#citylis Reflections and Research: Book and Its Future Cousins by James Atkinson

This #citylis Reflections and Research post is by #citylis Alumni and Blog Editor, James Atkinson who considers the future of the book online via a children’s book he has recently read and part of an essay about Pelican ePub eBooks.

James Atkinson, Senior Information Assistant at City Univeristy London

James Atkinson, Senior Information Assistant at City Univeristy London

A couple of months ago I spotted a photo gallery of the books on the 2016 Carnegie medal longlist on the Guardian website, spotting an interesting looking read in Book, My Autobiography (Agard 2015).  I tweeted about it and within about ten minutes a copy had been ordered for City University Library (because Lyn Robinson and Verena Price are AMAZING).

I have now read it – written for 10 year olds, it may be, but Book is a thoroughly enjoyable read that will take you through the basics of its history, from what came before the Codex, right up to the e-Book.

Something that really struck me in all this came near the end when “Book” describes its relationship with the e-Book, something it suggests could be the evolving-Book rather than the electronic-Book – e-Books merely being yet another iteration to pass on ideas, following on from oral tradition, cave paintings, clay tablets, papyrus, scrolls, codices, illuminated manuscripts and through the evolving of the book itself from handwritten to printed, hardback and paperback, to being read on a screen.

This got me thinking back to the Libraries and Publishing in the Information Society module that I took with Ernesto Priego last year (see here for my blogs about it).  The future of the book, and trade publishers, was something I considered in my essay for the course, and again later in a talk at #citymash.

The demise of the printed book has been predicted before, for example when the phonograph was first invented (Rubery 2012), and so any current predictions about e-Books and the internet killing the printed version could be seen as just another burst of hot air.

Only time will tell.

Personally, I find it difficult to believe I, or anyone else, will ever completely leave print behind.  Having said that, I only really read newspapers online these days and, while researching work for my #citylis MSc, I found all my journal articles online (although I printed many of them out to annotate – something Bill Gates also does an awful lot too, apparently (Agard 2015)).

Additionally, I have read a good few comics in electronic formats; finding some better than others.  The Kindle versions of Fables and Fairest that I have read do not allow as good a user experience as those of The Walking Dead, for instance, as only the latter allow the reader to scroll cell by cell, meaning the need to sometimes strain to read text in the former.  Where these work they can be worth investing in due to the lower cost; however, public libraries are far cheaper and a membership at Finsbury Library is what I now use to read comics.

The ePub versions of Pelican books are something else that I have got quite excited about and hope this is one way eBooks can progress.

May 2014 saw the return of Penguin’s non-fiction imprint, Pelican Books, with the publication of five new books (Penguin 2014 and Sutherland 2014).  Alongside the cheap print editions, Pelican sell the eBook versions via their website in Kindle and ePub formats.  The former, of course, can only be read on Amazon’s Kindle readers and through its apps, while the latter can be read on any device with a web browser.

This ePub version has many of the advantages Horne (2011) spoke of when discussing HTML5, which can be embedded into ePub files, allowing more of a web like experience.  Where a Kindle book is more like a simple word processed document, these Pelican ePubs achieve a web like experience in a number of ways.

Firstly, through neat and seamless scrolling, as opposed to having to digitally turn a page; secondly, through their clear display of footnotes, which appear at the bottom of the screen when a highlighted word is clicked (Figure 1).  Further hyperlinking takes the reader from chapter to chapter.


Figure 1: A footnote in Lane 2014

Figure 1: A footnote in Lane 2014

What really sets these books apart from other eBooks, though, is the tables and pictures.  The addition of full colour and space (especially as computers often can have such large screens now) mean that these Pelican books are able to not just replicate their print counterparts, but potentially better them in the quality of tables, charts and maps.

This is shown in Figures 2 and 3 below: a table showing the periods of Greek and Roman philosophy and a map of Greece.  The latter example, in particular, shows how much bigger and clearer this format is compared to a mass production paperback would be.

Figure 2: A table from Lane 2014

Figure 2: A table from Lane 2014


Figure 3: Part of a map from Lane 2014

Figure 3: Part of a map from Lane 2014


This could be a real boon, one day, for art books.  As Miller (2013) reports, art books have made little transition into the eBook world.  This is because they have a higher value as an object meaning that publishers are willing to put money into creating lavish, glossy, colourful monographs that make a big profit.  Miller (2013) cites Taschen in particular as an example of a publisher not only doing very well out of such productions but having been built entirely upon them.

However, through this approach taken by Pelican, it is quite possible that, in time, as tablets and monitors get better, art books could make the leap to digital.  With the addition of video and sound, too, via HTML5, I really believe that an ePub approach such as this could eventually change the landscape of art books.  Imagine, if you will, a coffee table with a touch screen built into the top.  Such a large screen, at a high enough resolution, could completely change the meaning of a coffee table book.  A slightly flippant comment, perhaps, given importance of the physical nature of a coffee table book but food for thought, perhaps, all the same.

