Volume 2 of the Something in the Water series arrives Tuesday, January 30!

Words Mean Things: eBook

Words Mean Things: eBook

I write some marketing copy sometimes, and I have to laugh. Businesses are all over inbound marketing and content creation. Which, well, fine. I don’t mind—it employs writers, disseminates sometimes-useful information, and it’s better than yet another insipid Super Bowl commercial.

What gets me, though, is that they often offer free downloads for customers and non-customers. It’s all branded content, but it’s usually designed to walk you through a particular subject, and in some cases, it does have some genuinely useful and interesting information.

I’m mostly interested in the fact they’ll call these things “eBooks.”

You don’t need an eReader. They’re not on the Amazon store. They’re not usually formatted in anything but the usual 8 x 11” size and they’re almost always PDFs. Worst of all? Most of them are under fifty pages—very few of them break twenty-five pages.

These aren’t books.

What the Heck Is a “Book” Anyway?

This attitude brings me to another essential question: what defines a book?

A pile of books with an eReader on top.

One of these things is not like the others … eBooks are changing our definitions of books.

My reaction to the use of the term “eBook” for these items is probably because the notion conflicts with my understanding of a “book.” A book is bound and printed. It’s usually hundreds of pages long. It’s usually more than 55,000 words.

But eBooks are electronic books, so they’re not printed and bound. And even when we consider print books, we can easily see they come in all shapes and sizes, from pocket guides to coffee table art books. There’s no real restriction on how long or short a book is either. Any sort of restriction on how long a book should be (e.g., 100 print pages, 55,000 words) are the result of decisions about what’s economical to print, not necessarily any sort of standard regarding a differentiation between a “book” and a “pamphlet” or whatever else.

Quite simply, it’s not cheap to print a book, so you’d want to make sure the thing was long enough to justify printing it.

Into the Digital Era

Electronic publishing erases most of those concerns, so a book, really, could be any length or shape or size. Programs like Amazon’s KDP agree with that—they recommend 2,500 words or more and some people suggest about twenty pages or more. (Twenty pages, double-spaced in Word, is approximately 5,500 words, a little more than double the recommended minimum from KDP.)

Despite eBooks having been around for more than a decade and having essentially eliminated the cost requirements around printing, I still balk at the notion that a twenty-four page PDF on 8.5 x 11” paper is a book of any sort. Why?

The Value Proposition

My reaction is likely based on perceived economic value. Books, we perceive, are valuable. They’ve been high-priced commodities for a long time, and we haven’t really shaken off that notion, not even in the era of freebies and 99-cent eBooks.

Basically, books used to cost a lot of money. They were (and often still are) considered luxury items. If we were going to invest in a book, we needed to know we were going to get our money’s worth. Five bucks for twenty pages is about a dollar a page—too expensive for most readers.

This makes sense when we consider most books have traditionally been much longer than twenty pages. Cheap paperbacks sometimes cost around $5 a pop, but they’re hundreds of pages long. When I can buy 400 pages for $5, your 20-page eBook seems like a rip-off.

It’s one of the reasons the academic community can see such stark resistance to publishers charging for individual journal articles. Pricing is out of line with the length of many articles; I’ve seen publishers trying to charge around $40 for 20 pages. My instant reaction is “nope,” even when I’m interested in the article, even when I’ve needed it for research.

Because readers have long received quite long documents for a relatively reasonable price, short documents don’t strike us as a good deal, even if they use the iTunes pricing model, where each chapter or article is extracted and worth the minimum price, while the whole thing is worth more.

Back to the Books

But what about these freebies and such? Most companies don’t want to charge even $5 for their 20-page document. In most cases, they’re creating this content and offering it for free as a way of getting people to interact with their brand. They provide information, sure, but it’s still a marketing tool. In fact, usual trick is to get people to give you their contact information so your marketing team can then contact them.

That’s actually a pretty hefty price for a “free” document. I suppose you can ignore spam or block the email address, but you’re essentially signing yourself up to receive annoying marketing communications you may or may not want. (Maybe all you really wanted was the document.)

But the problem here is whether or not these things count as “books,” not whether they’re worth you exchanging something of relative value for them.

Playing on Notions of Value

Except that using the word “book” to describe these documents is actually playing with our values system.

We’re used to shorter format print works being called different things: booklets, pamphlets, and so on and so forth. Book, for all its worth, implies a work of length—although that’s not necessarily true or even enforced in any definition.

The word “book” also implies some sort of scholarly authority. We’ll talk about experts as “the person who wrote the book” on a particular subject. Books are considered authoritative sources of information. They’re erudite.

Pamphlets, brochures, booklets are all less authoritative than a book. So by calling your twenty-page document an “eBook,” not a pamphlet or a brochure, you’re communicating to the reader this thing has value. It’s authoritative. The information is accurate and important.

You’re much more likely to exchange your information for a “book” than a pamphlet.

Is It a Book?

A picture showing Merriam-Webster's dictionary.

Guess who!

So we’ve seen the reasoning behind calling these documents books, and why some readers might reject the word. The question we’re left with is whether or not it’s actually wrong to call these things books.

Using Merriam-Webster, we could argue either way. The dictionary gives the primary definition of “book” as

a : a set of written sheets of skin or paper or tablets of wood or ivory
b : a set of written, printed, or blank sheets bound together between a front and back cover

That clearly applies to print books and print books alone. However, M-W also gives us this definition:

c : a long written or printed literary composition

  • reading a good book
  • reference books
  • hardcover and paperback books

… which implies the book has a certain length. There’s no given definition; a book isn’t a book only when it has more than 50 pages or more than 100 pages. But it is a long written composition.

Does twenty-pages really count as long? In the era of microblogging, Instagram, and SMS, we could sure as hell make the argument that yes, twenty-pages is long. Yet I have a sense most readers would still disagree that calling a twenty-page document an “eBook” is really an accurate use of the term.


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