We want to think an ebook is a book. But although an ebook is certainly related to a book, it’s not a book. It’s an ebook. And we don’t yet know what an ebook is. We are getting some early hints, though. Oprah Winfrey dropped one just yesterday, when she announced the relaunch of her famous book club. Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 is, she said, a book club for “our digital world.” What’s most interesting about it, at least for media prognosticators, is that each of Oprah’s picks will be issued in a special ebook edition, available for Kindles, Nooks, and iPads, that will, as Julie Bosman reports, “include margin notes from Ms. Winfrey highlighting her favorite passages.”
Those passages will appear as underlined text in the ebook edition, followed by an icon in the shape of an “O.” Click on the text or the icon and up pops Oprah’s reflection on the passage. For instance, in the first Book Club 2.0 choice, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, the following sentence is highlighted:
Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.
Oprah’s gloss on the sentence reads:
That may be my favorite line in the whole book. First of all, it’s so beautifully constructed, and it captures what this journey was all about. She started out looking to find herself—looking for clarity—and that’s exactly what happens. The essence of the book is held right there in that sentence. It means that every step was worth it. It means all the skepticism of whether this hike is the right thing or not the right thing—it all gets resolved in that sentence.
For the reader, Oprah’s notes become part of the book, a new authorial voice woven into the original text. There’s plenty of precedent for this, of course. Annotated and critical editions of books routinely include an overlay of marginal comments and other notes, which very much influence the reader’s experience of the book. But such editions are geared for specialized audiences – students and scholars – and they tend to appear well after the original edition. Oprah’s notes are different, and they point to some of the ways that ebooks may overthrow assumptions that have built up during the centuries that people have been reading bound books. For one thing, it becomes fairly easy to publish different versions of the same book, geared to different audiences or even different retailers, at the same time. We may, for example, see a proliferation of “celebrity editions,” with comments from politicians, media stars, and other prominent folk. There may also be “sponsored editions,” in which a company buys the right to, say, have its CEO annotate an ebook (that could be a real money-maker for authors and publishers of volumes of management advice). Writers themselves could come out with premium editions that include supplemental comments or other material – for a couple of bucks more than the standard edition. There’s no reason the annotations need be limited to text, either. In future book club selections, what pops up when you click the O icon might be a video of Oprah sharing her comments. And since an ebook is in essence an application running on a networked computer, the added material could be personalized for individual readers or could be continually updated.
Because ebooks tend to sell for a much lower price than traditional hard covers, publishers will have strong incentives to try all these sorts of experiments as well as many others, particularly if the experiments have the potential to strengthen sales or open new sources of revenues. In small or large ways, the experience of reading, and of writing, will change as books are remodeled to fit their new container.