Books. Hardcover, paperback, scrolls...and ePub? Digital platforms and media continue to shape the world around us, and how one reads and experiences a book is no different. Society’s definition of what makes something a book continues to evolve and reshape over time. Gone are the days of curling up on the couch on a rainy day with your favorite book, the pages worn from frequent use and the spine cracked open to your favorite pages. Instead, you grab an electronic device, lacking any of the characteristic remarks of a physical book. The experience one has with reading a book changes. Moreover, what we call a book changes. One digital forum that allows for this aforementioned shift in definition is electronic publishing through ePub. This “eBook standard, designed to work consistently across multiple platforms, devices, and languages,” creates an experience with many similarities as well as differences to a physical book. 
What is ePub?
EPub by definition is a format standard for digitally based publications in addition to documents and other media using the “.epub” extension. You can use ePub to create a product that is readable for the general public. It takes lines of code using markup languages, such as HTML or XHTML, and presents them as understandable text on a screen. Some common devices that support reading the markup languages include Adobe Digital Editions, iBook, Blue Fire, and Aldiko.
Electronic publishing came into the public view in 1999, through a format called the “Open eBook Publication Structure,” or OEBPS. This format serves as a set of specifications for the “content, structure, and presentation of electronic books.” Essentially, it is the set of standards required for electronic publishing. The body that selected the standards is a group known as the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF),
whose mission statement is to “foster global adoption of an open, accessible, interoperable digital publishing ecosystem that enables innovation.” Many iterations of electronic publishing followed OEBPS; in 2007, the IDPF released ePub 2.0. Constant updates to ePub occurred over the years, as can be seen to the right resulting in the current version, ePub 3.1, in 2017. It is anticipated that an ePub 3.2 will be released in the near future.
To be called an ePub, a file must contain certain features; these features include using dynamic markup and following a specific order when coding text, through the use of certain semantic markups. ePub specifications also call for protection to rights and the creator, through what is known as Digital Rights Management (DRM). According to William and Mary Law School, DRM is a means to “prevent pirates from stealing and profiting from [others’] work” which in turn “encourages the creation of more content.”  These features and specifications, along with others, help characterize ePub differently from other formats.
There are many differences in the experiences that one has with a physical book versus an ePub. One of the first differences is the physicality of the book. Substrates, paratexts, printing methods, binding—all of these and more contribute to the experience one has when picking up and viewing or reading a book. When looking at a book through a digital platform, the parts that we traditionally think of as making something a book change, sometimes rendering a book unrecognizable.
While comparing a digital and a physical book, a key distinction is the materiality of a digital book and how different features of materiality shape readership. To determine the materiality of ePub, it is best to look at the work of Matthew Kirschenbaum. Kirschenbaum is known for coining two frameworks to help define the materiality of the digital. The first framework is forensic materiality: the concept that no two objects are exactly the same, whether that be digital or physical. With digital books, forensic materiality is seen through code. With numerous coding languages and ways to use a platform, each ePub and eBook is unique. Kirschenbaum’s second framework is formal materiality. Formal materiality is the simulation or modeling of materiality via programmed software processes, or more simply put—“instead of manipulating matter, the computer allows us to manipulate symbols.” That is, as symbols are input into a computer through code, we are able to manipulate them in a manner that produces a desirable outcome for the reader and the author.
Just as there are unique characteristics for the creators, the reader can also experience these definitions of materiality. According to behavioral economic theory, people value items more when they have ownership or possession of them. The sensation of ownership or having something that belongs to oneself creates an inherent value. This can be applied to the materiality shift that occurs with ePub. Each reader is able to create a distinctive reading experience, that though maybe not as the authors and publishers originally intended, creates a more materialistic attachment to the book. This increased appreciation for the book arguably achieves the author’s goal for a book to a greater extent, granted that one of the author’s objectives is that the reader truly values the book.
Children’s books serve as a prime example as to evolutions of technology and the experiences that one has when reading a book as a result of differences in materiality. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of the most successful children’s books of all time; the book’s first edition, written in 1900 by L. Frank Baum, is filled with colorful images, illustrated by W.W. Denslow, that draw in and engage readers both young and old. Since the creation of the beloved first edition, numerous versions have been produced, on platforms ranging from audiobook to anniversary print editions to digital books. Here we will compare two editions of the book: a first edition print and an ePub file via Apple iBook.
