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


Read Aloud


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


Read Aloud


Page Guide


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, 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.