One issue, though, with Pelican ePubs is that of portability.  It was Healy (2011) who spoke of the need to meet the needs of a new generation through content available “any time, on any device, and in any format.”  If these Pelican ePubs were available offline, this could meet that desire in a better way than eBooks available on reading devices and via apps.  After all, all computers, mobile and tablet devices have a browser as standard.  The need for a separate eReader or app could be bypassed.  As would the need to commit yourself to one company, as the iPad and Kindle force the user to do (Horne 2011).

An additional discussion point around these Pelican books comes via an article by Leah Tether (2014) who sees the future of eBooks in the past.  Tether argues that medieval manuscripts could provide the crucial drivers for developments in digital readers because these documents were active texts.  This was achieved through marginalia allowing for comments to be made by readers, just as many websites do now.  They also made non-sequential reading possible and added value to texts through illustrations adding further meaning.

Much of these points could be met by ePub eBooks.  Going back to an earlier point about computer screens and tablets potentially adding value through display, they also give width, the Pelican ePubs having a lot of room at either side of the text (Figure 4).  It is easy to see how these could be used by readers for making notes or adding comments that could potentially be shared with other users, in the same way that Microsoft Word allows the user to add comments.

Figure 4: A portion of Chapter 1, Lane 2014, showing the margins on either side (shot taken from a widescreen laptop).

Figure 4: A portion of Chapter 1, Lane 2014, showing the margins on either side (shot taken from a widescreen laptop).

Tether discusses different models of websites allowing for comments but is upset that there isn’t always much freedom allowed.  Citing the BBC News website, Amazon’s book reviews and J.K.Rowling’s Pottermore website, Tether notes that all have too much moderation (with Pottermore, in particular, having generated many complaints).  With less moderation, it is easy to see how ePubs could be adapted to meet this future Tether envisions.  Additionally, hyperlinking and the footnotes example shown in Figure 1 could allow the creation of non-sequential reading in a way similar to that of The Guardian website.  There, articles are enriched by constant linking to expand and explain a story.  An ePub eBook viewed within a browser could do the same.

Purcell (2011) talks of the publisher’s role as a “banker” and the need for publishers to potentially be selective in the areas they specialise.  Here, we see Pelican investing in a potential new way of selling books and using their strengths in digital publishing to experiment with the format.

Potentially this could attract writers or fellow publishers with particular ideas to them- say, for instance, a television company looking to publish a popular history TV tie-in that would require the replication of maps and tables.  Though such an idea might still currently work better in print (such a book would be printed in a higher spec than a Pelican mass trade paperback), said company may see Pelican or Penguin Random House as a good place to publish, due to this eBook series.

In short, the Pelican approach could be the future of a single eBook format and the way for publishers to help regain not just their role in the trade publishing industry but their own corner once more.

Whatever happens, happens; whether it be a purely audio future, as the Victorians thought might happen (Rubery 2012), an immersive virtual reality or mixture of these and the printed book.  All we can do is see what publishers and technologists come up with and speculate until they do.  Or, as Tether (2014; and Agard 2015 a little when Book compares ancient scrolls to the scrolling that now occurs online) suggests, look to the past.


Agard (2015) Book, My Autobiography, Candlewick Press:Somerville, Massachusetts.

Healy, M. (2011) Seeking permanence in a time of turbulence in LOGOS 22 (2) 7-15.

Horne, A. (2011) An innovation manager answers your questions [Online] Available from: http://pressfuturist.com/2011/10/19/answers-your-questions/ [Accessed: 19 April 2015]

Lane, M. (2014) Greek and Roman Political Ideas, London:Pelican.  Available from Pelican Website: https://www.pelicanbooks.com [Accessed: 23 April 2015].

Miller, J.H. (2013) Art Books’ Future Now in Publisher’s Weekly 260 (12) [Online] Available from: http://0-web.b.ebscohost.com.wam.city.ac.uk/ehost/detail/detail?vid=9&sid=c80dcf9f-21c0-4289-b814-f02d2f601eb5%40sessionmgr115&hid=128&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=lih&AN=86406214 [Accessed: 23 April 2015].

Penguin (2014) Pelican Is Back [Online] Available from: http://www.penguin.co.uk/recommends/penguin-selections/pelican/ [Accessed: 30 April 2015].

Purcell, E. (2011) The value web, in LOGOS 23 (3) 7-15.

Rubery (2012) The Victorian walkman, in Victorian Review 38 (2) 9-13.

Sutherland, J. (2014) Blue, white and read all over: the return of Pelican Books in The New Statesman [Online] Available from: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/05/blue-white-and-read-all-over-return-pelican-books [Accessed: 30 April 2015].

Tether, L. (2014) Mise en page, mise en écran in LOGOS 24 (1) 21-36.

James Atkinson is on Twitter, @jamesatkinson81

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About James

Information Assistant (Academic Services) in the Library at City, University of London.
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