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What is an E-Book?

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An electronic book (variously: e-book, eBook, e-Book, ebook, digital 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.


The inventor of the firAmazon_Kindle_3st e-book is not widely agreed upon. Some notable candidates include the following:

The first e-book may be the Index Thomisticus, a heavily annotated electronic index to the works of Thomas Aquinas, prepared by Roberto Busa beginning in the late 1940s. However, this is sometimes omitted, perhaps because the digitized text was (at least initially) a means to developing an index and concordance, rather than as a published edition in its own right.

Some years earlier the idea of the e-reader came to Bob Brown after watching his first “talkie” (movies with sound). In 1930, he wrote an entire book on this invention and titled it “The Readies” playing off the idea of the “talkie”. In his book, Brown says that movies have out maneuvered the book by creating the “talkies” and as a result reading should find a new medium: A machine that will allow us to keep up with the vast volume of print available today and be optically pleasing (this was a big point for Brown).

Though Brown may have come up with the idea intellectually in the 1930s, early commercial e-readers did not follow his model. Nevertheless, Brown in many ways predicted what e-readers would become and what they would mean to the medium of reading. In an article Jennifer Schuessler writes, “The machine, Brown argued, would allow readers to adjust the type size, avoid paper cuts and save trees, all while hastening the day when words could be ‘recorded directly on the palpitating ether.'”[ However, Brown would likely have found our e-readers today to be much too bookish and not unique enough in their own right.He felt that the e-reader should bring a completely new life to the medium of reading. Schuessler relates it to a DJ spinning bits of old songs to create a beat or an entirely new song as opposed to just a remix of a familiar song.

In 1949 a teacher from Galicia, Spain – Angela Ruiz – patents the first electronic book. Her intention was to decrease the number of books that her pupils carried to the school.

Alternatively, some historians consider electronic books to have started in the early 1960s, with the NLS project headed by Doug Engelbart at Stanford Research Institute (SRI), and the Hypertext Editing System and FRESS projects headed by Andries van Dam at Brown University. Augment ran on specialized hardware, while FRESS ran on IBM mainframes. FRESS documents were structure-oriented rather than line-oriented, and were formatted dynamically for different users, display hardware, window sizes, and so on, as well as having automated tables of contents, indexes, and so on. All these systems also provided extensive hyperlinking, graphics, and other capabilities. Van Dam is generally thought to have coined the term “electronic book”,and it was established enough to use in an article title by 1985.

FRESS was used for reading extensive primary texts online, as well as for annotation and online discussions in several courses, including English Poetry and Biochemistry. Brown faculty made extensive use of FRESS; for example the philosopher Roderick Chisholm used it to produce several of his books. Thus in the Preface to Person and Object (1979) he writes “The book would not have been completed without the epoch-making File Retrieval and Editing System …”

Brown University’s leadership in electronic book systems continued for many years, including navy-funded projects for electronic repair-manuals; a large-scale distributed hypermedia system known as InterMedia; a spinoff company Electronic Book Technologies that built DynaText, the first SGML-based book-reader system; and the Scholarly Technology Group’s extensive work on the still-prevalent Open eBook standard.

Despite the extensive earlier history, several publications report Michael S. Hart as the inventor of the e-book. In 1971 the operators of the Xerox Sigma V mainframe at the University of Illinois gave Hart extensive computer-time. Seeking a worthy use of this resource, he created his first electronic document by typing the United States Declaration of Independence into a computer. Project Gutenberg was launched afterwards to create electronic copies of more texts – especially books.

One early e-book implementation was the desktop prototype for a proposed notebook computer, the Dynabook, in the 1970s at PARC: a general-purpose portable personal computer capable of displaying books for reading.

In 1992, Sony launched the Data Discman, an electronic book reader that could read e-books that were stored on CDs. One of the electronic publications that could be played on the Data Discman was called The Library of the Future.

Early e-books were generally written for specialty areas and a limited audience, meant to be read only by small and devoted interest groups. The scope of the subject matter of these e-books included technical manuals for hardware, manufacturing techniques and other subjects. In the 1990s, the general availability of the Internet made transferring electronic files much easier, including e-books.

E-book formats

As e-book formats emerged and proliferated, some garnered support from major software companies such as Adobe with its PDF format, and others supported by independent and open-source programmers. Different readers followed different formats, most of them specializing in only one format, and thereby fragmenting the e-book market even more. Due to exclusiveness and limited readerships of e-books, the fractured market of independent publishers and specialty authors lacked consensus regarding a standard for packaging and selling e-books.

However, in the late 1990s a consortium formed to develop the Open eBook format as a way for authors and publishers to provide a single source-document which many book-reading software and hardware platforms could handle. Open eBook defined required subsets of XHTML and CSS; a set of multimedia formats (others could be used, but there must also be a fallback in one of the required formats); and an XML schema for a “manifest”, to list the components of a given ebook, identify a table of contents, cover art, and so on. Google Books has converted many public-domain works to this open format.

