What is a book in the digital age?
When I started in book publishing, twenty-five years ago, books were books. Paper, binding, and offset presses. I didn’t know then that my definition was coming apart, as digital pioneers reimagined ‘bookness’ in digital form.
Today, my book-making team builds websites, uploads to Kindle, releases apps, crafts page designs, and loves the thrill of a big print run and the smell of fresh ink. Everything we make is a book.
What is ‘bookness’ today, and does it matter? I suspect, like me, you know in your bones there’s a difference between an online book and a website full of stories. You sense that an online textbook is not the same as an online course. You’d distinguish between an audiobook and a serialised podcast.
Does the difference matter? Absolutely. Because sometimes you know that what you need is a book, even if it’s going to live on screens. And you know, if you’re publishing it, that you must call a book-maker. Not a web agency or a course designer or a podcasting studio.
When I need a definition, I say that a book is a self-standing package of complex ideas.
- It is self-standing because, once you have it before you, you can be completely alone with it and know your way. It needs no guide, and asks no more of you than that you read it.
- It is a package, because someone chose, with painstaking care, what went into it and what did not, and wrapped it beautifully for you.
- It carries complex ideas. This is true whether you’re a four-year-old reading Where’s that Cat or an economics student reading The Economy.
And therein lies the art and science of making books. Book-makers are the guardians of this particular recipe.
Over the last twenty-five years I’ve been tempted by other, flashier pursuits. But I’m drawn to books because I care too much about the thoughtful solitude of reading, the power of design, and the infinite complexity of human thought. The book is their nexus.