Ebooks Get the Respect They Deserve at 'Download the Universe'

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Ebooks aren't just electronic versions of printed books. They present a different reading experience and, in certain cases, demand their own reviews.

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For many books, an ebook edition is not significantly different from a printed copy. It's a straight line through a text-only narrative, the words the same and in the same order, regardless of whether their corpulence is ink on a page, e-ink on a screen, or mere light behind a pane of glass.

But increasingly, publishers and writers are creating content specifically for e-readers ranging in simplicity and cost from your basic black-and-white Kindle to the more versatile and visually lush iPad. There are two major drivers of straight-to-ebook content. One is financial: Books that were either far too long, far too short, or just too darn narrow in scope to make economic sense in print are finding a life in e-form. The other driver -- and this is particularly fueling the growth of iPad books -- is that the tablet medium offers new possibilities for what a book can be, leading some to say that even calling them "books" at all is a bit of a misnomer. These "books" are interactive, awash in multimedia, and may even have a social layer that allows for sharing and discussing.

All this to say, e-readers have opened up a period of great innovation in how we convey and consume "books," but, as of yet, these new products have not met with the sorts of rigorous and routine reviews that new printed books receive. But a new project, Download the Universe, aims to change that. Led by a set of some of the top science writers in the country -- including Carl Zimmer, Steve Silberman, and Atlantic contributor David Dobbs -- the site aims to provide reviews of new straight-to-ebook science books. Carl Zimmer writes, introducing the project,

It is still tough for readers to discover new science ebooks. Traditional book reviews limit themselves to works on paper. Some ebooks may appear in computer magazines, but buried in reviews of laptops and printers. In between, we need a community.

Download the Universe is a step towards that community. It is the work of a group of writers and scientists who are deeply intrigued by the future of science books. (You can find our names and links to our web sites on the right.) Here we review science ebooks--broadly defined, except for ebooks that are just spin-offs of print books. We hope to build up a library of titles that curious readers can browse. Some reviews will be positive, others negative. We welcome your own judgments, and we look forward to vibrant (but civilized) discussions in the comment threads. We will also write essays from time to time about the changes that publishing is undergoing.

Of course, there are plenty of ebooks that aren't science books and therefore won't fall under Download the Universe's scrutiny, but of all the places to begin a project like this, science books seems like a fertile place to start. Science books naturally present a great opportunity for high-quality visual content -- whether virtual dissection, to-scale interactive maps of space or the oceans, or the ability to zoom way in on the tiny structures that make up a cell or a molecule. A recent review by Deborah Blum of Theodore Gray's The Elements demonstrates this perfectly. Blum writes:

I hate to admit this but for some time - okay, almost the two years since it was published - I cherished an attitude about Theodore Gray's dazzling e-tribute to the Periodic Table, The Elements. It was too jazzy, I told myself, too flashy. Of course, what I meant was that it was so successful.

It's easy to maintain that envy about The Elements even today. As The Wall Street Journal noted in a recent story on e-publishing, this virtuoso exploration of our chemical world remains "a runaway best-seller", selling more than 250,000 electronic copies and generating more than $2.5 million in income for Touch Press publishing.

But I'd like to here to get past author envy and take a serious look at what makes this publication so exceptionally successful - and, in fact, so exceptional. ...

Obviously, in its app-like format, Gray's publication emphasizes the visuals over text. It's enticely easy to play with the virtual iodine-laced chewing gum package and skim over the accompanying paragraphs. And that's too bad because if you take the time, the writing is terrific - funny, smart, knowledgeable, friendly. In his introduction, Gray writes: "The earth, this iPad, your foot - everything tangible - is made of the elements. Your foot is made mostly of oxygen, with quite a bit of carbon joining it, giving structure to the organic molecules that define you as an example of a carbon-based life form. (And if you're not a carbon based life form: Welcome to Earth....)." There were times when I found the text even more fun than the virtual elements.

This sort of review, and many of the others on Download the Universe, is an indication that ebooks are maturing as a genre. The conversation about what they are and whether they will destroy reading is subsiding (even the old guard at The New York Review of Books has jumped on the ebook bandwagon, as Alexis Madrigal pointed out recently), and now top reviewers are taking a look at them for their content, not their form. It's fitting too that this early effort at ebook criticism finds its home in the pages of the web, not the pages of a magazine or newspaper. The web takes its digital brethren seriously.

One website that has been surprisingly slow to the ebook-reviewing party is Amazon, perhaps the ebook industry's ringleader. On the Amazon website, reviews of Kindle and paper editions are lumped together under one title. This has unfortunate consequences. Take, for example, the wonderful book A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan, which features one chapter told in the form of a PowerPoint presentation. This chapter rendered poorly on Kindle, resulting in a handful of one- and two-star reviews from people who liked the book but hated the Kindle edition. I've seen this same problem for Kindle books with non-functioning table of contents. Besides the problem that this drags down the rating of great books, for consumers, it makes it hard to compare Kindle editions or choose whether to buy a print or electronic version. 

To fix this problem, Amazon should allow for edition-specific reviews -- not just of Kindle editions, but different print runs as well -- which would have the added advantage of giving consumers better information regardless of the medium of their purchase. Doing so would be a recognition of what the Download the Universe project acknowledges at its core: Print and electronic versions offer different reading experiences and require independent review spaces. Reading is about more than just words on a page -- or screen.


Image: Reuters.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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