Back to school: On Books or websites

Another post I made to the discussion forum for the Whitireia Diploma in Publishing.

On Books or websites

I hate to say it but I’m at a loss as to what to add to this discussion given your very thoughtful and sound responses. Seems there are two streams to the conversation, that aren’t entirely in opposition: one, that there really isn’t a difference in the two formats and that it comes down to how a reader wants to interact with content, and the other that it’s not the formats that matter so much as the content: web does well with short, pithy content, while books/ebooks do better with long-form reading.

The temptation here is to fall into the old argument (is it an old argument yet?) about whether it’s possible to read long-form online or in any electronic form at all. It’s a bit of a moot point as it’s obvious there will be readers who can and will; and there’ll be publishers happy to deliver the ebooks. Whether long-form reading is possible at a desktop is debatable; I can’t do it, though I often want to dip into a novel or similar to remind myself of what happened. A website might be better for that, but if on dipping in I decide I need to read the book again then I want easy access to another format.

Many of you have noted the similar functionality available (or possible) between eReaders and websites – both can do video, both can include added-value content (even if it’s what Booksquare might scathingly refer to as “some marketing person’s notion of value”), both can link to further sources, definitions, social media, etc. Are there any important differences left?

Permanence and impermanence is one that springs to mind. A traditional novel needs to be permanent; it’s an author’s construct and they construct it carefully and with thought as to how the reader will advance through the story, learning or losing the plot as the author wants. A scientific paper on the other hand can do well to use a bit of impermanence, especially in draft form. Releasing findings early and getting feedback from peers has been talked about off and on for years (no solid examples sorry – send in some if you have any), and the pace at which research can change suggests changes even after publication. Is the former better suited to format that I can download and have as an ebook while the latter needs to live on a database-driven website.

I’m less sure about reference works. Conventional wisdom is that dictionaries and encyclopedia should be up-to-date. It’s the basic Wikipedia model, a model that’s been accepted by dictionary publishers like OUP and Collins et al (though perhaps not adopted, given the institutional lethargy they tend to face).

But what about reference works as a snap-shot in time? What does something like the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand (published unmodified in Te Ara) tell us that an updated version doesn’t about how New Zealand saw itself in the 1960s? The constant updating is almost like saying that the present isn’t going to become history so we don’t need to leave a record. I think in that sense websites compared to books (whether e or p) are problematic regardless of what the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine or the National Library’s web harvest hope to achieve.

So that ends on a bit of a down note – apologies, but it’s worth thinking about how to maintain permanent content while layering updated and current content over the top and how both flexibility and solidity can be included in all formats.