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Defending the Honor of Ebooks (and Innovation)

31 August 2017

From No Shelf Required:

Is the ebook a dead format? How eBooks lost their shine. The Scientific Reason Actual Books Are So Much More Memorable Than Ebooks. US Ebook Sales Decline. These are some of the headlines I’ve seen recently perpetuating the (suddenly popular) notion that ebooks are not ‘in’ anymore. That they have somehow failed us. That nothing compares to the reading of actual physical objects in the world. That the challenges the publishing industry has seen with ebooks (i.e., declining sales) point in the direction of a ‘format’ on the verge of dying.

Such articles aren’t only written by informed bloggers and journalists but also by industry professionals with significant experience in the publishing and library and info rmation science markets, particularly those catering to consumers and public libraries. They exhibit a great deal of knowledge and sensible arguments about the challenges the publishing community (trade, in particular) has had with ebooks, focusing largely on the shortfalls of various business models to deliver revenue as predictable as revenue from print, the technological issues associated with ‘formats’  that haven’t been able to deliver a fully satisfying reading experience, and, not to be overlooked, the fierce competitiveness within the market itself, which has often resulted in ‘the powerful’  thriving even if their offerings were inferior to those by various start-ups (most of which perished in recent years).

In short, technology has not been able to ‘disrupt’ book publishing the way it has disrupted other industries in the not-so-distant past (e.g., music, news), and here we are at a crossroads again, asking some existential questions.

I have written countless articles on NSR explaining the benefits of ebooks to transform the world (the core mission of this portal) and pointing publishers, librarians, and all who work with books in one way or another in the direction of more open-mindedness, sensibility, and courage to step beyond what is familiar, safe, and predictable. I have often argued that the challenges we have been facing were not brought on our industry by external factors but by our own unwillingness to chart new territories and create better conditions for those very users we often point to when justifying declining sales.

In light of this emerging trend to dismiss ebooks as a force to be reckoned with in its own right (and I see it as an undeniable force), the attempt here is to put the spotlight (back) on the true value and potential of ebooks, yet to be discovered and explored by publishers and libraries.

. . . .

The main reason we have been slow to tap into the promise and potential of ebooks to deliver results for publishers and public libraries, I believe, has been our reluctance to take the necessary steps requiring us to transform within. In essence, we have ‘managed’ ebooks far more than we have ‘led’ with them. Managing, whether in private corporations like publishing houses or government institutions like libraries, means we need not make drastic changes to who we are as professionals and what we’ve done for centuries. Leading, on the other hand, requires us to get uncomfortable, take risks, and possibly be blamed for an experiment that fails.

Link to the rest at No Shelf Required


4 Comments to “Defending the Honor of Ebooks (and Innovation)”

  1. I do wish articles like this explained how anyone is supposed to earn a living while writing those “transformative” ebooks. Stuff like this:

    Ebooks have asked us all along to rethink what they can do that print books cannot. They have asked us to innovate, not replicate. Clearly, we haven’t listened because we have treated them as print books. We even use the same terminology we use with print books when discussing them or interacting with them. For example, ebooks can be ‘borrowed’ or ‘leased’. They have a ‘retail’ price. They are purchased in advance via a shopping cart. They are static entities packaged to mimic something that exists in the physical world.

    It just drives me crazy, down to imagining Dr. Evil finger quotes around “retail,” “borrowed” and “leased.”

  2. Richard Hershberger

    The linked article is largely pablum, as shown by its playing the “innovation” card: if you have any criticism of my pet idea, you are a luddite!

    There is no great mystery about ebooks. They work great for recreational reading, especially linear fiction: stories where you start at the beginning and read to the end and then you are done. They are less good for anything where you might be tempted to jump back and forth, where with a print book you would have your fingers stuck between pages. They are pretty much a disaster for the situation where you might have three books open on the table in front of you at once. They are better for purely or nearly purely text based books, if only because the ebook reader technology that works best for text sucks at graphics, and the tech that works for graphics is only OK for text. (Yes, I am a Paperwhite guy.) Then there is the research about retention of screen versus text, which very much plays into the “recreational reading” notion.

    Ebooks aren’t going anywhere, because for what they are good at, they are very good indeed. But neither are they the death of paper.

    • I’ve transferred my recreational reading to ebooks fairly seamlessly. But I’m still holding on to nonfiction books because I’ve found that I absorb more with a physical copy.

  3. Al the Great and Powerful

    I read and cite electronic texts all day long as my job, and find little difference between scrolling/paging through etext and flipping/paging through hardcopy. The techniques are close enough that for my research and writing application they are interchangeable.

    I have had three open at once at once on my phone… a pdf, an epub in my reader, and a cbz book in Komik. I was out in a thicket, looking at figures [maps and photos] in the pdf, reading an older archaeological survey of the project area in epub, and pulling up the pulp magazine i was reading when i stopped for a break. Sure, I can’t open three of the same in the one reader program, but multiple books open is not hard to do. And on my PC? Absolutely do this every day.

    I just don’t worry about results for publishers, it is not my circus and not my monkeys. I worry about how I can access fiction and nonfiction in ways that help ME.

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