Wednesday, December 5, 2007

What happened to the Ebook revolution?

Everyday at lunch I sit in my local cafe and read an Ebook from my PDA (personal digital assistant). I purchased a PDA in the vain hope that I could better organise my life; it was only several months later that I discovered I could also use the device for reading Ebooks. I must admit that I was sceptical from the onset; I anticipated that reading a book from a relatively small screen would be frustrating. I thought the ultimate test would be Tolstoy's War and Peace (yes I am crazy), within minutes I found an E-book format of the book online and purchased a copy for $3.00 dollars. To my surprise I found reading for extended periods of time was no problem at all. Indeed I managed to finish War and Peace (confirmation that I’m crazy) and have since read numerous other Ebooks on my PDA. I love the idea that on a 128 megabyte SD card I can carry several hundred books in my pocket should I so desire. Two years on from my tentative trial and I can say that I prefer to read books in electronic format. This however does create a degree of inner turmoil for me as I ponder what the implications are for the Library profession and in particular the future of Public Libraries. Will Ebooks be the end of Libraries or just another exciting development to occur in one of the oldest professions on earth?

Well before I get too carried away I should point out that whilst Ebooks have been around for some time they have not captured the attention of the mainstream readers; or at least in the US, UK and Australia. A recent article by David Adam’s* asked the question what happened to the Ebook revolution? Ebooks have for many years been an emerging technology and Adam’s acknowledges that libraries have been an active participant in trialing this technology. Yet more than a decade since Ebooks were touted as the print book format killer they represent only a minute percentage of the billion dollar global book trade.

So why have E-books failed to capture the general public’s interest and hard earned cash?Adam’s suggests two pertinent reasons; the lack of a killer device and too many competing Ebook formats. With regards to an Ebook reader it is interesting to note that in the last two weeks Amazon and locally Dymocks have outlined plans to sell a dedicated Ereader. Both retailers also sell Ebooks via their online stores. Obviously retailers and publishers still believe that the Ebook revolution will occur; it's just a matter of time. With regards to format there are still a variety on the market. This has been a problem for dedicated Ereaders as publishers tend to produce content for only a handful of formats and most dedicated Ereaders only support one format. This is not as big a concern for PDA's as it is possible to install a variety of Ereader software on these devices; such as Adobe Ereader, Microsoft Reader, Palm Reader & Mobi Reader. My device uses Adobe Ereader; should I change my PDA and Ereader software I can logon to the ebook vendors site that I originally purchased my Ebooks from and download all the books again in the new format at no further cost. My one complaint is that the range of books published in Ebooks is still rather limited.

Whilst Ebooks are still a marginal format in most markets Japan is the one exception where Ebooks now outsell print novels. The Ebook novels are specifically designed for cellphones and the format has now become mainstream. I guess Japan's enthusiasm for Ebooks comes as no surprise as the land of the rising sun has a reputation for being an early adopter of new technology. I'm certain that in my lifetime Ebooks will become one of the major formats in the publishing industry. Will they kill the paper book; probably not, but they may out sell the paper format. For those belonging to the generation that has grown up with computers the transition to Ebooks will be a natural step; the only thing hindering this reading paradigm shift is a device that captures the imagination of the consumer and has the necessary street creed similar to that of the IPod. At present such a device does not exist.

The million dollar question; how will the mass uptake of Ebooks by consumers effect public libraries? Fundamentally I believe that our core role of providing free community access to fiction/non-fiction works will not change. Obviously the mode of access may change as patrons download titles direct from our catalogues or wirelessly within our libraries. We will also have more space within our buildings which I suspect will be a welcome outcome for many libraries who struggle to meet the demands for study areas, computer labs and lounge areas. As always interesting times ahead!

Article by Ross Balharrie
Views expressed in this article are the authors and do not represent the views of the Reference & Information Services Group.


Natalie said...

I think you gave a very good reason why ebooks may not have taken off like expected. If there's not a good range of books to download people won't be that interested. I think now that bookstores, such as Dymocks have them for sale it may get wider exposure. I have to admit, after seeing a book I'd like to read available as an ebook on the Dymocks website and an ebook reader in a duty free store at the airport, I seriously considered getting one.
Provision of ebooks may have the advantage of reaching a part of the community that may not use libraries now.

Despite all that, I still prefer the experience of reading a physical book.

NSW Reference and Information Services Group said...

Yes, it is true that the range of books offered so far is a restraint. If you love classic literature you are well catered for. As you state, now that Dymocks and Amazon are involved publishers may be more inclined to convert books to the Ebook format if demand can be proven. I have been following the Ebook market with some interest over the last few years and I do believe that we may be at a watershed with regards to consummer acceptance. Of course the stars do need to align; expansion of available Ebook titles in conjunction with an appealing Ereader device. I do wonder if trying to sell a dedicated Ereader device is the wrong way to go. In the world of convergence I think an IPod/Iphone with Ereader functionality may be the way to entice people over to Ebooks.

regards Ross

Jenn said...

Perhaps a guide to how to use ebooks/what formats you can use them on would be useful for the public.

I don't have a PDA and had not really become aware of the fact that (if I did) I could read ebooks on one, but knowing that I could intrigues me.

I DO have a friend who reads books on his ipod, and I imagine that as the memory of ipods increases (120G and rising?) this will become more common, there are lots of sites that tell you how to do this: is a pretty thorough one. The downside of using an ipod is that you only get five lines of text before you have to turn the page and the ipod does not remember where you were up to if you need to get out of the book to do something else on your ipod.

I'm still waiting for the flexible epaper they started talking about years ago. (When I can get onto the train, sit down, unroll/unfold a sheet and plug in my memory chip of choice, then I might start reading ebooks.)