I was on a comment thread on Google+ last week, in which the original poster, Brian Clark, had asked whether people preferred “ebook” or “e-book.” Of course, some people chimed in with “Ebook” and “eBook” and other variations, but the consensus seemed to be “ebook.” (I’ve drifted away from the hyphen as well, much as happened with email.) But the discussion got me to thinking about the term itself.
Why do we even need the “e” in “ebook” for most usages? We don’t download an “e-song” or “e-CD” or “e-movie”. (Ignore whether I should’ve put hyphens in there or not.) And we don’t even refer to the format in general as electronic; it’s typically “digital.” So, really, they could be called “d-books” or “dbooks.” But think about it—why the distinction?
Well, there are two answers. First, the ebook came about fairly early in the online world. It’s quite likely, though I haven’t checked, that ebooks date back to the beginning of the Web as we know it. I’m no early adopter and I self-published my first ebook in 1996. In the days of dial-up modems they were reasonable to download, and the common parlance back then for the medium was “electronic” as opposed to “digital,” which is why we have email and not dmail. Second, there is of course the practical need to distinguish an electronic book from a printed one for customer service; no one would be happy purchasing what they expect to be a printed book and getting a link for an ebook download.
But now that we’ve advanced to the era of the Kindle, Nook, and other e-readers (again, why not “d-reader”?), in which the purchase process is transparent and fairly seamless, why do we download ebooks instead of books? Again, we don’t download e-songs, e-CDs, or e-movies. Well, herein lies the title of this post. I propose that there are members of the reeling traditional publishing world who, consciously or subconsciously, use the term in a condescending or derogatory manner. It’s a subtle way to put the lowly ebook in its place, when referring to those kinds of books. It’s really no different than has been the case with self-publishing for decades; why distinguish a book as self-published? (And for the grammarians out there, why is self-published hyphenated even when it follows the noun it modifies?)
As you peruse the Internet, reading about the boom in ebooks, keep this in mind. See if you don’t notice this little conspiracy (or at least separatist thinking) that I propose. Remember, as politicians well know, the best way to rally your troops and supporters is to have a big, bad boogeyman. What better way to keep in their place those books that happen to be in digital format than to continue referring to them as the “e” word.