(Note – this post was adapted from an email that was later published as a comment at the Institute for the Future of the Book’s blog)

For the better part of 500 years, beyond seeking out new content, publishers have primarily worked on optimizing the production of bibles – making them better, faster, and cheaper. Now, and for the foreseeable future, thanks to destabilization effects of new media technologies, those same publishers are finding themselves in the research and development business.

And while we have a general name for the business (publishing), as Bob Stein at The Institute for the Future of the Book points out, we lack a real name for the emerging category of products that is being developed. And though many publishers have proclaimed they are now in the eBook business, I find the name problematic.

My issue with eBooks has a lot to do with the power of names.

What does a name do? It enables conversation and creation by creating/coming-to-stand-for the concept of a category. And the creation of that category allows the construction of families and hierarchies. The category allows us to qualify resemblances and differences across multiple members, providing us with boundaries about “what is” and “what isn’t.” ((Note that as per Wittgenstein in Philisophical Investigations, those boundaries are not hard and vary from individual to individual.))

Thus, a category effects what consumers expect to get when they buy an “X.” And, more importantly for this essay, the category has a profound influence on creators, bounding their notion of what they are setting out to make, and helping decide what tools and techniques they are going to use.

I am coming to the conclusion that “eBook” is a reactionary category, and really can’t stand for what’s coming (new media content forms). In my mind, by keeping the “book” front and center in the “eBook”, denizens of that category will, at best, be made up of an unequal partnership between text and other media and interactive electronic elements. And in many cases, it won’t be a partnership at all. The “e” enabled components (music, video, interactivity, GPS, etc) will be supplemental the text. Remove any of those elements from the book and the whole remains largely unaffected, as you’ve simply transformed an “eBook” into a “Book”.

Further, the influence of the book goes far beyond simply establishing a hierarchy among media components. The text itself is expected, likewise, to follow certain “bookish”[1] constructions (chucked into chapters, at least for the moment, divided into pages v. scrolling, etc.) – This is the entire MacLuhan concept of “look[ing] at the present through a rear-view mirror [… and marching] backwards into the future” — initially bounding the potential of a new category with rules from the existing category).

This is not to demonize books. In fact, I believe that the book, “e” or other, is here to stay. First, it’s an extremely stable form, hence the reproduction of its boundaries in new media. More importantly, the model of the solitary author who creates via typographic writing and supplements their work with illustrations (or sometimes supplements their illustrations with typographic writing), is still the most accessible form of media creation. Finally, there is already a huge industrial infrastructure to support books.

I’ll repeat that books are fine. And there’s a space for eBooks. But that shouldn’t be confused with the new publication forms that are coming.

As for these “new” publications, the things that we know are here/coming, but we don’t have a name for, Bob Stein has made the argument that “App” (as in iPhone, iPad) is a good first shot at a name. And I think this is a good thing in many ways, as it opens up an entirely different field of play when it comes to creation.

This space appears to be fundamentally more collaborative on the human level (teams of people), the disciplinary level (writers, media makers, programmers, etc.), on the content level (text, media, and software all as interdependent components), and perhaps in terms of production/consumption (representing more of a partnership between writers, publishers, and readers/activators).

A complaint that can be brought against “app” is that it’s too “open” of a category to be useful. We can all think about apps that are well outside of the category of publication. As social psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has pointed out, an unbounded experience can be as detrimental to creativity and work as an overly bounded category. That said, I think at this point, while we’re in the experimenting stages, we benefit far more from openness than constraint.

A more worrying consideration when it comes to an “app” is that the category is already starting to develop some qualities that we may not want applied to publications. For example unlike a book, apps are not able to be shared or moved about freely. Currently apps are also accepted to be platform independent.

Still, just because a name is adopted right now doesn’t mean we are stuck with it. In terms of category nomenclature, I suspect that the stability of “book” has spoiled us in one other way – namely that we expect that whatever name replaces it will be equally stable (standing for hundreds of years). ((Prior to (and for quite a while after) Gutenberg “books” as a category were developed/overseen by a *very* small group of privileged individuals – essentially it was a “closed source” technology. So by the time they began to become a “mass-market” item, it was a stabilized form. Further, the cost/difficulty of their production also assured they would remain under the control of a relatively small group of individuals. These new applications are being created in a far more democratic and disorganized marketplace.)) Expecting “App” or most names we come up with at this moment to have that durability is asking a lot. Choosing to use “app” doesn’t precluding using a better term when it comes along.