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D-Lib Magazine
October 2003

Volume 9 Number 10

ISSN 1082-9873

The Digital Book

A Medial Revolution without a New Medium


Volker Titel
Institute of Book Science at the University of Erlangen
Nuremberg, Germany

Red Line



Can a book that doesn't come from comprehensibly materialized textual means still be considered a book? What happens when, in the form of an electronic publication on the World Wide Web, a typical book-type volume is designed to be networked and includes multi-media? As the physical object itself disappears, one of the conditions required for the existence of book science faces extinction. Is the Internet—or rather the World Wide Web contained in it—a medium that opposes the book? In the context of discussions regarding media competition, this idea is becoming widespread. Infinitely more exciting, though, is that we are experiencing an information technology revolution and, in fact, a medial revolution without a new medium.

The Historical Context

As early as the first half of the 20th century, microforms were being used as an intermediate step in the development of new storage media for texts and afterimages, and by the middle of the 1900s, the age of digitization in photo-setting had begun. The next step forward was digital storage for typeset. Thanks to advances in electronic manufacturing processes, the printing industry became caught up in a whirl of technological innovations enabling a clear compression of production steps, from the preliminary stage of printing to readying the final work for distribution. Within just a more few years, a further trend became apparent—one that changed the meaning of the term "production". This change occurred not just in relation to procedure, but also concerned the works themselves. The aesthetics of the individual page increasingly became a matter for the PC-laden desks of publishing houses.

Desktop Publishing, supported by quickly improved text and layout software programs, began to shape publishing house production procedures. A further important step at this level involved authors, who began delivering their manuscripts in electronic format rather than in print. Author involvement was still rather hesitant at the end of the 1980's, but by 1995, the electronic submission had become almost obligatory.

The term "electronic publishing" first referred to computer-supported development of printed media, which led to a procedural or, as the case may be, a production-linked branching-off of the publication process. However, there is no doubt that the establishment of this digital workflow didn't just affect manuscript processing. Writing with computers also provoked early debate, fuelled by Michael Heim's statements concerning on-screen thinking (Heim, 1987) and culminating in theories such as those of Flusser (Flusser, 1987), which, in the context of post modernist interpretation, heralded the disappearance of subjective authorship.

At almost the same time as authors became involved in creating and submitting content electronically, publishing houses began to focus on the users of that content as potential consumers of digitized literary products, especially as PCs began to be common in both homes and offices. Electronic content designed to be marketed developed not just as games and educational programs, but also as books, with contents banished to magnetic tape, discs and, more and more often, CD-ROM, all entrusted to an ever-increasing number of distribution modes. Thus, a new dimension of the term "electronic publishing" arose. Electronic publishing now referred to the product level as well: "The world has already made a cultural commitment to CD-ROM" (Cunningham and Rosebush, 1996, p. 39).

Initially, in spite of this development there was not a measurable economic benefit. While the forecasted boost in computer use, especially for economics and lexicon publishing houses, did seem to unleash new profit potential, customer acceptance and hence disposition to buy did not live up to expectations.

What made the new electronic publishing technologies so important were the possibilities opened up by digitization. It was not just that texts and pictures existed in electronic format prior to their being printed; magnetic, optic, and magneto-optic storage became a basis for multimedia dissemination and reception. Although at first storage and processor capacities, as well as the quality of the output devices, were not adequate to achieve a satisfactory coupling of text, moving picture and sound—at least in the case of usage by a wider public—that changed as new versions of hardware and software products were launched at almost half-yearly intervals. "Multimedia" became the buzzword of the 1990's, and the book potentially began its journey into oblivion.

The digital expostulation of texts onto CD-ROM opened up new possibilities: cross-referencing systems within a book became more effective, and instantaneous search functions improved access to particular information held within the book. Delving into the text became considerably easier—the contents of a book being at the reader's disposal to a greater extent than ever before and ready for instant manipulation.

"Electronic books are breaking new ground" was the title of a report in Germany's leading publishers' and booksellers' journal "Börsenblatt für den deutschen Buchhandel" (Publication for the German Book Trade) about the creation of the "Arbeitskreis Elektronisches Publizieren" AKEP (Research Group for electronic publishing). The market, thanks to the CD-ROM, was supposedly expanding into "completely new dimensions".

The Frankfurt Book Fair can be regarded as an indicator of the German book industry's level of awareness of, and involvement in, electronic publishing. In 1984, the main focus of the Book Fair was "Orwell 2000", which threw a shadow of insecurity over the idea of marketing electronic products. However, in spite of these concerns, numerous information events about the possibilities of using electronic data processing for business procedures within companies began to flourish from the mid-1980's on. At the start of the 1990's, there was more discussion than ever before at the Frankfurt Book Fair about electronic publishing at the product level. The official motto for the Fair, barely one year after the creation of the AKEP, was "Frankfurt goes electronic", and the topic had center stage in Exhibition Hall 1.

A further, more radical dimension of the term "electronic publishing" began to evolve at this time. The release of hypertext markup language (HTML) caused the use of the World Wide Web to be favored as the graphical user interface in the Internet. Both the fundamentally improved possibilities for online transmission of text and picture data and the ever-multiplying potential for global linking of information brought the medial existence of the digital book to the brink of reality. A book contained on a CD-ROM could at least now be created, packaged and sold as a subsumable product along with the printed book.

