My First Online Book Reading Experience

Book Title : We the Media
Author: Dan Gillmor
I am delighted that I actually managed to read this book entirely online in little over a week. The book is about the new internet phenomenon “blogs“. The author Dan Gillmor is well know, particularly in the bay area (and on the Internet!) through his articles in the San Jose Mercury News. After reading a recent book by another journalist, I must admit I am a little biased against “journalists turned first time book authors”. As journalists, they know what is hot, and they are well connected in the publishing industry. Besides, they are fairly visible, atleast sufficiently enough to promote the book and ensure a worthwhile business proposition for the publisher. It is to a large extent, like the first mover advantage in the dotcom days. All you needed was a new feature and plenty of buzz and you (possibly!) along with a bunch of investors could make a fast buck! In the publishing world, this means a book high on hype, but low on substance, churned out in record time.

To my pleasant surprise Dan Gillmor’s book was different. Firstly, its admirable that a journalist has written a book about a new and emerging technology phenomenon. The author has taken pains to research the latest developments in this area and appears to be completely plugged into this in the course of his daily activities, automatically making him an expert of sorts in this area. Besides, the author has done a really nice job of analyzing his thoughts, impressions, and findings and explored the various challenges and implications of this new phenomenon. Overall, it was very interesting and engaging (partly because I am so excited by blogs myself), and this certainly contributed to my completing the book in such a short time.

Given that this is my first cover to cover (or rather web page to web page!) online book reading experience, here are some thoughts that come to mind from my reading experience.

  • Online Book Reading is Faster: The online version of this book was available as separate PDF files, ie., one PDF for each chapter. This gave me a good sense for where I was in the book at every stage. Besides, I never felt comfortable stopping midway in a chapter. Instead I made sure that whenever I stopped it was after completing a chapter. In fact, I was averaging about 1-2 chapters a day. In short, I believe I read this book much faster than I would have read a hard copy.
  • No Distractions: The PDF files itself appear to be identical to the final print version. In other words, if you disregard the space allocated for binding, what you see online is plain text restricted right to the center of your browser with lots of empty white space on both sides (the print version needs this to account for the binding). In other words, with no distraction from the main text its very easy to remain focused unlike reading an online newspaper, for instance, where there are so many distracting ads, links to other articles, blurbs etc.
  • External Links: This book had so many references to other websites, blogs etc that I was tempted frequently to wander away. The PDF file did not however provide links to these sites which would have made it very convenient. On the other hand, I am glad the links weren’t provided, because I am sure that would have proved be a huge distraction. I found myself visiting a laundry list of sites after completing each chapter. It would have been useful to list these at the end of each chapter.
  • Missed the ability to highlight text: When I read books, especially non-fiction, I love to underline/highlight text that I find useful or interesting. This helps me come back to it at a later stage and regain my thoughts that occurred to me when I first read the text. Unfortunately, this was not possible in the online version.
  • Strain on the eyes: Staring at a computer screen for several hours (which most people in the Bay area especially do these days anyway) has its challenges as everyone is aware. Interestingly, I didn’t quite feel the strain because I read the book at a steady pace of one or two chapters a day.
  • Impact on book sales: As a published author myself, I have often wondered about the impact of providing books online on the actual sale of the book. I am convinced that by and large it will help in the sale of the book. In my case, I don’t think I will buy the book (I might choose to buy a used copy or a paper back version if it ever comes out), but I have mentioned this book to so many people, who might otherwise not have known about it. So in the final analysis, I believe that providing the entire book online will only help the sale of the book and won’t necessarily hurt it. Its akin to distributing free copies and should be considered as “marketing” for the book.
  • Makes piracy easier: Just as there is rampant software piracy in many part of the world, making a book available online makes is so much easier to copy and distribute these books. Unfortunately, this only makes it easier for those who indulge in such unlawful practices. The reality is that in the final analysis I don’t believe this will negatively impact the book sales. These were sales of pirated copies anyway and will remain so. Given that we don’t have a solution to prevent piracy in general, I guess its of little use to worry about this issue.
  • Online versions of book likely to increase: I am fairly confident that a day will come in the not too distant future where all published books are available for those to prefer to read it online, irrespective of whether they are free of charge or for a price. There might be interesting technologies and creative business models that add variations to how published books are made available online. But I strongly believe that this is an emerging trend that is here to stay. Besides, the whole concept of Creative Commons Licensing (which Dan Gillmor’s book is licensed under), there could be a great ripple effect in terms of creative work inspired from writings available through this form of licensing.

In summary, its great that thanks to the Internet, its possible to read a book entirely online. I had always thought about it, but never really gone through the actual experience of reading a book online. I am glad I did, and happy that I actually liked the first book I read online. This article was not necessarily meant to be review of the book, though I feel the author has done a fine job of capturing this new phenomenon of blogs (the concept of grassroots journalism and the citizen journalist is really powerful and cool!), where the there are so many unknowns as the technology and usage matures.

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