eBooks: I don’t get it.

The eBooks landscape is, in one word, con-FOOS-ing. It’s a crazy, mixed up place, and how it’s going to look five years from now is hard for the average lie-berrian to say.

There’s lots being discussed in the world of eReaders and eBooks particularly with Google’s recent launch of Google eBooks. Slate has a nice critical overview of the launch, noting,

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.


11 responses to “eBooks: I don’t get it.

  1. I agree it is confusing. I love my Kindle but it is frustrating that library formats are not compatible for e-readers. Imagine the lending market for libraries if they could really connect into e-reading. You may find that in 15 years time the library is virtual. Scary thoughts!

  2. Thanks for the comment Nicole… I see you just started your own blog (Welcome!). And indeed — libraries are in for lots of changes in the coming years. It’s hard to know exactly how it’s all going to work out.

  3. Dear Meghan,

    I enjoyed your article! It reminded me of a flight I was recently on. On the flight I got talking to the fellow sitting beside me. When I mentioned that I worked in a library he got to talking about how much he loved his Kindle and wanted to know my thoughts on it. I had to explain that I worked in an academic library and that the ebooks we used didn’t work on those devices and he was shocked. And when you think about it, it is kind of shocking, we spend all this money for ebooks that people can’t really read (without going blind), print, or download. It is time for the academic ebooks to get with the times and the technology. User friendly, is that too much to ask for?



    • Michelle, thanks so much for your comment — and it’s great to hear from you!
      Yeah, the dichotomy is a strange one, but I think because academic eBooks developed from a very different starting place, they’ve developed in a very different way than their eReader counterparts.
      The eBook companies that produce these resources are being snapped up by larger publishers — I mentioned NetLibrary being purchased by Ebsco, but eBrary was also just purchased by Proquest — and I wonder what impact that will have on platforms, restrictions, and usability. Hopefully for the good…

  4. I was testing out a number of e-readers this fall for Dal Libraries. Springer does a good job at offering PDFs of entire chapters nowadays, which is useful especially on the Sony eReader.

    I’m actually going to be talking about this topic later on this week, though. I think what’s going to happen is not on the reader front but on the vendor’s side of things. Once the vendors accept that e-readers in one form or another (from the glorious ipad to the kindle to the nook, which is inbetween the two) are here to stay, I think we’ll see a little more latitude in file formats, and especially in terms of websites. Have you tried looking at MyiLibrary on an ipad, for instance? The ipad is practically built for what academic e-vendors have to offer. But the vendors haven’t bought a ticket for this movie yet. And they’re not even lining up.

    Further ramblings: http://thezeds.com/2010/08/22/ipads-in-libraries-preparing-for-the-critical-mass/

    • Wow, luck you — getting your paws on all those pretty, pretty machines. That’s a really important insight that I actually do not have access too! I might go steal our Systems Librarian’s iPad though, to check out the MyiLibrary thing you mentioned. Sounds promising, and will do absolute wonders for our eBook usage. Next step: eReader journal articles?

  5. Pingback: Maybe I’ll read an e-book one day… « LeighCunningham.ca

  6. I just wrote a lengthy comment and lost it…

    1) I do not get the amount of printing of journal articles – it’s out of hand at my campus. Plus, printing of powerpoint slides from Blackboard for class- these practices both totally defeat the intent.

    2) I got an iPad and I’ve decided it’s impossible to read on (after the many steps to get the book on it), for fiction at least. It could be perfect for scholarly text.

    The advantage, for me at least, to using an e-book on my computer is having the content of the book on the same device as the assignment/paper I’m working on. This is what’s lacking on the Kobo/Kindle but could work on a multi-use device such as iPad.

    • Thanks for the comment — and lucky you! iPads are sexy. But their screens hurt my eyeballs big time, and shininess make them impossible to read outside.
      That’s a good point about our less-snazzy academic eBooks having the advantage of being on the save device as students’ research and essay document. I guess for now they integrate much better into their work flow — with the exception of the 15 articles they just printed out 🙂
      I think for an eReader device to have value for your average researcher, they would have to support some sort of digital equivalent of highlighting and making comments — that would be beautifully high-tech but until that day… the printer drama continues!

      • Slight off topic, but we’re test-driving this at MPOW in a pilot project right now, Meghan. It’s very much under the radar, but it’s a small project on the go to see if readers that can mark up text might reduce the paper consumption on campus. Our library systems group asked 3 or 4 faculty (who haven’t ever marked things electronically in the past) to use an iPad and to annotate the text with GoodReader,a PDF editor that lets the user add text notes or write/highlight/mark up the screen. We’ll re-assess in the summer term and see what our next step is.

        This is a very, very small project, but we’re doing it to see if we can get faculty on the board. i.e., if we can get the faculty to start demanding assignments be submitted electronically, then maybe the students will print out less material. (Our main library printed more than 1 million leafs of paper in AY 09-10.)

  7. Mr. Steeleworthy, you are ever a fountain of insight, and you really do have your hands in everything! That sounds so interesting… I hope the results get shared far and wide, it’s really the next generation of eBooks for academic libraries (whether they’re ready or not).