The reader first notices that the covers and spine of the physical book include vibrant red and green illustrations featuring story favorites—the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, Toto, and of course, Dorothy—providing an introduction to the characters before one even cracks open the spine. These detailed drawings are quite the opposite of the ePub file, which was downloaded to Apple iBooks via “Project Gutenberg,” a database dedicated to the "creation and distribution of eBooks."  The ePub cover is a plain, red rectangle with a standard white font stating the title of the book and the name of the author with no other detail. It provides no visual depictions and no contextual evidence for what is to come. Thinking about the intended audience of the book—children—the ePub does not draw in the same excitement and youthful anticipation for what is in store as the first edition does. The lack of a colorful entrance provides no indication for the colorful world that Dorothy enters via tornado. For those readers with no previous knowledge of the book or the subsequent movie, there is also nothing that draws one to this book over another. More than that, it is hard to call the front of the ePub a “cover,” because it does not really differ from any of the other pages of the ePub in any significant way except for the fact that it is at the very front of the eBook.
Covers of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Is our understanding of a cover kept in the past? With physical books throughout history, they are often stored with their spines facing outwards towards the reader, with their front and back covers touching an adjacent book's front or back. With digital "libraries" such as Kindle and iBooks, the "front cover" equivalent is first presented to the reader. Gone are the elaborate covers as seen with the first edition of the Wizard of Oz. Replacing it is simply the title of the book. When clicking on the book to read, the book automatically opens up to the inside of the book, leaving the cover visible for all of a few seconds.
Thus, one can argue that there is no true need for a book cover here. Unlike a time when the inner pages and parchment could be damaged by real-world elements, there is no true purpose for the cover of the book rather than identification and human comfort. On the topic of comfort, a cover, especially in an eBook is a skeuomorph. Skeuomorphism can best be described as the "non-functional survival in shape or decoration" that exists because of its use in an earlier material. The cover of an ePub no longer serves a practical purpose but rather serves as an icon--it is a remnant of what a book used to be.
There are more material differences to be noted once the reader does open the book. In the physical book, there are images throughout. From the copyright and introduction pages onward, there are depictions of the main characters and fields of poppies and much more; this is a stark contrast to the ePub version, where there are no images at all, just words. Other major differences between the books include the structure, images, and paratexts. Paratext is “all added written material that does not count as the primary narrative” of a book.  In the first edition, this additional written material was crucial. Baum and Denslow laid out each page of the book in a meticulous manner. The images and text are intertwined to create a cohesive experience of reading words and seeing a visual depiction of the story at the same time. Denslow’s drawings span across many pages and are drawn in vibrant colors. The nature of these multi-page drawings unifies the words on each individual page even more than what is accomplished simply by reading the text.
Sample pages from the First Edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Sample pages from ePub version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
With the ePub edition in iBook, by contrast, the reader can change the structure and paratext through font, font size, font and page color, and many other elements creating pages that do little to resemble the first edition in any way other than the words on the page.
These differences highlight how ePub and different digital platforms alter the conventions of physical books. Moreover, the changes made to the paratext and other elements of the book remove the intricacies that helped result in a century of affection for the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. This alters the reading experience as the reader no longer sees the page as the author intended, but rather how the reader chooses to view the page. When reading certain chapters of the book such as Dorothy and her traveling companions in a field of poppy flowers, the page is no longer filled with the colorful red flowers in the ebook as it is in the first edition. Instead, the page is filled with just text, in a font, color, and size of the reader’s choosing. In addition to losing the ability to see the images that the authors envisioned, the reader also loses a sense of what specific words were supposed to be attached to a particular image. By changing the aforementioned size, font, etc., the words on the page shift, changing the number of pages in the eBook. This further alters the reading experience, because moments that Baum and Denslow intended to be on a specific page to create a specific impact or moment can easily be lost. Paragraphs intended to be on a certain page might shift to a different page resulting in a different reading experience than intended by the authors and publishers.
However, there are benefits to the consumer’s ability to alter the way in which an ePub is read, and that is more accessibility to the general public who may otherwise not have the ability to read a book in its original form. For example, individuals with visual impairments can enlarge the font size, color, and shape to make a book more readable and accessible. Thus, though not reading the book in the original layout, the content is still read, and the reader is able to gain some form of appreciation for the work as opposed to not being able to read the book at all. Moreover, as technology continues to advance and develop every day, more and more individuals have access to books like never before.
Thus, following Kirshenbaum’s frameworks, both the ePub and the physical book are material objects; additionally, introducing a book to the digital stage can change a large part of what made a book distinctive in its physical form. It is important to think about these changes to books as we know them today. It is important to keep in mind and ask oneself about the materiality of a book. It is important to ask about the nature of these changes and whether said changes are “bad,” or merely different.
