To be clear, I’m not talking about the ebooks themselves; they are a perfectly fine media format. But the continuous need for comparison of the two formats (electronic versus physical) is just plain stupid. Perhaps, as both an emerging market and medium, people feel the need to make this examination constantly. However, it’s often a misrepresentation: it is the capabilities of the ereader device being compared to the physical book, not the ebook itself. Ebooks, like physical books, do not have a great range of functionality or features in and of themselves. It’s the hype, the fear, and the uncertainty about how ebooks will change libraries that is leading some pretty smart people to make some pretty dumb statements. Where is this notion of a threat to libraries coming from?
Some perspective is in order concerning the hype: Amazon has reported selling more ebooks than hardcover books in the last year. Amazon, the company that has artificially held down prices on ebooks and has gotten in fights with publishers over the raising the price on ebooks, has reported that they sell more ebooks than hardcover books. Amazon, the company that has set the price of ebook editions for the Kindle at roughly one third of the price of a hardcover, has reported selling more ebooks than hardcover books in the last year. Amazon, the company that introduced the first popular ereader (and seek to support their portion of the market through reduced prices for ebooks for this device) that continues to dominate the ereader market share, has reported selling more ebooks than hardcover books last year.
I’m not sure how many other ways I can say it; if you price something drastically cheaper (three ebooks are roughly the cost equivalent of one physical hardcover book) and you have the largest market share, you are going to sell more ebooks no matter what. Shocked, I am not.
As to the fear, there are some misguided basic presumptions being made: that all future ereaders will be completely proprietary and loyal to one provider, DRM will never change (or will only change for the worse, meaning more restrictive), and that libraries will never EVER have a seat at the ebook table. The first assertion has been proven false already by the emergence of applications that allow for the purchasing of content from other ebook sources. It is not too far fetched to predict that as time progresses all ereader devices will be able to access any ebook content provider. The second assertion that DRM will never change or change for the worse is a harder case to make, but the movements of the litigation regarding copyright give me the feeling that it will be addressed in the next few years. The recent action by the Copyright Office leads me to believe that DRM will become more liberal as the United States is a society that places emphasis on personal ownership & property rights and not on the current lease models in use currently. As to the third assertion, libraries as an institution have not demanded from our distributors and publishers that we be provided with ebook copies that are compatible with most popular devices. Libraries are being treated as a junior partner when it comes to ebooks. With more locations in the country than McDonald’s, this is a position that the publishing industry takes at their own peril. Eventually, ebooks will be lent by libraries; it is only a matter of time. There will be two groups: the publishers who got with the program and those who are trying to catch up.
There is very little reason to be fearful regarding about ebooks. It is a medium that is in the midst of birthing a viable business model. It’s not like Gutenberg printed his first book and thought to himself, “I must find a way to create more of these and put them in the hands of the general public.” No, he sold them and thought about what else he could print that people would buy. (For 30 florins each, or the equivalent of three year’s wages for an average clerk.) While ebook sales increase, the main limiting component in this equation is still the ereader device regardless as to whether it is a handheld gadget or desktop computer. You can cut the price of an ebook down to a slim profit margin; only time, innovation, and market demand will reduce the price of the ereader. Once those prices drop down (and they will) to where it gets within sight of the poverty line, then we will may see the rate of adoption that makes ebooks the “must have” item in library collections around the country.
I think the most apt comparison of an emerging technology (ebooks) versus an established technology (books) is that of the automobile to the horse. Automobiles are pretty ubiquitous now, adopted for use on nearly all corners of the Earth, as the main mode of personal transportation. However, there are places that the horse can travel that the automobile cannot. Horses are still used as a mode of travel otherwise, collected and cared for by people from all walks of life, and utilized for other daily purposes. There is still an industry around them ($39 billion yearly, according to the Horse Council.) Not bad for the main form of transportation for the majority of recorded history replaced by a ‘superior’ mechanical invention. There will always be a market for physical books, it’s just going to change over time. Horse riding did not go away with the advent of the automobile or even the plane; and neither will the book with the rise of the ebook.
This is not Armageddon; it is a road map for our own library success. This is what people want: an device or app that can allow for download of library material wirelessly into a device. And this isn’t something on the scale of the moon landing; Overdrive Media has an app for multiple platforms already and the cost of ereaders is going down. As to ebooks, here’s the talk I propose someone who does purchasing to have with their distributors:
Hello, ladies and gentleman. I have a giant bag of money. And from what I hear, you guys like money. This is the money I have to spend on adding materials to my library.
As I am charged with spending this as wisely as possible, here is what I am going to tell you: the first company to get digital rights for all the books we want wins the giant bag of money.
Your time starts now.
 Be sure to read Heather McCormack’s brilliant post, “An Optimist-Pessimist’s Guide to Avoiding Ebook Armageddon”. I read it while I was writing this post and it encouraged me to finish jotting down all of the notes that came to mind.
How can anyone in library services be displeased with a technology that allows a book to travel through the air at lightning and delivered to a receiving device in under a minute? (See also: Louis CK: Everything is amazing and nobody’s happy.) Isn’t this part of the dream of information services? This is sort of thing that people in the 1960’s saw on Star Trek and went, “Man, wouldn’t that be cool?” And within a generation, it exists. If there is a reason to be scared, it’s a selfish one: that the days of the traditional library collection are coming to an end and that the public will not need our profession. As if schools, parents, and teachers are doing a top notch job with bibliographic instruction and information vetting education. Based on my own experience, there will be a need for a librarian until they build an artificial intelligence that can answer the questions that I field. Once I see HAL taking reference questions, then I’ll know the time of the library has come to an end.
“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t order that book for you.”
Edit: Changed the term “physical” to “hardcover” in the Amazon paragraph. Thought one thing and wrote another. Oops! Thanks to the LISNews commenter for pointing that out.