Blurring the Digital Page: The Difference Between Book Apps and eBooks

| September 9, 2013 | 10 Comments

This past week brought lots of questions my way, asking for a definition that distinguishes between an “eBook” and “book app”. The flood of interest may have been partly in response to the announcement from Random House, stating that they are bringing Dr. Seuss to ebooks for the first time. Articles with titles like Dr. Seuss Makes His Digital Debut, left many of my readers scratching their heads. Several people asked me how this was possible, when all of the Dr. Seuss titles are already available from Oceanhouse Media. Maybe those are book apps and not ‘ebooks’ but they are certainly digital. As a result, I found myself explaining digital book rights, variations in format & OS, as well as device segmentation and other topics that were guaranteed to confuse and bore my readers to tears. In the end, the announcement from this major publisher seemed hollow at best and misleading at worst.

Find your preferred eBook format … confused yet?

The problem is, I don’t have a very good working definition to separate the term eBook and book app for myself. I know the difference is technical … if one assumes that ‘eBook’ refers to EPUB and HTML-style layouts behind an eReader format. An app (book or any other category), would then be distinguished not by the experience of the user, but by the programming behind it, utilizing a lower-level (closer to the hardware) programming language which can be flexible enough to create a book, game, spreadsheet, calculator or any other experience. For the iPad/iPhone this means programming in Objective C or using a toolkit like Corona.

I tend to stick to this technical definition most of the time, but have little to offer the general public that can be shared in a tweet or easy to remember sound bite. Flustered by the stream of questions, I cozied up to Wikipedia for some reassurance and guidance. Wikipedia defines “eBooks” broadly, including a comparison of different formats:

“An electronic book (variously: e-bookeBook, e-Book, ebookdigital book, or even e-edition) is a book-length publication in digital form, consisting of text, images, or both, and produced on, published through, and readable on computers or other electronic devices. Sometimes the equivalent of a conventional printed book, e-books can also be born digital. The Oxford Dictionary of English defines the e-book as “an electronic version of a printed book,” but e-books can and do exist without any printed equivalent. Commercially produced and sold e-books are usually intended to be read on dedicated e-book readers. However, almost any sophisticated electronic device that features a controllable viewing screen, including computers, many mobile phones, and nearly all smartphones, can also be used to read e-books. Some companies, such as Amazon, with their Kindle for PC software, provide an emulator that allows a user to read their format on other platforms.” [Source: Wikipedia]

This definition could, in theory, include most of the book apps I’ve reviewed, if you read it closely. However ‘book app’ is not listed as a format option in the later discussion, nor is there a separate page for the term “book app” on the popular reference site. The technical dividing line between the two depends on your definition first of ‘ebook’. If, as Wikipedia suggests, you define an ebook as any electronic book, the door is open to including book apps in that definition. At one point I suggested that this should be the case – that the term ebook includes book apps, just like the term people includes men but does not exclude women. But then I lack a term for the EPUB & other formats of eBooks that are not ‘apps’. I find myself constructing overly-long definitions that become less and less satisfying as they get more specific. How can the reading public wrap their minds around all the technical specifications of these formats. It’s like expecting the average reader to distinguish, identify and understand the technical set-up for typefaces.

Is it time for a unified eBook format? Image: TOC 2012

And yet the other definitions I hear are also not satisfying, primarily because they are not accurate. “An eBook isn’t interactive,” “It’s just a scanned .pdf style digital book,” “It doesn’t do anything, but maybe it has narration,” were among the comments I heard. Many people simply define a book app as ‘interactive’ or ‘more than just an eBook’. The problem I have with this approach, is that a book app can be ‘more than an eBook’ but it doesn’t have to be more than an eBook. An app can also be enhanced with as little as you can program – it’s a flexible format and the finished publications I’ve reviewed reveal that to me everyday. I only review book apps (by strict format definition), so that’s what I’m best at weighing in on within this debate. Roughly 15% of my database of reviews have been of book apps with no interactivity – none.

In the end, I found it difficult to come up with any working definition for book apps vs eBooks based on the range of enhancements I’ve seen over the past few years. I also confess to using the terms “ebook” “digital book” and “electronic book” interchangeably in a lot of my writing when describing book apps, which certainly doesn’t help. The reality is I don’t have a precise definition … yet. The terms and technology within this young industry are still in flux. On the one hand, a large majority of people I’ve polled (informally) seem to think that there should be a definition that distinguishes between the two terms. On the other hand, the definitions seem to overlap and blur in the popular imagination. The term “e-book” has been defined very broadly (and somewhat vaguely) by many sources, including this definition in the Wall Street Journal:

“An electronic book (also e-book, ebook, digital book) is a text- and image-based publication in digital form produced on, published by, and readable on computers or other digital devices. E-books are presented visually or aurally, with the *audio book as a precursor to, and limited exemplum of, electronic publishing’s potential. Components other than text have been considered enhancements, including multimedia (sound, images, film/video/animated graphics). The e-book is a young medium and its definition is a work in progress, emerging from the history of the print book and evolving technology. In this context it is less useful to consider the book as object—particularly as commercial object—than to view it as cultural practice, with the e-book as one manifestation of this practice.” ['The Oxford Companion to the Book', March 4, 2010emphasis added]

So what’s my working definition? It’s technical and format-specific, not something I can assume I have in common with anyone else unless we state the definitions in advance of a conversation. For trainings I do about digital media for librarians, I begin with a discussion of terms so the group can have some common language for the day. And when I’m communicating with others online, I’m especially careful to ask questions about an ‘ebook’ or ‘app’ to determine if we are talking about the same thing. Otherwise, it is possible to get all the way to the point of downloading a title for review before I realize the ‘interactive book app’ the author wants me to look at is actually an iBook. It’s not a sexy approach to communicating, but it does avoid some inevitable confusion.

