How eBooks are making people stupid (and not in the way you are thinking)

ebook_for_dummies__10414[1] 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[1]; 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.

Game on.


[1] 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.

After rant:

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.

12 thoughts on “How eBooks are making people stupid (and not in the way you are thinking)

  1. I think what we oftentimes tend to forget, is that there is another principle at play here.

    That’s the 80/20 rule aka the Pareto rule.

    The upper 20% will always have the best books/media/technology, and as a marketplace, will always have a notional – even if nostalgic – regard for books.

    In the REST of the world 80% of the people have access to limited amounts of electricity to say nothing of computing resources or e-readers and are even more dependent upon books as they ever were, there need for books and information is REAL and essential.

    The great trouble of our age is not the nook or the kindle but information itself, commercial & corporate interests have a vested concern in controlling what we see, how we work & what we think.

    But if we as a society mean to prevent intentional or inadvertent economic disenfranchisement, mass illiteracy and defining a second-tier neo-peasantry – whether it’s Pakistan or the United States, the problem is really ensuring that the generation now coming up.

    It seems Thomas Jefferson was correct, the book was and is then to be seen as a unit of capital, and the ideas contained within the best of them, is still the coin of the realm, as basic access to the best quality of information , AND , the skills to make use of that information and discern ideological garbage from ideas of merit.

    “Books constitute capital. A library book lasts as long as a house, for hundreds of years. It is not, then, an article of mere consumption but fairly of capital, and often in the case of professional men, setting out in life, it is their only capital.”

    Thomas Jefferson

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  3. It looks to me like the important distinction is between the survival of libraries and the survival of librarians. If a single web server can handle all the requests for a slew of e-books, it doesn’t make sense for thousands of buildings each to buy electronic copies and maintain the physical structure for distributing them. But, barring huge advances in AI or education reform, reference and instruction will remain the realm of human information professionals.

    I see the e-books in libraries situation a little differently. Publishers don’t want libraries to lend things they can otherwise profit from. Libraries shouldn’t necessarily want to enter that arena, either.

    Also important is the nature of the publishing industry. We’ve switched in most other respects from media companies deciding what we should consume for us to having infinite and free choice. Good content finds its audience. As you’ve noted, the price of e-books is low compared to a hardcover book. But does that price reflect the fair market value, given the licensing restrictions and middle-man fees?

    The future of e-books, in my mind, has fewer big players, more one-man shops, and Free-and/or-ad-supported-to-$5 prices. Netflix-like “streaming” subscriptions could also be popular. An open marketplace of e-books would better facilitate this, but open web technologies could pick up slack in that arena.

    Additionally, the distinction between things like books, magazines, blogs, and other formats will be further blurred, since they’re often consumed from one device; sometimes all within one app. This is a big driver for the pricing changes I envision: people have free or ad-supported substitutes to e-books that are currently more convenient.

    Those were the first things that came to mind. Thank you for the thought-provoking post!

  4. Thanks for the reality check about ebooks. The way that people talk about them has been bothering me for quite some time – that they herald the “death” of the paper book, that they are inherently library-unfriendly, etc. This was a great dose of perspective.

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  6. An Often Ignored Issue

    Textual Fixity – A printed book of a specific edition can be referenced and will ALWAYS say the same thing, but an electronic book doesn’t have the same permenance –if you reference an electronic work, there’s nothing to prevent it from being changed (corrections made, etc.) and therefore no longer supporting your own work. Much scholarship is built on the work of others, but it becomes more difficult to build on a shifting foundation –and electronic work doesn’t have the permanence and unchangability of the printed word.

    An example – Bowker’s Books in Print was a book published every year showing the books that were in-print for that year. This and a lot of reference items are now only produced electronically. In the future, someone doing research may want that information for certain years –prior to 2000, there would be no problem, but after that, they would have to rely electronic information which may or may not be accessable. For example, is the data constantly updated –future researchers will not be able to get a snapshot in time. Or maybe the previous editions are only on CD-ROMs –but in twenty years, that may be as hard to read as a 5 1/4″ floppy disk is today –or maybe harder. Also, how long does electronic information remain uncorrupted?

    Geneaologists often use city directories and phone books –but if they stop being printed, what will be used in 100 years. We may have several decades at the beginning of the 21st century that will be harder to do research on than the previous 150 years.

    • Jim,

      You touch on some really valid points regarding permanence on the web. I thought it would be worthwhile to touch on the concept with a few concepts:

      1. Citation – Most academic citation formats for electronic materials now include some form of “Accessed on” date to somewhat establish a canonical version of the cited resource. Since the person using that resource for their research is relying on it at that moment, the burden of proof lies with them. As such, it’s good practice to keep an archived copy of the work.

      2. Revision Control – Since sites do change, it’s become common practice to maintain a database of not only the current version, but revisions as well. Sometimes this information is internal-only, but other times it’s publicly-accessible. The best-known example of this is Wikipedia. If you were relying on a quote or fact from Wikipedia, it might be a good idea to link to a revision from the history rather than a base article URL.

      3. Metadata – Some revision control is less formal. Bloggers often just add a little update section to the bottom of the post to indicate edits. This is also quite common in the News industry. I haven’t looked at the ePub spec in any detail, but it would seem pretty straightforward to extend the spec or create a new standard for eBook revisions. Rather than maintaining entire versions, the book’s edits could be stored within the work as Git-like changes. This could be facilitated with the del and ins html tags, for instance.

      4. Uniform Resources – As with the linking-to-a-revision Wikipedia example, resources should have a uniform means to name or locate them in their namespace. Since an edited edition is intrinsically different than the edition prior edits, it is a different resources and should therefore have some means of differentiating it. The web, and many other things (such as books with ISBNs), are based on the concept of URIs, be they URLs or URNs.

      You make a very good, interesting point about online phone databases. I wonder whether (and if so, when) providers might start providing legacy data. I have a feeling that if they’re not explicitly designing their systems to be capable of such a thing that at least they have backups in place to make it possible.

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  9. Andy I enjoyed reading your post, thank you.

    you make some great points and I agree with you, the whole eBooks vs paper books argument is getting us nowhere and frankly it’s pointless. Paper books have their place and advantages, as do eBooks… and as technologies continue to evolve some of the advantages currently held by paper books have will move over to eBooks, but paper will always have it place.

    as to DRM, I personally believe it will eventually disappear, the same way it did in the music industry (you only have to look at iTunes and the majority of other online music providers to see that)… the same will happen in the movie and TV industries, and it’s likely to be a lot sooner than we imagine (let’s face it, BluRay was the winner of the “last” physical format war). VHS tapes and recordable DVD’s didn’t kill the Movie industry, the same way recordable CD’s didn’t kill the music industry, it’s still going and making plenty of money. Yes those industries have transformed in recent years and they will continue to evolve, but they’re still going… the publishing industry will go the same way, and as you say, those that embrace the changes will prosper, while those that resist won’t.

    “It’s not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change” Charles Darwin may have been writing about a different subject, but it’s easy to apply the same principle to business… publishing houses that bury their heads in the sand or live in denial will become extinct.

    as I posted on my personal blog only a few days ago “If a competitor is hell bent on pushing forwards when you’re content to sit still, don’t be surprised when they win”

    thanks again, I look forward to reading your future posts and will search through your blog for other nuggets
    Brendan Mitchell

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