libraries and to fellow collectors to borrow them, or to secondhand bookshops, car boot fairs and dealers' catalogues to buy them. They then have to search through each book manually to find the incident referred to in the first text. But, as previously discussed, an electronic "online" library accessible via a computer, modem and telephone line would have every book in the series "in stock". Readers could access, read and print their own copy of the incident - or the whole book which has been referenced - via a hypertext link incorporated into the reference itself.

After reading books from the Chalet School series, many readers decide that they would like to read other books by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. Most of these books are very rare indeed, but using an electronic online library, readers could access and read copies via hypertext links incorporated into a bibliography of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's work. Many Chalet School readers also decide that they would like to read girls' school stories by other authors, and a smaller number want to read boys' school stories, biographies and autobiographies of school-story authors, critical works and books about related subjects such as the history of real girls' schools. Using an electronic library, readers would be able to follow existing hypertext links (created by previous readers or "librarians") to these other texts, or would be able to create their own links to them.

The third change in the nature of the ebook is that, unlike printed books, e-books are not limited to a linear structure. Rather than having chapters as with a linear, printed book, it is more appropriate to describe each self-contained unit of text within them as a lexia. As George Landow points out:

The non-linear nature of the hypermedia text is what distinguishes it from the more restrictive "multimedia", which also combines written words, sound, and still and moving images electronically. Bob Cotton and Richard Oliver explain that hypermedia:


What effect does this have on content of the text itself? Landow has concluded that with fiction, the non-linear, linked nature of the ebook:

One thing an ebook author might do is to offer, for example, a number of different endings. Landow claims that:


The linked and non-linear nature of the ebook also means that the boundaries between different texts are broken down. As the Chalet School example shows, to an extent these boundaries are illusory, made real by the separate nature of printed texts. However, linking does produce a profound change in the nature of the text. As Delany and Landow point out:

When we see the ebook, then, we may find it hard to recognise.

Active Readers

The fourth change in the nature of the ebook lies in its potential for readers to customise their versions, by adding notes or links or by making changes to the text. This is possible because of the "virtual" nature of the ebook; its form is not restricted to the original number of words or pages, while its "binding" can be removed and re-placed. The way in which each ebook is produced will determine whether in fact it can be customised by readers, but there is the potential, for example, for the Chalet School readers who make up stories about their favourite characters (see 9:III. The Fans of Girls' School Stories, 1990s Women Fans for details) to add them to electronic versions of the books, while those who dislike certain elements of the books - for example the plays - could delete them from their copies, and those who dislike the way a plot develops could rewrite the stories.

At best, this can be seen as empowering the reader; at worst, it could be seen as allowing censorship and the destruction of the author's work. But it is questionable whether e-books allow censorship or merely make it more explicit: in print a reader still skips over parts of the book which she doesn't like; and a mother can still control her daughter's reading or access to the television. And as David Kolb argues convincingly, the ability to link does not mean that the "original" work is left unrecognisable.


All of these changes in the nature of the ebook will have a profound effect on the reading experience. Readers will have to learn new skills, replacing our familiarity with print conventions such as page-turning with electronic conventions such as scrolling text. As Spender writes:


But the impact of the ebook on the reading experience goes far beyond the need to become familiar with new forms of reading devices. The ebook's ability to include sound and moving images alongside still images and written words, and the opportunity it offers to develop new ways of structuring and reading texts - for example by allowing readers to choose their own paths through the text, to add links to other texts and to make notes and otherwise to alter the text - marks a fundamental development in the history of the book and of reading. Delany and Landow have pointed out that:

They add that:


Landow further points out that, potentially:

In fact the reader/viewer/listener will often have no choice but to be active because of the sheer quantity of information which they encounter, forcing them to make choices whether they are happy to be led by the author or not. Landow adds that:


Whatever emotions this prospect may provoke in older readers, Spender argues that young people are more than ready for the challenge.


The fluid nature of the hypermedia text, with its many different versions and the ability of readers to add notes and comments by means of hypertext links, marks the fifth fundamental change in the nature of the book in the move from the use of print to electronic means of disseminating it. Print encourages us to develop fixed ideas, since the text and the ideas enclosed within it cannot be altered. As Delany and Landow point out: "the text is more than just the shadow or trace of a thought already shaped, in a literate culture, the textual structures that have evolved over the centuries determine thought almost as powerfully as the primal structure that shapes all expression, language." Spender argues that: "In looking back on print culture, the main consensus will be that it was the period of standardisation. It gave rise to a mindset of regularity and repeatability (the basis of scientific evidence)." In contrast, electronic text encourages developing thought, modified and extended over time, whilst also overcoming the access barriers inherent in a spoken debate which is limited to one time and geographical area and, most importantly, providing a record.

The Effects On Authorship

As a result of these other changes in the nature of the ebook, the sixth change in the nature of the ebook is its effect on authorship. One possibility is, as Spender suggests, that given the potential which electronic media offers for anyone to become an author, the professional author as we know them could disappear.


