Google’s e-books are “open” in the same way that politicians are “bipartisan” and oil companies are “green”—the claim makes for good marketing, even if it lacks substance. Buying from Google rather than Amazon will give you no greater control over your books… In fact, Amazon’s “closed” books will soon work on more devices than Google’s “open” books.
… [Google ebooks] are protected by a digital rights management copy-protection scheme. As a result, the copyrighted books in Google’s bookstore can’t be shared, resold, or read on any device that doesn’t play nice with Google’s DRM.
Ouch. My beloved Digital Campus podcast weighs in on this same issue in episode 63, around the 5 minute mark (they are a bit more forgiving of Google’s efforts than Slate). Also from the realm of academia, there is an article in the Chronicles of Higher Education by Jennifer Howard that’s worth a read.
Basically, I gather, Google eBooks attempts to do what everyone else is doing — Sony, Apple, etc. — but with an altruistic twist. Google is providing a virtual space for independent bookstores to set up their own eBook shops in hopes that this might offer a sustainable business model for independent bookstores that have been decimated by the emergence of superstores like Chapters, and then, of course, by an online bookseller you made have heard of, called Amazon. Authors can also approach Google to broker deals individually, so there’s generally an attempt to make an open, accessible platform for the Little Guys. As the Digital Campus podcast points out, it’s like an “Open Bazaar” model for book sellers, rather than the closed platform offered by, for example Amazon and it’s Kindle eReader.
Okay — fine. I get that. Everyone wants a piece of this eBook pie, whether it be by way of the hardware, or the software. The big names are there, fighting it out like they always do.
The confusion comes in when, as an academic librarian, I begin to think about our own collection of thousands and thousands of eBooks — none of which are compatible with eBook readers. That’s right — we invest enormous amounts of money into eBooks that can only be read on a computer screen, and which often have highly restrictive policies about printing pages, and copying text. The average Kobo owner would probably not consider what we have an eBook collection at all. Our world of eBooks moves forward entirely in isolation from what our colleagues at public libraries are doing — what with their fancy eReader lending programs, and their subscriptions to eBooks that people can download directly to their own eReaders.
Remember, academia is the same place that brought you the eJournal, which is of course, in its highest form is simply a digital .pdf of the print article — a document that respects pagination and is easily printable, but which also has searchable text, and copy+paste functionality. It was a big deal in 1995, okay? (And let me tell you — the Millennials, with their A.D.D. and their social networking and desire for eEverything, still want to just print those articles out so they can read a tactile document and fill it with highlighter and marginalia. Just like Everybody Else wants to do. The Millenials are Pretty Okay with eJournals in their current format, from what I can tell.)
So for me, the eBook landscape is con-FOOS-ing because we have the same name — eBook — to describe two very different things. I think these parallel silos are a testament to how profoundly differently we approach research collections and their consumption, versus how we think about reading for leisure, and what users want and expect when consuming novels or popular books. One is this thing that you can read on your computer, even if you have to deal with restrictive access and a clunky interface, while the other is readable on all sorts of eyeball-friendly devices that are portable, lendable, and fun to read, but not all that useful for your Advanced Sociological Methodologies class.
When are these two worlds going to converge? Who are going to be the big winners and losers when the time comes? How is a company like Amazon going to react once it’s in direct competition with a player like NetLibrary (who was recently purchased by EbscoHost)? You might be thinking, “Who cares, I have never heard of NetLibrary in my life and therefore they will probably be one of the losers”, but consider this: According to some research, professional and scholarly ebooks account for more than three times the rest of the US ebook market combined. Three times. In light of numbers like that, it’s a lot harder to make predictions about the future of the eBooks landscape — one might even call it a little bit con-FOOS-ing.
Post Scriptum: I came across this article belatedly, but it has an awesome title and is pertinent to this blog post: The strange case of academic libraries and e-books nobody reads. Ha ha ha, oh Lie-berry Land.