A book is not a file.

A book is not a file.

  • bubblin
  • 4 minutes
  • June 25, 2022

How is it that paper book has not been pushed into the realm of the cassette tape?

One would expect the industry of books to have moved online entirely by now. There are massive players like Amazon, Google, and Apple in the fray, not just the big four. There are yet another thousand other “digital solutions” online, each vying for us to make the final switch.

“It’d help the climate!” some contend.

“Pick up an e-book instead of the dead tree!”

And yet, despite two decades of chatter, the switch hasn’t happened.

Most readers still choose the paperback. Even the ambassadors of the tech industry usually share a link for others to go and buy the dead tree.

Why is that?

Is the book not a file?

Let’s apply the First Principles Thinking.

Is the book the same thing as the file?

This is what a file looks like in the real world, for example:

a file at work

And this is what a physical book looks like:

a hardback and a paperback

On the surface, does it look like the two products are comparable?

Do a book’s execution and quality level appear higher than a file? It does, right? The standard of a book is way—waaaaay—higher than that of a file, and we have barely scratched the surface here.

Indeed both are stacks of pages bound on the left edge—a codex, if you will. Sure, there may be features within that a construct of a file, and a construct of a book might share, but is one format interchangeable with the other?

No. I think not.

They are too unrelated to be juxtaposed together.

A book is not a file!

A book is a consumer story. A wholesome consumer product story!

Anyone who has built a consumer product business knows how hard it is to create a consumer product that scales. It is hard to meet the latent expectations involved in a direct sale.

One can easily see the difference in the production quality of the two products in the physical world.

A file is just a bland squalid product of the enterprise—a simple means of storage and conveyance to work behind the scenes. It is intended to be locked away in metal folders and filing cabinets and brought into view only when needed.

A book, however, is lively and tastefully designed with the intent to live in the limelight. Front and center! It’s quite the opposite of a file in purpose.

A book is about stoking the reader’s imagination, creativity, and impulse with features that do just that. Enable!

The two products are literal opposites of each other, not just unrelated.

A book is not a file.

Frankly, there is so little to compare between a physical book and a physical file that the comparison above is somewhat redundant.

Both products have very different features that solve the needs of two distinct and exclusive problem spaces. Their use cases are completely unrelated, and so are the processes of their making.

A book publisher, for example, follows a well-defined and intricate process of typesetting, formatting, printing, and binding. Conventions that have been refined over a hundred years!

Whereas a file? It just exists.

A book is not a file.

Since, in reality, the two products and their markets are unrelated, it is only fair to say that the two products needn’t be correlated in the digital space either.

A book is not a file.

A book is a book. A file is a file.

Books are a consumer play. A format file can never solve the case of a well-formatted corpus, and that is what the sustained growth of the dead tree medium tells us.

Is a file a book, though?

If you’ve been around, you might already believe that a digital file is an e-book if it contains the contents of a book. That is how most in the unixy community think of the world: everything is a file!

If not a book, then what is it anyway?

The answer is: No one knows for sure.


All we know is that a file downloaded to the disk is primed for Tsundoku rather than reading, and it is not something people like to buy often. You and I are being sold something that isn’t genuinely inspiring a book.

Since a physical book is not just content alone, it is only fair to question that claim online. Is content alone good enough?

I suspect not.

The container, its behavior, and the publishing conventions within and around the contents are equally important. It is not like if we printed a manuscript on a t-shirt, people would stop wearing it and read long-form with it instead.

To wit:

every functioning system has two forms: The abstraction that outsiders are led to believe and the reality that insiders actually and carefully operate.

It would also be reasonable to mention that every digital file format available today is primordial software created for an enterprise problem. The digital avatar of a book, the consumer product we genuinely love, has never been built ground up or invented yet.

So. Can we do something about it? We intend to. 🙏🏻

About the author

Sonica Arora

A tree hugger at heart. Code, stories & coffee.