Are e-books real books yet?

By Emily Chung,

When will we begin automatically thinking of e-books when someone says the word "book"? Perhaps when they start becoming as popular as real books – low-tech wonders that you can easily borrow, lend, move from shelf to shelf, give away, or sell to a used bookstore – unlike many of their digital counterparts.

The availability of e-books for different platforms, from internet browsers to specialized e-book readers to cellphones, has grown dramatically in the year leading up to today, which has been declared by the United Nations as World Book and Copyright Day.

Earlier this week, the UN itself even gave a nod to the growing presence of books online by unveiling its World Digital Library. The website includes great cultural works such as Chinese oracle bones inscribed with writings and the world's first novel, The Tale of Genji, written in Japan in the 11th century.

It's interesting that the UN wouldn't just call the day "World Book Day" but includes "copyright," as the approach to copyright is one thing that distinguishes e-books from real books and often makes them less convenient.

By nature, e-books in their purest form – a text file – are easier to copy than real books. Many publishers or retailers, presumably believing the law isn't enough to block copyright infringement, include digital locking or digital rights management (DRM) technology with the e-book they sell you.

That can make it impossible to read books on multiple devices, give it away, or lend it to a friend and can also lead to some downright horrifying situations.

For example, a blog on ChannelWeb reported the story of one Amazon customer whose account was closed by the company after he returned some of his e-book purchases. That cut off his access to all the e-books he had ever bought and he could not buy new ones until his account was eventually reopened following complaints.

In another case, an e-book vendor called Fictionwise announced in January that one of its suppliers had cut off service to Fictionwise customers. That meant customers would no longer be able to download books that they had already paid for. There was nothing Fictionwise could do as it did not have the key to the digital locks for the files.

Even if DRM isn't a problem, a dizzying array of e-book file formats and even page formats can be. E-books are often platform specific – a book you bought from Amazon won't be readable on your Sony reader and a book you can read on your PC's web browser may be inconvenient to read on your cellphone. An open format called ePub does exist, but isn't universal yet because a) some companies such as Amazon won't support it and b) DRM can still be applied to that format.

However, some of the problems have improved in recent months. In February,Google made thousands of books readable on cellphones via the internet. In March, Indigo launched a new service called Shortcovers that sells e-books in whole or by the chapter and said it intends for them to be readable "on any mobile device."

Of course, you can get around e-book problems by not buying them - many books in the public domain are downloadable for free from sites such as Project Gutenberg. Also, in the past two years, many Canadian libraries such as the Ottawa Public Library and the Edmonton Public Library began lending out e-books that automatically get deleted or become unreadable when they are "due."

But on the other hand, real books are still on the shelves and always ready to be opened and read.

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This whole electronic book delivery system that is currently being used by the publishing industry does not work. All it has done is applied a 'bricks and mortar' solution to electronic distribution. What is needed is a completely new system for delivering digital content. One that is designed with the power of the Internet and advancing computer technology in mind. Such as a subscription service that has have multiple electronic libraries distributed about the Internet. These need to be web accessed so that all the customer needs to do is to access a web enabled library from any intelligent device and then 'drag and drop' the desired book into their book reader or audio player and it should start to play in seconds. Whether that be a desktop, laptop, netbook or smart phone or even your wifi enabled car. The player manages everything, data storage, bookmarks, illustrations. No more CDs, no more long downloads, no more file management, content playable on any device.

For an example of such a service take a look at the Canadian site

Posted April 23, 2009 03:25 PM

Michael Pastore

This article by Ms. Chung is an excellent overview of ebooks. I would add that a new format, called "epub", is poised to end the format wars, and become the open standard.

Michael Pastore, author
50 Benefits of Ebooks

Posted April 23, 2009 10:28 PM


I am an avid reader and have in the last 3 years or so switched to reading ebooks almost exclusively. There are many reasons for this; cost, convenience of purchasing, and ease of transport. The ebooks I purchase are generally about $10 each. I live in a small, isolated community and can still purchase a book instantly. Most importantly however; I carry 137 books with me wherever I carry my laptop- you can't do that with the paper version!

Posted April 24, 2009 06:58 PM



I am today, listening to Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. This e-resource audio book is held by the Edmonton Public Library, checked out online as I sit at my desk, and downloaded to my hard drive this afternoon, free, as a right of my EPL library card. I'll listen at my leisure over the next couple weeks. This is wonderful, because I've got vision difficulties and can't read the way I used to. This particular book is read by actors. It's absolutely the literary and story equivalent of a hard copy book. (In fact it reminds me of CBC radio dramas of many years ago.)

I can't imagine where it wouldn't fit every requirement except perhaps, an honours English major writing on Lahiri's body of work.

It fulfills the needs of a demanding reader in every way, absolutely. I am an English major. This is a book.

Posted April 24, 2009 11:27 PM



And yet, so few people were upset with the anti-woman ads and YouTubes put out by Obama's supporters. Search YouTube for "Palin" to see what I mean.

