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The Digital Book (R)evolution

The Digital Context

Most discourses about the survival of print, or the struggle of print against digital, derive from a simplistic view of the book – one which is typically aligned with the novel, that apogee of the literary world. There is a tendency to present change and innovation in formats and technologies as if they follow a single, linear path in which a format is replaced by the next new format in a consecutive fashion. The reality experienced by publishing practitioners is very different: a single title will often exist in a range of formats, with publishers releasing print, ebook, enhanced ebook and story app versions all based on the same source material.

I think it is more accurate, and fruitful, to  conceive of change and innovation in terms of branching paths, with older and newer formats co-existing and influencing each other. A branching model also enables us to take into account the diversity that exists within a major format or medium as well as the diversity that exists between formats or media.  The label “print book”, for example, covers a huge range – just think of the differences between novels, encyclopaedias and children’s storybooks.

When we consider  the future of the book through the prism of diversity within print and digital formats, two hypotheses can be drawn:

1)   Digital books are not always so dissimilar to print books, and there exist perhaps greater differences between print formats than between some print formats and some digital formats.

2)   Digital books explore the potentials of new technologies but they are often also inspired by established print formats and framed by their conventions.

Drawing on these ideas around divergence and continuity between print forms and digital forms, I am starting to sketch a typology of digital books. My aim is to provide an alternative to existing industry classifications which are typically over-simplified or biased, and to plug a gap in academia, which currently seems hesitant to approach digital formats beyond ebooks.

Digital Books: Typology Sketches

For now the typologies are represented in two diagrams. This first diagram is based on digital books’ divergence from print books and focuses on the combination of modes and the new (or enhanced) affordances enabled by digital media.


Digital forms are placed along the X axis according to how far they move away from print books in terms of multimodality and/or features such as interactivity, which are closer to other media such as games.  

Moving from left to right we have: Ebooks, sometimes referred to as ‘normal’ or ‘vanilla’ ebooks, are the simplest and most remediated form of digital book.

Enhanced ebooks in EPUB 3 format which typically add images, videos and/or sound, but still follow the aesthetics of the ebook.

There are also more visual types of enhanced ebooks, sometimes called “Multimedia ebooks”, such as those made with Apple’s iBooks Author, which distance themselves further still from the black-writing-on-white-background of ebooks and enhanced ebooks. “Multimedia ebooks” still adopt pages, paragraphs and other print conventions, but add digital features such as pop-up text, images with labels and zooming functionality, slideshows, videos, 3D objects, and widgets that allow programmers to add HTML5 bits of code (for example, to embed a live website within the book).

As we move towards the right of the axis, forms become more merged the lines between digital books that maintain print conventions and digital games, hypertext websites, and even social networking platforms, become more blurred. For example, Bob Stein’s Social Book allows users to comment on any bit of text, image or video, comment on other readers’ comments, and turn the reading – or discussion of the content – into a social experience.

Bridging Books, developed by Engage Lab are an example of “hybrid media books” which link physical objects (in this case a book) to a digital device (in this case a tablet). As the pages of the print book are turned, the iPad shows content that extends, or expands, the printed page e.g. an illustration expanded into an animation). In this case, the book is a hybrid that works across media: print and digital.

What this diagram illustrates is how diverse the digital book space is and how far some of the emergent forms move away from the codex.

By contrast the second diagram does not place digital books in opposition to, or at a distance from, print books. Rather it takes the diversity of print formats as the starting point and looks for continuities rather than contrasts between older and newer media. This enables us to conceive of a different classification model for digital books.

This second diagram takes into account the ways in which different types of digital book build on, or clearly draw inspiration from, different types of print book and their conventions [i].


Gamebooks [ii], for example, draw on the Choose Your Own Adventure books (and also role-playing games)  Storybook apps take their name – and core form – from print storybooks, with the typical addition of animated objects, voice recording to retell the story, etc.

The diagram also takes into account the ways in which the more innovative kinds of digital books – by which I mean those that go well beyond presenting just writing and images – also draw inspiration and conventions from other types of media. For example the interactivity of games or the creativity tools present in many children’s apps. The result is texts that are to a certain extent hybrids between books and other forms of media, which explore the affordances of digital media, platforms and devices.

This draft typology is a work in progress and I am currently working on expanding it and bringing the two diagrams together into one single perspective. My next step will be to look at concrete cases to test the typology and reflect on the ways in which digital formats are judged to be appropriate for different genres. I will also be researching the ways in which previously separate industries and circuits of production are increasingly coming together in the production – or adaptation – of stories that cross media, resulting in the mixing of previously separate traditions and conventions.

It would be great to get some feedback and hear your thoughts and considerations on these topics. Please post your comments below, or email me at: Claudio[dot]pires[dot]franco[at]gmail[dot]com

Article Notes


An idea which Jay David Bolter, one of the creators of the term remediation, started to explore early in his book Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print. Routledge, 2001. For a theory of remediation see also: Bolter, J. David, and Richard A. Grusin. Remediation: Understanding new media. MIT Press, 2000.

[ii] See, for example, the works of Tin Man Games, or Inkle Studios


About this article and the author

Claudio Pires Franco is an Anthropologist, Media Explorer and PhD Researcher who studies the intersection of stories, books, games, digital media and the flows of adaptation across media. He is Senior Research Manager of digital entertainment studio Dubit, and is finishing a Professional Doctorate on innovation in digital storytelling and reader involvement, collaborating with the UNESCO Chair project ‘Crossing Media Boundaries: Adaptation and New Media Forms of the Book’ (University of Bedfordshire, with Professor Alexis Weedon).

Claudio adapted this article from a paper he delivered at the By the Book: The Book and the Study of its Digital Transformation conference in May 2014.

You can see the original slide deck from his talk here and follow him on Twitter @clauzdifranco.

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