Rights and Access
A second differentiating feature of ePub is the notion of accessibility and rights. Accessibility has four components: (1) perceivable, (2) operable, (3) understandable, and (4) robust. ePub serves as an accessible format in that it adheres to these four components both from the ePub creator and the viewer’s perspectives. There are step by step instructions online for how to make an ePub, and there are countless ways to make it your own. For the viewer, the ePub is presented in a manner where no coding or deep technological knowledge is necessary. Aforementioned, DRM is a major distinguishing feature of ePub whose purpose is to protect the rights of a content creator so that unique work is appreciated as such. In essence, this prevents an individual from simply going online and copying the work of others or using the work of others in a manner not approved by the creator. Two central arguments can be drawn from Digital Rights Management, one with a focus on the creator of content, and one with an emphasis on consumers of eBooks.
The first argument is that as society at large has increased knowledge and access to the world wide web and all of the spaces available on it, those with some form of a computer coding or data-science background hold the capability to recreate an eBook or text. Whereas with a physical book you must either go rent or buy the book from a store or website to receive a physical copy with an “all-rights-reserved” designation, on a digital platform, one could conceivably download or use a text in a manner outside of the author’s intended permission.
The second, and contradicting, argument is that by limiting access to the general public, there is an attempt to limit “user choice and innovation.”  Furthermore, antagonists of DRM argue that no substantial evidence shows DRM preventing “copyright infringement” and “[keeping] consumers safe from viruses.”   Today, there exist organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which aims to protect the rights of human privacy while “[preserving] fundamental rights;” another organization is the aforementioned Project Gutenberg. 
Expanding on this concept presented by Project Gutenberg and EFF, specific questions arise regarding the social aspects associated with an ePub versus a physical book. Personally, book sharing through the library and with friends remains a central part of my childhood memories. I loved visiting the librarians who knew me by name and discovering an exciting new book to learn from. With the restrictions that exist with ePub, one can no longer hand over a great read to a friend or talk to the librarian as he or she stamps the return date into a book. With DRM, this ease in accessibility and social interaction is in a sense removed, altering the dynamic one has with a book. As the notion of access as it relates to books has and continues to change as books move more and more towards the digital, one is left wondering about how far rights and access extend from concepts such as DRM. The best way to contextualize this is through an example.
Imagine that the year is 2009. It is a rainy day, and you decide to curl up and read on the couch with your brand-new Amazon Kindle©. You search and search your Kindle’s library but cannot find the book you paid for: George Orwell’s 1984. You log online in hopes of finding a solution to your problem. Instead, you see that a large number of others are having the same problem.
This is not merely an anecdotal story. In 2009, Amazon.com “remotely deleted some digital editions of” Orwell’s classics 1984 and Animal Farm, without customer approval or consent.  Amazon’s rationale for these actions? That the digital publisher who sold the book did not hold the necessary rights for the book.
This example illustrates some of the many nuances of access, rights, and ownership called into question today. Through ePub and other digital platforms, those who can log onto the internet hold the ability to view and interact with web pages, browsers, pdf, and ePub originated around the world…in theory. In the midst of these endless opportunities to use resources across the globe, there exists an apparent hierarchy of control. What we see and what we click-on when performing a Google search has been granted to us, and still provides a limited readable view, in the US under the aforementioned premise of content creator rights as is protected via DRM.
In cases such as the “Great Firewall of China,” the notorious firewall used to control and censor China’s internet, it is easy to see the extreme reach that those who in power over digital platforms possess, but when it is the computer that one sits at every day, or when reading a book via a digital platform, one may easily forget to think of the reality of the rights given when reading an eBook until instances such as the 1984 incident occur.
As we settle ourselves into what is known as the incunable age of the digital, we constantly redefine what it means to interact with books. To learn, to laugh, to cry—all of these experiences can come from reading a line of text. Not often discussed, however, is how the vessel used to experience these emotions equally impacts a reader’s experiences. Thus, as time continues, and we eventually leave the current incunable age, I urge readers to digest and reflect on what it means to “read a book” and, beyond that, what it is that makes a book the special item that it is. Furthermore, I urge readers to consider what aspects of the future of the book will remain from books as we understand them today, and what aspects of today’s books are ephemeral elements.
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- Michelle Levy and Tom Mole. “The Broadview Introduction to Book History,” Broadview Press (2017):6-7.
- Matthew G. Kirschenbaum. "Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination" (MIT Press. 2008): 10.
- Margaret Mackey, “The Survival of Engaged Reading in the Internet Age: New Media, Old Media, and the Book,” Children’s Literature in Education vol. 32(2001): 167. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1010498001725
- “Project Gutenberg.” Project Gutenberg, accessed October 11, 2018. https://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Gutenberg:About
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- Brad Stone. “Amazon Erases Orwell Books from Kindle” The New York Times (2009). https://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/18/technology/companies/18amazon.html
- Ensafi Roya, et. al. “Analyzing the Great Firewall of China Over Space and Time” Proceedings on Privacy Enhancing Technologies (2015). https://doaj.org/article/99b9a84f40f64086af60645290bee85c