Racism/bad. Anti-gay/bad. Misogyny not only ok'd by progressives, but encouraged as a righteous outlet for hate.

Posted April 24, 2009 11:58 PM

Cliff Burns

I've been a professional writer for nearly a quarter century--two films based on my books are currently in the works--and I see the rise of e-books, blogging and podcasting as the beginning of the end for the editors and agents who have been the gate-keepers of the literary arts for far too long. Under their watch, corporate publishing has reduced novels to the basic common denominators and destroyed the short story as a viable format. We get semi-literate drivel like Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer and well-crafted offerings are simply cast aside in the rush to find the next "big book" that might earn said editor and agent a big bonus.

I'm publishing exclusively on the web, on my own site ("Beautiful Desolation")--I no longer submit to magazines or publishers and have a readership around the world that numbers in the tens of thousands. To hell with the old regime and its dingbat proprietors, the purveyors of "chick-lit" and fake memoirs--my readers and I are bypassing all of that and I've never produced better work...and never been happier...

Posted April 25, 2009 10:34 AM



Between Gilgamesh & Google, there are 4000 years of analog inertia to overcome. Unlike the relatively overnight transition from such analog media as the vinyl album or the VHS tape, it is convenience rather than improved quality that is the driver for e-books. It makes sense that the paradigm shift from the printed page to the digital page is being most strongly influenced by the rise of so-called "smartphones". It has taken 5 - 6 years for the public to embrace music on their cellphones, and as more and more users upgrade to iPhone-type devices with their large, bright displays and availability of e-book reader apps, we can expect to see the e-book market grow accordingly.

I love my paper books. I have thousands, and it comforts me just to look at and touch them. But I can foresee a day when to have a collection like mine will be seen as quaint and anachronistic. Looking back over the past three years, I've read 77 books - only a handful of which actually had pages that were once trees. My greatest hope is that, with the convenience of being able to carry scores of books around in one's pocket, perhaps more people will be inclined to read. In the words of Victor Hugo, "nothing can withstand the force of an idea whose time has come".

Posted April 25, 2009 01:55 PM



It's a wonder that while it's the simplest media (compared to the complex nature of digitized video and sound) it's the slowest to become accepted in this new format. A lot has to do with the aesthetic of reading from a traditional book; it is doubtful the phase "curl up with a good laptop" will ever enter the popular lexicon. The new eInk devices address this somewhat, but they are prohibitively expensive.

Posted April 25, 2009 04:15 PM


The idea of purchasing a $300USD device that will probably not last 5 years, to read an electronic file that costs as much as a paperback, seems like a foolish idea.
A paperback can be made from recycled material and can be recycled.
The electronic device will probably end up in a landfill.
If the authors and publishers would sell the files for, say, $.99, readable only on one machine, I might take an interest.

As I can't see that happening, I'll stick to my books, thanks.

Posted April 25, 2009 07:28 PM

Cliff Burns

E-books will, at last, free writers from the tyranny of moron editors and agents who are looking for the next "chick-lit" masterpiece or fake memoir. I've been an "indie" (independent) writer for more than two decades and the spread of the new technologies--blogging, podcasting, print on demand publishing--is the best thing to happen to authors since Johnny Gutenberg rolled out his first press.

Posted April 27, 2009 08:53 AM



I have a Sony ereader and was pretty disappointed when one of the books on Sony's site I wanted to buy was only available for US customers. I think at the moment I wasted my money and should have spent it on paper books.

Posted April 27, 2009 09:27 AM


I relish all improvements in the e-book industry. I live in a Greek village where the English-language books available are pretty well limited to "beach books" left by departing tourists. Moreover, regular books are often printed on paper containing cottonwood pulp, which make me cough and gasp for breath. I foresee the day when all the books I read must be e-books. Thank you Ms. Chung, for your excellent article.

Posted April 28, 2009 05:42 AM

audio visual


I cant stand ebooks...hurts my eyes. Prefer a real book hands down

Posted May 15, 2009 07:12 PM



I cannot ever see going electronic for books for many reasons. It is unique that you could carry over 100 books in one device but what if it breaks down - it must have a battery or something so that could run down as well. And now companys can delete your books? Hard sell for me. I want to be able to read a book with paper and turn pages, put it on a shelf and know I can keep it forever or give it away. For those who read a book and discard it after reading the electronic device will work out for them but some of us really treasure books and reread them because they bring pleasure or value to us.

Posted July 27, 2009 05:34 PM

Angela Michel


Give me the real book every time. In my hands it is mine to read ( no one can edit or delete it) and best of all.. NO electricity is needed to read. No power.. all I have to do is open and read, anywhere, anytime. AND my grandmother left me her favorite books of poetry, now my treasured books of poetry (I know my grandmothers hands have held those books as many times as mine.)
No e-books for me. How will I pass them on to my granddaughter.

Posted July 29, 2009 10:37 AM

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