By Carl Zimmer
It's now been a year since we started exploring science ebooks here at Download the Universe. By the time we got the site off the ground, people had already started producing some digital gems. The first work reviewed at Download the Universe, The Elements, brilliantly dismantled the ingredients of a book and rearranged them to take advantage of the touch-sensitive iPad. In 2011 science writer Laurie Garrett had taken the leap to Kindle in order to write I Heard the Sirens Scream, a harrowing account of how the United States responded to 9/11 and the anthrax attacks.
Yet we were also dismayed to discover find a lot of wasted opportunities. David Dobbs delivered the first unbridled attack on a stinker, a silly pamphlet called Smile that promised that grinning will solve just about anything. Likewise, I reeled at The Demise of Guys, an incoherent ebook by a prominent psychologist convinced that men were lost to porn and online games.
Both of these books were published by TED, based on talks that they had hosted. While there's a lot of good stuff to be watched on TED, there are a fair number of talks that pretend to be based on solid science when, in fact, their foundation is a thin, cracking skin of ice. Smile and The Demise of Guys didn't seem to be carefully vetted by an editor who would push back against poppycock. Both ebooks felt as if they had been simply waved through like cars in a line of traffic. In fairness, we did give positive reviews to some other TED Books--Controlling Cancer, What's Killing Us, Living Architecture to name three. But that unevenness makes us wonder if the quality of ebooks depends on the author and the author alone.
Absentee editing was not unique to TED. Meandering Mississippi was based on a series of newspaper articles--by which I mean they were little more than cut and paste into a new format. An ebook about dinosaurs was little more than a digitized cable documentary. An ebook about the Titanic somehow managed to lack any passion.
It would be a shame if ebooks became nothing more than hastily assembled spin-offs of print books, documentaries, or lectures. Fortunately, as this past year progressed, we had lots of good reasons to keep our hope for ebooks alive. New ebooks turned up that exceeded our expectations, or simply popped up far off the grid, beyond our preconceived map of what ebooks could be. I still enjoy turning the pages of Leonardo's anatomical notebooks, intercalated with insights from modern anatomists. For some of the best ebooks the term "ebook" barely even functioned. Snowfall was a ravishing account of a deadly avalanche hosted by the New York Times web site. Ironically, when it was turned into a more conventional ebook (if ebooks are mature enough now to even be conventional), it became a far less satisfying experience.
This past year also offered hope in the form of new publishing outfits dedicated to ebooks, many of which were about science. They were few in number and small in size, but they typically showed a level of care and creativity that much bigger publishing companies lacked. Symbolia offers comics science journalism. Byliner and Matter produced some excellent pieces of "in-between" science writing--too long for a magazine article, too short for a book.
Top honors go to the Atavist, a Brooklyn publishing house that produced an impressive string of pieces over the past year, on subjects ranging from moon rocks to brain-controlled robots to the mysteries of consciousness to a hunt for tree kangaroos. While readers can buy a stripped-down Kindle version, they can also buy an edition with elegantly incorporated maps, audio recordings, and other features.
Like many other journalists and scientists, we also dipped our collective toe into the ebook waters. David Dobbs joined Download the Universe having already written the best-selling My Mother's Lover. Deborah Blum published an absorbing account of a sensational murder trial called Angel Killer. I helped build an app to accompany a textbook about evolution I co-authored. Seth Mnookin edited a Matter ebook about regenerating organs.
I expect we will delve deeper in the year to come, both as writers and as reviewers. Over the past year, we've published over 80 reviews and essays, and we've got a healthy inventory of titles we're looking forward to writing about in the months to come. The ebook business is continuing to grow, but it's still hard to find out about new science titles. We plan to keep making it a little easier.
Carl Zimmer writes frequently about science for the New York Times and is the author of 13 books, including Evolution: Making Sense of Life.