It is unlikely, however, that writing will become purely a leisure activity, perhaps indulged in by those who have more leisure than others, since this is to ignore the function of writing as a commodity and the selling of writing as a market. There are also qualitative issues such as skill, talent and the attentive/appreciative capacities of the audience to be taken into account. Spender acknowledges this when she quickly goes on to reassure that:


Authors will certainly need to develop new skills if they wish to take advantage of the ebook's potential. However, in the last ten years many writers have happily made the transition from using pen and paper and then transcribing their work using a typewriter to writing directly onscreen using a wordprocessing programme. This has had no visible effect on the content or presentation of the end product, the traditional book; the transition has been made almost entirely because it has suited authors to do so (the other reason has been that, with the widespread use of electronic sub-editing and "typesetting" software, publishers prefer to receive copy on disk). And those who have not been willing to make the transition are still publishing books which have been written in pencil on paper - they simply pay someone else to wordprocess the manuscript for them, as writers have traditionally paid others to type.

Authors are likely to have to develop visual skills, encompassing typography, layout, photography etc, if they are to thrive in the age of the ebook, but this should be viewed as a beneficial development. Landow points out that, in print publishing, both writers and publishers resist writers becoming involved in decisions about typography and layout, but adds that: "When told that one should not avail oneself of some aspect or form of empowerment, particularly as a writer, one should ask why". He goes on to discuss the fact that the "prejudice against the inclusion of visual information in text derives from print technology". He stresses the important visual nature of hypermedia and the importance of authors becoming visually competent, at least with regard to the appearance and presentation of their text.

Theoretically, e-books allow an author with the necessary skills to publish their work themselves without any input from elsewhere; this project being a case in point. It is more likely, though, that most authors will continue to work as part of a team to realise their vision. Essentially, as Landow points out: "Hypermedia, like cinema and video or opera, is a team production." Authors already work with a publishing team including an editor and designer to produce printed books, so this is less of a change than is at first apparent. For much of this century, too, writers have worked with large teams including a producer, designer and director to "publish" films and television programmes (although ebook authors would benefit from obtaining more control and a higher status than scriptwriters currently enjoy).

Even if an author self-publishes, though, a high technical quality can be achieved with the software which is now commercially available. For example, Bob Cotton and Richard Oliver, writing before the development of the World Wide Web, point out that one person "can now sit at a single workstation and on that one machine orchestrate the complete span of media. It is possible to move seamlessly from typography to animation to illustration to image scanning to video editing to sound mixing, and at the same machine produce an entire interactive programme ready to be mastered and stamped on to CDRom, or networked to other machines."

How will the nature of the author's work change, as opposed to the new skills which they will need? One possibility is the potential which electronic authorship offers for multi-authorship, for collaborating with other writers as well as being part of a team which includes a designer and editor. Multi-authorship is made possible first by the wide range of structural possibilities which the ebook offers, making it far easier to combine the work of two or more authors. Authors can also work on the same text across continents and time zones, using email and the Internet. In the future, multi-authorship could develop analogously to collaborative cinema production, jazz improvisation, sophisticated conversation or music sampling.

Cotton and Oliver point out that authors' relationship with their readers will also change.


Landow writes that the very concept of authorship is altered with hypermedia.


In a real sense, the ebook "author" can include the people who commented on the work as it developed, the designers, programmers etc who work as part of the authorial team and the writers responsible for texts which are linked to the main text. In the case of the Virtual Worlds of Girls hypertext cluster, "author" would then include the people who commented on drafts of the hyperthesis, the people who advised or assisted technically, the other authors of the Bettany Press texts, those whose writing is included in quotes and in excerpts from fanzines, those who supplied photographs . . . as well as the reader who chooses their own path through the hypertext and adds their own notes and links. This in turn could affect what we perceive as being texts. As Delany and Landow point out:


Delany and Landow also point out that many academic works are already produced by multiple authors and other works are dependent on the works of further authors, but that this is often not acknowledged, particularly within the humanities.


How will all these changes affect new and existing authors? Spender writes that:


From a personal point of view, I take the middle ground. On the one hand, I am one of the new breed of authors who can function in and is enthusiastic about electronic media. On the other hand, I am only too aware that writers without access to the technology - particularly women writers, disabled writers, writers from ethnic minorities and working-class writers - will be further marginalised. As an academic, Spender was given free access to the necessary hardware, software and training to gain the skills she needed to read and write in the electronic media. As a professional writer with a good credit record, I was able to get access to a loan to purchase hardware, software and training to make my own transition. But what place will there be in the electronic media for the previously unpublished, brilliant but financially poor writer, who has no connections with the academy? Will authorship really be democratised and the distinctions between professionals and others blurred, or will the existing divisions simply be replaced by new ones?

The Effects On Publishing

Equally problematic is the seventh change in the nature of the ebook; its potential for both greater accessibility and more restricted accessibility than the printed book. Returning to the example of the young unemployed men in Teesside, I do not doubt that their lives would have been enriched if they had had access to the literature of the world. More importantly, however, their lack of literacy prevented them from participating fully in a society where the ability to read is increasingly essential to obtain work. Although they were visually literate, the Hollywood films which they loved - Hollywood films necessarily formed the bulk of their viewing - were characterised by a basic narrative structure, slight characterisation and a lack of introspection; like television programmes, music videos and computer games, they left little space for the imagination. Similarly, these young men's world view was limited by the broadcast "soundbites" which are best suited to discussing politics and current and social affairs in a visual medium.