The Rocket by Peter Newell

An Instructive Side-by-Side Comparison of Book App vs iBook:

For an example, I’ve picked a public domain title, based on

The Rocket by Peter Newell (originally published in print in 1912).

This quirky children’s book is reproduced solidly in two different formats, both as an iBook and as a book app (both for iPad via iTunes).

Both titles are free* so anyone can compare these two formats to see how similar they can be.

*at time of publication

 

First up …

the BOOK APP version:

Title – Rocket Book

Features:

Read Aloud

Animation

Page Guide

Portrait or Landscape

No Sample Available.

Note that the format allows the book to swipe pages both up and down (in portrait mode) or side to side.

A page guide & the text is hidden, but appears when you swipe at the sides of the page.

In landscape mode, the book has a 2 page-spread similar to the eReader-style many people are familiar with but the best experience of the app is in portrait mode.

Simply paging up through the building to follow the rocket and the quality of the enlarged illustrations makes the reading experience unique in the digital app.

The app version also has limited enhancement, nicely presented in the form of a touch of flickering light and movement, to show the rocket’s trip through the building.

Other than this slight animation and audio narration, nothing else has been added.

The app has no interactivity.

Next up … the iBook version:

Title - The Rocket Book – Interactive Read Aloud Edition

Features:

Read Aloud

Interactive

Page Guide

Bookmark

Portrait or Landscape

Sample Available

 

The iBook has only one real ‘interactive’ element.

A button on each page can be tapped to send a ‘rocket’ up through the floor.

The graphics aren’t very polished (the rocket looks more like a bullet and the button is just a big circle over the old-fashioned illustrations), but the effect is unquestionably what people mean when they say a digital book is interactive.

Pages can also be viewed in landscape or portrait in the iBook.

The quality of the visual experience feels more polished overall in the app, especially with the custom page turning that mimics the rocket’s path.

The iBook feels more vintage, however.

Now that you’ve seen both of these titles, reproduced in digital with the two different formats, how would you define the eBook vs the app?

Category: 100+ Reviews ... What I've Learned So Far, All About Apps

About the Author ()

Carisa Kluver is the the editor of Digital-Storytime.com, an iPad children's book review site. She has a BA in Anthropology from UC Berkeley and an MSW from the University of Washington. Before starting this project, she was a school counselor, health educator and researcher in child & maternal health.

Comments (10)

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  1. Josh says:

    A clear and informative presentation and analysis of a topic whose lines are quite blurry!

    I was intrigued by the section addressing interactivity, and in particular, how the amount of interactivity influences our definition of e-book vs. book app. Whether or not it factors into our definition, interactivity effects the reading experience, particularly for children. Unfortunately, interactivity with real, physical books is missing from both of these equations.

    I wanted to share the Sparkup Magical Book Reader, which brings the best of both worlds (interactivity combined with real books) together, with you and your readers (full disclosure: I work in Sparkup’s communications department). Ebooks and apps certainly are of value, but we don’t want kids and their families to abandon physical books with the expansion of these technologies. It is common knowledge that reading physical books contributes to a child’s cognitive and intellectual development. The Magical Reader can record and read aloud any picture book in the world. Kids and their families can record stories together and personalize the content. Once record, a child reattaches Sparkup and it immediately recognizes the book’s front cover and follows the child’s page as he or she turns the pages – even out of order. This added element of interactivity makes reading that much more enjoyable for kids and encourages them to seek out physical books independently.

    Visit http://www.sparkupreader.com to learn more.

  2. Ivan says:

    I own both the Game of Thrones ebooks and the Game of Thrones app also by Random House. The ebook is the story that I read. The app is almost like the special features and additional content that so many DVDs have. Maybe this example is more clear cut. Thanks for the exposition on this topic though.

    • Yes, Ivan, I think a lot of the comparisons between iBook & App are more clear-cut … this example was meant to show how blurry or even reversed the level of enhancement can be, depending on the book. There is no way to predict what the experience will be like simply by knowing if something is an ebook or an app.

  3. When I was investigating this, probably a year and a half ago, it seemed to me that the only devices that could handle interactive ebooks, or read aloud with text high-lighting, were the iPad and iPhones through iBooks. For fixed-layout, where the placement of images and text is maintained as designed by the creator, pdf was about the only way to go, and audio was not available. Do you know if that is still the case?

    • As far as I know, Anna, the possibilities for enhanced book apps are fully realized for google-play, kindle fire and nook color formats, although iPad/iPhone versions via iOS are still dominant.

      • Anna Hines says:

        Thanks. I have started creating android book apps along with the iOS versions, but was curious about the ePub possibilities. Not that I have time to do that as well. It is challenging enough to keep up with the apps. It is fascinating to watch this new world develop and fun to be part of it. Thank you for all you do to gather and share information.

  4. Sandy McDowell says:

    I am still a novice in this area… I am very happy to have found your reviews and feel like you shoot me up the learning curve.

    The way I think of the difference between ebooks vs apps is where I can read them. I can’t use an app on a desktop. I can use an ebook on almost anything.

    Also apps can be updated, whereas I don’t know of ebooks being updated. I think of an app of kind of a case–something that could hold a digital story plus other “stuff.” I think of an ebook as a solo entity.

    Apps seem to at least have the potential for communicating with other users and for storing some data (like images or text).

    I don’t know of any apps for young adult or adult fiction that doesn’t have pictures. . . does it exist?

  5. Geraldo says:

    Hi, I think your blog might be having browser compatibility issues.

    When I look at your website in Ie, it looks fine but when opening in Internet Explorer, it has some overlapping.
    I just wanted to give you a quick heads up!
    Other then that, awesome blog!

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