What are ‘Hybrid Books’?

That term — ‘hybrid book’ — seemed to be more en vogue a couple of years ago to more or less describe what we might call enhanced ebooks now, but never seemed to catch on. So, what Melville House is up to is something a little different. From the Melville House website:

“Melville House HybridBooks combine print and digital media into an enhanced reading experience by including with each title additional curated material called Illuminations — — maps, photographs, illustrations, and further writing about the author and the book.

The Melville House Illuminations are free with the purchase of any title in the HybridBook series, no matter the format.

Purchasers of the print version can obtain the Illuminations for a given title simply by scanning the QR code found in the back of each book, or by following the url also given in the back of the print book, then downloading the Illumination in whatever format works best for you.

Purchasers of the digital version receive the appropriate Illuminations automatically as part of the ebook edition.”

The hybrid aspect of the book pairs the main text along with added content/bonus materials — photographs, illustrations, maps, background documents, etc. — and I like the approach. This seems to me like a measured compromise to retain the reading experience (just the words on the page/screen as we’d expect in a book) while also taking advantage of providing added-value digital content, without getting in the way of the reading experience.

Melville House’s current lineup of five Hybrid Books, or rather novellas (including Anton Chekhov, Joseph Conrad, and others) all have a common theme and title: The Duel — which the Huffington Post also featured here.

NPR (“Hybrid Books: ‘Illuminations’ And The Future Of The E-Reader”) shares some reflections on what makes the experience of reading a paper and ink book uniquely special from reading words on the screen —

“What’s really in danger is the unique bond between book and reader; a pact that is sealed with an artifact to prove the connection — the creases and marginalia we leave on physical books show that we were there; a human touched and absorbed these words. What’s lacking from the digital experience is this sense of ownership and a concrete relationship with the material. E-books lead to a grand flattening of the titles we read.War and Peace on a Kindle weighs as much to lug around as The Sun Also Rises. A reader takes the same clicking actions to purchase Danielle Steel as she does to buy Homer. The web is one big, fluorescent superstore where every title exists in equal and judgment-free aisles, and we have the whole store to ourselves.”

In other words, tangibility. There is a certain flattening out of all books when they’re being read on a Kindle or what have you. So there is something about the hybrid book — of which the focus is still on the paper and ink book — it feels like they have the right idea: “The Hybrid Book is social as well. It’s a person giving you a gift of extra information.”

Instead of trying to make ebooks more print-like, perhaps printed books can be made more ebook-like in ways exactly like what Melville House is thinking of doing.

And the interesting thing here is that the approach is about content curation, which seems to me the best possible strategy that publishers have to offer that makes one ebook stand out from another:

“Often the Illuminations are longer than the book itself, stuffed full of illustrations, maps, articles, photographs and historical documents. It’s the kind of trove of information you might find if, after reading, you decided to Google everything you could about the author and the book’s subject. Melville House has simply run the search for you, and is hoping you’ll find their curated findings to be frosting on top of the text.”

The New York Observer (“Melville House Goes Hybrid with Novellas by Chekov, Conrad”) deserves the scoop for breaking news on this hybrid books project. I was quite happy to see my personal favorite would be among the Coming Soon hybrid books —

“More books will follow in the future, including the bestselling title in Melville House’s Art of the Novella Series, Bartleby the Scrivener, by the publisher’s namesake. Bartleby will include letters Melville wrote about what philosophy he was reading, a critical review of the novella by Alexis de Tocqueville, maps of Wall Street from that time and even a recipe for ginger nuts (which turned out to be a way for bakers to use their moldy scrap material by covering everything with the flavor of ginger.)”

I tempted to go on about all of this, but I would prefer not to.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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