In 2010 e-books continued to gain in their own underground markets.Many e-book publishers began distributing books that were in the public domain. At the same time, authors with books that were not accepted by publishers offered their works online so they could be seen by others. Unofficial (and occasionally unauthorized) catalogs of books became available on the web, and sites devoted to e-books began disseminating information about e-books to the public.


Spatial benefits

Over 2 million free e-books were available between July 4 and August 4 in 2009. Mobile availability of e-books may be provided for users with a mobile data connection, so that these e-books need not be stored on the device. An e-book can be offered indefinitely, without ever going “out of print”. In the space that a comparably sized print book takes up, an e-reader can potentially contain thousands of e-books, limited only by its memory capacity. If space is at a premium, such as in a backpack or at home, it can be an advantage that an e-book collection takes up little room and weight.

Mechanical and multimedia benefits

E-book websites can include the ability to translate books into many different languages, making the works available to speakers of languages not covered by printed translations.

book catalogueDepending on the device, an e-book may be readable in low light or even total darkness. Many newer readers have the ability to display motion, enlarge or change fonts, use Text-to-speech software to read the text aloud for visually impaired, partially sighted, elderly or dyslectic people or just for convenience, search for key terms, find definitions, or allow highlighting bookmarking and annotation. Additionally, e-books allow for readers to look up words or find more information about the topic immediately. Material can be organized however the author prefers and is not limited to a linear path through the book as hyper-text can allow a number of paths through the material.

The production of e-books does not consume paper, ink or book binding materials, obsoleting the environmental footprint and cost associated with physical publication of books.

Depending upon the software support and used formats, non-textual multimedia can also be embedded into e-book pages as widgets, including images (and image galleries), videos, audio files and interactive (still or animated) models; this is similar to HTML elements which allow for presentation of multimedia content through embedding of the content inside web pages. This results in e-books offering richer reading experiences than is possible through traditional, physical books.

E-books, while often presented as “flipping” between “pages” (in a skeumorphic nod to traditional book design), are not necessarily limited to such presentation, and entries can be presented through downward scrolling; further, more novel widgets interactive widgets for revealing additional textual information can be added to an e-book.

Distributive and access benefits

While an e-book reader costs much more than one book, the electronic texts are at times cheaper. Moreover, a great share of e-books are available online for free, minus the minimal costs of the electronics required. For example, all fiction from before the year 1900 is in the public domain. Also, libraries lend more current e-book titles for limited times, free samples are available of many publications, and there are other lending models being piloted as well. E-books can be printed for less than the price of traditional new books using new on-demand book printers.

An e-book can be purchased/borrowed, downloaded, and used immediately, whereas when one buys or borrows a book, one must go to a bookshop, a home library, or public library during limited hours, or wait for a delivery.

Printed books use 3 times more raw materials and 78 times more water to produce. Depending on possible digital rights management, e-books can be backed up to recover them in the case of loss or damage and it may be possible to recover a new copy without cost from the distributor. Compared to printed publishing, it is cheaper and easier for authors to self-publish e-books. Also, the dispersal of a free e-book copy can stimulate the sales of the printed version.

Digital rights management

Anti-circumvention techniques may be used to restrict what the user may do with an e-book. For instance, it may not be possible to transfer ownership of an e-book to another person, though such a transaction is common with physical books. Some devices can phone home to track readers and reading habits, restrict printing, or arbitrarily modify reading material. This includes restricting the copying and distribution of works in the public domain through the use of “click-wrap” licensing, effectively limiting the rights of the public to distribute, sell or use texts in the public domain freely.

Most e-book publishers do not warn their customers about the possible implications of the digital rights management tied to their products. Generally they claim that digital rights management is meant to prevent copying of the e-book. However in many cases it is also possible that digital rights management will result in the complete denial of access by the purchaser to the e-book. With some formats of DRM, the e-book is tied to a specific computer or device. In these cases the DRM will usually let the purchaser move the book a limited number of times after which they cannot use it on any additional devices. If the purchaser upgrades or replaces their devices eventually they may lose access to their purchase. Some forms of digital rights management depend on the existence of online services to authenticate the purchasers. When the company that provides the service goes out of business or decides to stop providing the service, the purchaser will no longer be able to access the e-book.

As with digital rights management in other media, e-books are more like rental or leasing than purchase. The restricted book comes with a number of restrictions, and eventually access to the purchase can be removed by a number of different parties involved. These include the publisher of the book, the provider of the DRM scheme, and the publisher of the reader software.

Urla project 2The e-books sold by most major publishers and electronic retailers, including notably and Apple Inc., are DRM-protected and tied to the publisher’s e-reader software or hardware. The first major publisher to omit DRM was Tor Books, one of the largest publishers of science fiction and fantasy, in 2012. Smaller e-book publishers such as O’Reilly Media, Carina Press and Baen Books had already forgone DRM previously.

In recent years, some websites including, BookFinder and Library Genesis have emerged which allow downloading ebooks by violating copyright.

According to Andrew T. Forcehimes, it seems that stealing ebooks is not morally wrong, because every argument in favor of public libraries (in the bricks and paper sense) is also an argument in favor of stealing books online. On the other hand every argument against this kind of stealing would also be an argument against libraries.

Source for this article and featured pictures is Wikipedia in English.