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· 5 min read
Sonica Arora

Why is the paper book not in the realm of the cassette tape already?

One would expect the industry of books, and consumers, to have moved entirely online by now. It's been at least thirty years since the Internet revolution began, and massive players like Amazon, Google, and Apple have been in the fray since almost the beginning.

There have been yet another thousand different startups with a new "innovative" solution in between that tried to help us switch. "It'd help the climate!" some contended. "Download an e-book immediately!" instead of waiting days for the dead tree to arrive, said others.

And yet, despite decades of banter and investment, the switch hasn't happened.

Most readers still choose the paperback; even tech ambassadors usually share a link to the dead tree carrying their work. Why is that?

A book is not a file.

Let's apply the First Principles of Thinking.

Are books and files the same thing? Are they the same thing if the story within is?

Tweet by Dam Kaminsky

The answer is no. They are not. Content alone cannot make that determination.

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

a physical file

And this is what a physical book looks like:

a hardback and a paperback

From the surface alone, the two products look very different. Does not a book's level of execution and workmanship appear higher than that of a file? It does, right? The quality of a book is far, far, higher than that of a file, and we have barely scratched the surface here.

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

No, they are not interchangeable.

If we replaced all paperbacks inside a Barnes and Noble store with ugly flat files containing the same stories, would people continue to buy from Barnes and Noble? No, they'd go elsewhere.

File format and book format are different. They are unrelated.

A book is not a file.

Books are a consumer story.

Our kids love books–a wholesome consumer product that appeals to their senses. On the other hand, a file is just a plain squalid product of the enterprise—a lifeless means of storage and conveyance to work behind the scenes.

Files are intended to be locked away in metal folders and filing cabinets and brought into view only when needed. Books do the opposite. They are designed to deliver content tastefully and with an intent to live in the limelight front and center!

The purpose of a book is quite the opposite of a file.

Anyone who has built a consumer product business knows how hard it is to make one—the odds of achieving scale and adoption using the needs and emotions of an unknown person sitting in front of a remote computer is next to nothing.

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

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 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 Unix-y community has come to 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. ¯\(ツ)

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. 🙏🏻