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Opinion: Why Indie Authors Should Start Talking About Pbooks and Abooks

Orna Ross Author Profile

Orna Ross

ALLi’s founder and director Orna Ross considers the tricky issue of terminology when talking about self-published books in their many different forms.

Andy Lowe headshot

Andy Lowe

“What do we think about ‘p-book’?” asked Andy Lowe, ALLi’s watchdog recently.

“I’ve heard some of our US members say it,” I said. “I guess it makes sense. E-book = electronic book. P-book = print book.”

“Hmmm…” said Andy, as is his wont. (Excellent trait in a watchdog).

And then I started to think about it, as is my wont. (Inevitable trait in a writer).

I decided I liked it. Though it felt funny at first, I’ve got used to it and have extended the idea, so that now I speak and write not just about p-books for print, but also a-books for audio. And I notice more and more indies doing the same.

It’s not just because these are handy abbreviations. That wouldn’t be enough to make us push beyond the awkwardness that always accompanies the determined use of a new term. I’m sure it’s because they feel, as I do, that making these three terms equal helps move us beyond the perspective that print is the real format, with e-books secondary and a-books tertiary, handled as a subsidiary right.

That’s how it has been, traditionally, in trade publishing but that’s not how it is for indies.

Kindle between bookends

Different priorities and practices for indie authors

The Indie Author Way

For almost all of us, e-books are our primary source of income. Print distribution, POD notwithstanding, does not work well for indies. It’s too hard to make the pricing work, unless we have live, “back of the room” distribution in place or a large online following , who will buy direct from our website.

Readers of e-books and audiobooks are comfortable buying online. (Ahem… a-books…yes, yes, it does take a little getting used to!) And the dominance of author-friendly platforms in digital (KDP,  iBooks, Kobo, Ingram Spark in e-book, Audible/ACX and Author’s Republic in a-book) gives indies more advantage there. The advent of Amazon’s Whispersync arguably makes audio an author-publisher’s secondary consideration, before print.

Jerry Weinberg raised this topic a while back, calling it his “pet peeve” that “because books…made of paper have been around for hundreds of years, they have captured the name ‘book’ as their exclusive property, while electronic books, around for about one generation, have a different designation: e-books.”

This, says Jerry, “makes them sound like they’re not real ‘books’.”

He suggests that the p in p-books could stand for paper, or print, or perishable and the e in e-books for electronic, easy-to-use, enduring or even elastic “for their ability to change dynamically”. The point is that both formats are equally books, not “real books” (p) and some “johnny-come-lately pretend books” (e).

I’m with you, Jerry. What makes books magic is the words, not the format.

Freedom of Choice for Writers – and Readers

Old statue wearing audio headphones

The times, they are a-changin’

The format is simply how the reader — the purchaser and consumer of the words — chooses to ingest the words and as consumers, we may prefer one format over the other. As author-publishers, though, we should publish in as many formats as possible and prioritise the formats that make most commercial and creative sense.

As a-books are not a “subsidiary” format for indies, the way they are in trade publishing, and as most of us make more money selling e-books than p-books, making the names we give the different formats equal and interchangeable feels to me like a necessary step for indie authors and something we should encourage in readers too.

Thanks, Andy, for asking… and getting me to think this through.

What do the rest of us think?

#Authors: are you happy with the terms ebooks, abooks, pbooks? Join @OrnaRoss's debate here Click To Tweet

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13 Responses to Opinion: Why Indie Authors Should Start Talking About Pbooks and Abooks

  1. Karl Drinkwater September 9, 2015 at 10:48 am #

    This got me thinking even more, so I linked to it from my blog at http://karldrinkwater.blogspot.com/2015/09/what-do-you-call-yours-book-types-and.html

  2. Karl Drinkwater September 7, 2015 at 9:11 pm #

    I generally talk about e-books, print books and audio books, and see them as equal, but I can see why you’d want to take it a step further.

    However, although I see them as equal, there are ways in which e-books can be more ephemeral – in terms of DRM. Tales of e-books disappearing from Kindles when on holiday in a region where it isn’t allowed; being unable to pass on e-books; confusing format restrictions; these kind of things contribute to the feeling of them being somehow more fragile/ghostly/ephemeral. And there’s some truth to that. In the digital music arena whole swathes of music just disappeared when formats stopped being supported (I think Sony was one culprit here, possibly Microsoft another). Thanks to DRM, many people’s first impressions of digital media were coloured by the problems, which inevitably then made them look second class, especially when the price was the same despite you not being able to pass it on when you’ve finished, and knowing that the distribution costs were zero so the publisher/seller was making more profit from a sometimes lesser product. Sorry, sounds like a rant, but I just wanted to point out some of where the prejudice against e-books came from in many consumers’ eyes!

    • Orna Ross September 9, 2015 at 11:55 am #

      Interesting point, Karl … I hadn’t thought about DRM or the other issues you raise. I do think prejudice against ebooks is shrinking… but maybe I just think that because various aged relatives have finally got a reader, after years of telling me they never would. Of course for many people it’s just habit. Indie authors are in the vanguard here and the language we use will help to create, and reinforce, change.

