Why books are not web pages

Much has been said about the production of texts in the digital age. All text production has moved to the computer in the past two-three decades, and lately also online. It is therefore easy to assume that all texts have more or less the same production process.

The Aluratek Libre eBook Reader Pro from 2010 is a bit outdated, but it should be able to display most of the ebooks produced in 2013.

The Aluratek Libre eBook Reader Pro from 2010 is a bit outdated, but it should be able to display most of the ebooks produced in 2013.

This is unfortunate, as it may mean that certain types of complex thoughts will no longer be expressed. Take books that have been important in forming current ideologies such as ‘The Wealth of Nations’ by Adam Smith for certain types of liberalism or the ‘Open Veins of Latin America’ by Eduardo Galeano for pan-Latinamerianism. They express complex models that cannot easily be split up into a series of easily digestible blog posts.

With the exceptions of some technical manuals, product catalogues and high-school/college text books that are exchanged every other year, many books have a much longer life-cycle than the average thing one can find on the web. What is interesting about it, is that the technology to create books needs to move much slower as well. Probably the most well-known open source systems for creating high quality books (LaTeX) is from the early 1980s. The latest incarnation of its PDF creation system (LuaTex) has been in development since 2005 and has still not reached a stage where it should be used in everyday production environments.

This is quite different from how the web works, where we now get a new version of Google Chrome every 6 weeks, automatically installed (unless one is using Linux) and with ever changing web technologies. If you created something in some version of HTML five-ten years ago and tried to do some fancy layout or animation tricks, chances are that it needs to be readjusted to work today.

Some books don’t get big before decades after their first release. The author then still needs to be able to open the original files and create new revisions, etc. . The first edition of the “Open Veins of Latin America” was published in Spanish in 1971, and in English in 1973, and has been revised several times until 1997. For much of the English speaking world it was unknown, until Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gave it as a gift to US President Barack Obama in 2009 and it went to nr. 11 on the Amazon charts within hours.

With the appearance of ebook readers, which use much of the same technologies as the web, there is less difference in the technology used for book production than before. So how does one make sure that a book written now can still be edited in 10-20-50 years? The standard format used in ebooks, epub, is the same that is used in web pages (HTML), but it is a conservative version of it, not allowing as many changes. Many ebook readers haven’t changed much over the last few years, so that different from laptops, an ebook reader from two years ago can not do much less than a current one, and can generally open the same files (with the exception of Amazon’s Kindle). This helps.
Another part is making sure that the application used to edit the text files uses formats that are likely to be readable in some decades. That’s why when creating Fidus Writer, we made it export to two of the most common formats around today: simple HTML and LaTeX. This increases the chance that the files will be editable using the types of applications that exist in 30 years.

If one really wants to make sure that one can reedit the texts, the best solution is probably to o back to pre-digital technology: Buy some paper that does not easily fall apart, and print your texts out. Store them away in a vault or your attic. Should the book you write now suddenly make you famous in 30-40 years time and you need to make revisions — just scan the pages back in.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.