Electronic publishing today

The developments described above have made the classical bookseller seemingly superfluous. In fact, why stop there? Text, picture, sound and film editing programs, all able to support entry on the Internet, provide favorable conditions for independent releases of electronic publications, by-passing publishing houses, retail booksellers and even wholesale book traders.

Old complaints, particularly from scientific authors, are once again heard: "Scientific communication is increasingly driven by factors that have little to do with researchers and more to do with commercial publishers' profits" (Buckholtz, 2001). Returning Scientific Publishing to Scientists has become a motto that, according to individual viewpoint, continues to accompany current discussions about the opportunities and dangers of scientific electronic publishing.

To what extent we can speak of a democratic Internet, quite apart from the fact that hardware and software producers tend to monopolize, remains questionable. What is certain, however, is that the possibilities of producing and distributing "gray literature" have increased dramatically. And the book industry, sounding out all possibilities, has stayed in the picture, all the more so as they can now market electronic publication online and/or offline. Well-known offerings are being established in the periodicals market segment, and although these offerings are mostly scientific, there are certainly plenty of other areas represented as well.

Even though the expectations of the early 90's for electronic publishing were obviously too high—or perhaps rather too short-term and consequently led to disillusionment—the potential for electronic publishing is growing. This applies particularly to the publishing houses, because digital data expostulation, even if just due to company strategic considerations, encourages publishing houses to keep their options open when dealing with acquired works. Content management is being dealt with as neutrally as possible with regard to the format of content.

And what about "the book"?

Books, as carriers of signs, are "visual events" (Rautenberg and Wetzel, 2001, p. 5). They are that part of writing, which, in the spirit of Gutenberg, is essentially molded by mass media. The digitization of books now means that linguistic and picture signs are losing their ties to actual written or printed matter. What are the consequences of this?

The World Wide Web offers the possibility of breaking down linear text structures and of presenting content multi-medially. Reference systems and search options allow selective access. Is this new electronic book form really, systematically, different than the printed book?

Title pages, tables of contents and various indices are cross references within the book; literary references, partly as notes directly on the linear text, are potential junctions of literary networks. Conversely, can we not deduce a characteristic trait in books published on the World Wide Web due to the possibility of hypertextuality and multimedia presentations? Even if an author can superimpose his text, internally and externally through linkages, to the point of extensive liquefaction, and even if the reader can deconstruct this text right down to its individual sequences, the question still remains: why would the reader do this? To what extent both author and reader make use of these options is not clearly defined. This shows that, ultimately, the separation between print and digital text, although sometimes described as antagonistic, is not nearly as radical as is often postulated.

Digitization is able, thanks to new challenges, to bring "old" media theory topics to our attention with greater clarity. In connection with the multimedia presence the book now has, we must ask ourselves whether—if writing loses its privileged position and becomes only one medium in a network of others—an end to traditional writing culture is to be expected.

The transferal of text forms to (multi)media networks affects the central communication requirements of research and, potentially, all social and corporate areas that come into contact with them. With this in mind, we may ask ourselves whether all types of text are recorded by digital presentation and reception, and we may differentiate between short-lived "flat texts" with a more informative nature and "deeper texts" that are more durable and "give more cause for thought" (Kerlen in Franzmann et al., 1999).

To what extent the various types have differing affinities to electronic forms of publication depends on a multitude of factors. These factors are already highly relevant in the area of transmissive sensors and are, with regard to digital possibilities, being taken up by researchers again. It is not by chance that the philosophical preoccupation with the interaction between media and computer technology is leading to attempts to descend to the "Nature of Media" in order to then (in a debate around the term "mediality") ask about our contact with media and consequent enhancement and limitations of world understanding. The digital "net-time" still remains a time of the book. Whether the book will be the leading medium within a multimedia society remains to be seen.


Neither the terms "book" nor "book science research" need to be limited to the material object and its context. The qualitative and quantitative differences between printed and electronic books are distinctive: electronically supported production, electronic storage and possible distribution of contents do not, however, constitute a new medium which can compare itself to that of the book, as is the case with radio or film.

Irrespective of the quite sensible, possible constraints in each particular research area, broad access is fruitful, and it is important not to limit the existence of the book to print. In order to go back behind the Gutenberg threshold, it is equally important to be able to look beyond it.


Alison Buckholtz, 2001. "Declaring Independence: Returning Scientific Publishing to Scientists," The Journal of Electronic Publishing, 7(1) (August), at <>, accessed 12 June 2003.

Steve Cunningham and Judson Rosebush, 1996. Electronic Publishing on CD-ROM. Cambridge: O'Rielly.

Vilém Flusser, 1987. Die Schrift. Hat Schreiben Zukunft? Göttingen:Immatrix.

Michael Heim, 1987. Electric Language: A philosophical study of word processing. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Dietrich Kerlen, 1999. "Druckmedien," In: Bodo Franzmann et al. (editors): Handbuch Lesen. Munich: K.G. Saur., pp. 240-280.

Ursula Rautenberg and Dirk Wetzel, 2001. Buch. Tubingen: Niemeyer.

Copyright © Volker Titel

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DOI: 10.1045/october2003-titel