  3. Clare Flynn September 7, 2015 at 3:58 pm #

    Only danger with pbook is the risk of people saying it stands for “proper book” as a speaker at a conference I was at last year insisted on calling them!

    • Orna Ross September 9, 2015 at 11:50 am #

      Yes, I’ve heard that one too, Clare. oh dear… 🙁

  4. Andrew Lowe September 7, 2015 at 2:43 pm #

    Yay! I inspired a blog.

    Magazines are still going through this process of redefining not only what they are and what purpose they serve, but also what they should be called – across multiple formats (print, tablet, mobile etc.)

    I agree, Orna, that it’s all about the content. As digital and virtual as the world might feel right now, we’re still just crawling out of the water when it comes to a universal acceptance that digital ‘things’ can be as rich and tangible as physical objects. This silly idea that an ‘Ebook’ isn’t a ‘real’ book still prevails. (Or at least that the Ebook version is a kind of phantom product; a lesser model of the ‘proper’ print mothership.)

    I would like to think that the distinctions will seem less and less relevant, and we’ll just refer to a central title and then refer to its specific format if we really have to. (Selling, outlining where it’s available etc.)

    After all, when someone says they’ve seen a film, we don’t ask if they saw it at the cinema, at home, on their tablet on the train, mobile at the bus-stop, etc. (Same with music albums.)

    That’s how I see the indie/self/traditional publishing labelling evolve, too. It’s only the traditional publishing world that wants to keep the distinctions alive, to emphasise that their product is the superior book form.

    For that reason, I would just like to hear books described as books, with qualifications only when absolutely necessary (comparing, selling, describing a range, etc.)

    (I think it’s the all-you-can-eat model that will kill the distinctions for good, sooner or later – just as it’s doing with other media forms.)

    • Maria Mar September 9, 2015 at 6:35 am #

      Hi, Orna and all,

      In reference to Andrew’s comment; it really got me thinking. ‘Cause it’s true. When someone tells us that they saw a movie or heard a song, we don’t ask how or where, so why are books different? I don’t think it’s a matter of what the publishers want. They really cannot control the reading experience to that point. So I kept asking myself BUT WHY? And then it dawn on me!
      … Suspense…
      For the life of these two industries (film/music) they’ve been in constant change of formats. They change fast, and anyone living now, no matter how old or young, has experienced the change. They are used to films and music changing formats. But books have kept the printed format and presentation for so long! We are not used to them changing so much. When I started selling ebooks they were in PDF, and they did not sell that well. It was clunky. So maybe that change did not registered, or gave it a bad rep. Not sure. But the tablets changed that, and made the new format convenient, cheap and easy. So that’s when digital books became “real” for a great number of users, and that was really just the other day, relatively speaking. So in our collective perception, books have been printed for a long time, and we are not used to them changing formats. It will happen, but it will take a bit of time. What do you think?

      • Orna Ross September 9, 2015 at 11:46 am #

        Well, you’re an inspiring fellow, Andy! And I totally agree: a book is a book is a book. except when it isn’t! 🙂

        Maria, that’s really interesting … I think you’re right. And it is well recognised that the book buying public is a more conservative market than that for film, music or magazines. One other difference between books and films/songs is: when it comes to audiobooks, it’s quite a different experience. i.e. you read a book (e or p), but you listen to an audiobook. thanks so much for reading and your thoughtful comment.

  5. Helen Kara September 7, 2015 at 2:39 pm #

    I really like the terminology you suggest because of the equality connotation. The way we speak and write influences how we and our listeners/readers think. So I’ll be adopting this – although I agree with Debbie that it may take a little while to develop the habit. I think Twitter will help, though, because pbook and abook are usefully short!

    • Orna Ross September 9, 2015 at 11:41 am #

      Thanks Helen…. good point about twitter! And when we hear Debbie et al comfortably chatting about pbooks in the future, we’ll know it all started here! 🙂

  6. Debbie Young September 7, 2015 at 1:52 pm #

    Haha, great piece! Personally I’m entirely comfortable talking about ebooks but can’t yet bring myself to say “pbook” for what in my head are just “books” – it would feel like referring to my car as a “motor-car”, a bit superfluous,and to say “abook” sounds like I’m just talking about “a book” with odd emphasis on the indefinite article. But I do agree it’s important to distinguish and to treat them as equals, and not to allow ebooks or audiobooks to be fobbed off as poor relations of the mighty print. This is going to take some practice…

    For the record, I read mainly ebooks, love and own masses of print books, but don’t listen to audiobooks as I get too easily distracted (though I love podcasts and BBC Radio!) Really conscious that I have to start heeding this growing market sector though…

    • Orna Ross September 9, 2015 at 11:39 am #

      Thanks Debbie. I agree that abooks (!) are the ones to watch, especially now that Amazon had made it so easy to synch reading and listening through their whispernet technology. I think this is a game changer and changes everything for audio.

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