Stephen Colbert opened his October 25th, 2011 show with his normal exuberance. He bragged about his special early access to the iPhone, the iPad, and the iV (a product that feeds the Internet directly into your veins; he assured us a short wait of six months before its release). Then Colbert pulled Walter Isaacson’s 600-page Steve Jobs from behind his desk, and became perplexed.

The single-finger touchscreen swipe on the cover didn’t turn pages. When you turned the book upside down, the picture didn’t reorient. Colbert complained there was no place to plug in his headphones so he could listen in. And then he tried to activate the voice recognition by touching the bottom of the cover: “Tell me about Steve Jobs. Where is the nearest church or camera store?” He ended the segment saying that the device would soon be released with “a revolutionary softcover.” The jokes played well to the geekish sensibilities of the studio audience, but I am not sure even the show’s writers knew how well the sketch described the confused state of book publishing.

Steve Jobs will serve as a prominent road marker on the path from atoms to bits. Simon & Schuster’s decision to delay the digital release of the biography for two weeks in order to match the physical release date (even after the death of Jobs) is worthy of a Harvard Business School case. And at the same time, even as computers now interface with us in almost every aspect of our lives, and even given Jobs’ critical role in that proliferation, the majority of people will read his life story on paper.

Colbert poking fun at the Jobs biography repeats, again, a meme that we in the publishing industry should be gravely concerned about — our customers don’t know what a book is anymore.

The consequences of book updates

In July 2011, I launched an experimental book project with O’Reilly called Every Book Is a Startup, which was meant to poke at the boundaries of traditional publishing. The book was created around the idea that new material would be released over time, culminating in a finished work early in 2012. Readers were encouraged to constantly give feedback about the material. The pricing was dynamic, increasing slowly to match the amount of material released, but once purchased, a customer received all future updates for free.

We were only using one distribution point at the start of the project, oreilly.com, because the distribution system for electronic books was not designed to allow an eBook to be updated and released again. You might remember one of the side effects of Amazon’s 2009 recall of 1984 was that after the book was restored, customers found their bookmarks and notes had disappeared.

We, unfortunately, found the same problem with our release strategy. Wonderful publishing startups like Readmill and SocialBook have created the possibility for readers using ePUB files to highlight important passages and share those with others back through the web, but when a reader of Every Book Is a Startup loaded a new edition, their digital artifacts suffered the same fate as readers of 1984 — the loss of their old thoughts as I presented them with my new ones.

I have been hesitant to call “Every Book Is A Startup” a book because of the expectations people hold for a book: a finished work, written from a position of singular authority, available in some way in a physical form. What I never expected was how strongly the qualities of a book would be brought forward from the physical to the digital. Digital books have been designed to carry forward the same atomic quality of immutability of physical books. As I reached out to my colleagues working in the world of eBooks, the consensus was that no one had considered a reality in which an author, given the ability to distribute directly and virtually cost free, would consider updating their work and the consequences that might have.

Bits and atoms don’t behave the same way, but we have built the next step forward in publishing as though they do.

Possibilities arise from a new name

The trouble at this point is that a book is a book. Stacey Madden used precisely those words to title an essay in the inaugural issue of Toronto Review of Books that describes this predicament. “I do not mean to argue the advantages of paperbound books over their electronic counterparts,” wrote Madden. “The contents of both are, for the most part, the same, and the differences lie mainly in medium. I am simply pointing out a semantic fact. E-books are not ‘books’ but digitized compositions.” Madden firmly believes the book’s 550-year-old connection between form and format should be maintained. “Before a collection of human thoughts is transformed into what we call a ‘book,’ it is merely a story, a manuscript, a document, or a text.” Madden points to the need for more of us to see the difference between a book and its electronic counterparts.

Now, Madden writes further about the poetic qualities of the book and declares the superiority of the bound volume for its weight, smell, and ability to act as apartment furnishing. This judgment undermines the broader point and shows from another perspective the real trouble we are in.

The people who love books for what they are and what they have been are grabbing for their hardcovers and their paperbacks and saying, “This word belongs to us.” The digerati paving the way with wireless tablets and social networking recommendation services are trying to say, “You don’t understand, we have books and we have made them way better.” This is messy and leads to confusion.

We are living through a time in book publishing when words fail us, a situation in which we should all find some given the products we sell. We need some new language that describes what happens and, more importantly, what is possible when words are separated from the paper. Those two things need to be separated so we can build systems and infrastructures that support the new capabilities of the technology.

For several decades, what we know today as a “car” was referred to as a “horseless carriage.” It was easier to describe this new invention as what it was not, rather than what it was.

Maybe there are books and there are paperless books. I know it is a little awkward, and you want to ask yourself, “What does that mean?” — but when you remove the paper from a book, it becomes so much easier to see the possibilities.