E-books offer us the potential to make the written word available across continents and over time to an infinite number of people, translated into different languages including braille and sign and those not yet recorded. E-books can read themselves to us using speech facilities, and can even teach us to read them using learning programmes. However, access to e-books is currently dependent on privilege to a much greater extent than the printed book. The young men in Teesside could not read the printed books to which they did have access - for example in public libraries - but could also not afford the high costs which access to e-books currently entails, even though the books themselves would have been more accessible. Information technology allows us access to more information than our ancestors could dream of; lack of literacy and/or lack of access to the technology recreates an ancient divide between those who can read and have access to the written word, and those who cannot and do not.

If a cheap, light, durable and waterproof reading device does become available, though, how will print publishing adapt to the ebook? Many publishers have investigated the opportunities offered by e-publishing, although in 1997 only a few have entered into the marketplace. In the UK, Oxford University Press concentrated on scientific publishing, relying on the proven superiority of the electronic medium for data retrieval, while Dorling Kindersley concentrated on interactive children's books and Penguin, though promising a more eclectic range, was developing its projects out of house. In general, print publishers have been cautious, while software developers have, not surprisingly, opted for more visual packages. However, Cotton and Oliver point out that:


One reason for publishers' caution is the impossibility of maintaining existing "copyright" protection in the world of the ebook. Instead of one version of the text, with distribution controlled by the number of copies printed, the ebook allows an infinite number of versions and an infinite number of copies to be made. For example, the online version of the Virtual Worlds of Girls hypertext is characterised by its fluid, changing nature, since links can be made to other texts and new texts added at any time. At intervals, copies can be made and stored on CD or some other device; these are the editions, characterised by their static, unlinked nature (although links can be encoded which the buyer could activate if they put their own copy online). If the reader customises a copy which they have made on the hard drive of their computer, it is then unique to them and they have become the reader/author described by Landow - and they could also copy and distribute this version as well as sending their material/links for inclusion in the primary version.

This highlights another problem, that of deciding who is the author of the text and therefore owns the copyright in the first place. Landow points out that:

Spender adds that:


And in addition to these practical and philosophical difficulties of enforcing copyright, there is a widespread belief among current users of the Internet that information should be freely available, which makes many opposed to the very concept of copyright enforcement. But a number of options are being considered, and the most likely scenario is that, in the future, authors will be be paid royalties for "published copies" of e-books (eg CD Roms or similar storage devices), while e-books accessed via the telephone system will be paid for in a similar fashion to the UK's existing Public Lending Right system of payment for library use.

Ultimately, it is economics that will usher in the ebook. First, there is the fact that electronic publishing processes are cheaper, and can be more easily tailored to the market. Second, it is more than likely that the change from the printed to the ebook will give a major boost to the publishing industry. The novelty value alone may bring more people to reading, along with the ebook's ability to read itself and to adjust its type size to suit individuals. Then, in the music industry, the move from vinyl records to audio CDs has resulted in many recordings which were made earlier in the twentieth century being republished in CD format, since music lovers have demanded to play their old favourites in the new mode. As e-books are accepted, readers are likely to demand that their old favourites are also made available electronically - and this of course will be a much cheaper proposition for publishers than reprinting. This should ease publishers into the ebook market and give them the confidence to explore the new forms which the ebook offers. If publishers pass on the lower cost of producing CDs compared to printed books to buyers - which record companies have not done with their buyers - it is likely that the "book" market will both recover and expand.

The key, as with print publishing, will be to remember that, despite the hype around hypermedia, content is still paramount. Publishers would do well to heed cyberpunk author and pioneer Bruce Sterling's warning to software designers that:


The dominance of visual forms of entertainment over the past 15 years has led many media commentators to assume that we are moving from a textual or literate society to a visual or post-literate society without this causing them great concern; mass literacy is perceived as a twentieth-century phenomenon. George Landow points out that this belief has been shaped by cultural criticism:


What is certainly true is that the image-based text now plays at least an equal role with the written text, and that, even in the developed world, most young people are either equally competent in both mediums or have a greater degree of visual literacy. But, at the same time, the written word is the most effective means of conveying information, and access to that information conveys economic, financial and political power. The written word is also a visual means of conveying information; it is simply that the code is more difficult to understand. In a world where the screen dominates and the printed page appears increasingly unnatural and irrelevant, the development of the ebook should allow the book both to compete with purely image-based texts and to survive alongside them. And, since reading is seen as a girl's activity while technology is seen as a boy's realm, the ebook should popularise reading for boys, who are less literate, at the same time as encouraging girls to use computers.

Next: III. A Different Way of Learning
Return to: The E-Book and the Future of Reading Index
Return to: Virtual Worlds of Girls Index

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