Future of the pBook – Conflicting Opinions!


Thanks to a well informed colleague who shared these two conflicting opinions about the future of physical published books [I’m going to go out on a limb here and refer to physical, paper published books as the “pBook”. Maybe it will make the complicated written discussion easier.] we have before our profession – another profound issue that will impact our future. (I hate to keep reiterating Dr. Radice, former Director, Institute of Museum and Library Services, in the IMLS 2010 publication The Future of Museums and Libraries: A Discussion Guide that, “… the delivery of library … services will be impacted by technology, education reform, and societal … changes …” in what seems like every Post, but she was SO DEAD ON, it is highly applicable.)

Technology – Education Reform – Societal Changes

I’d have to list this latest debate over the death of the pBook as a societal change, because consumers drive the market place that is producing the eBook and challenging the existence of the millenniums old culture of the pBook. Below are a blog post and a technology review that present compelling but conflicting opinions about how and whether the eBook will replace the pBook, and possibly a public library’s collection.

The Negative Opinion Regarding the pBook

Sarah Houghton-Jan, “Librarian in Black” blogger, Posted a very comprehensive review of an event in San Francisco in her Post: Future of Libraries 2010: The Consumer and Library E-book Markets. In her Post of September 21, she reviewed three individuals (Paul Sims, Ann Awakuni and Henry Bankhead) who shared the opinion that the pBook was nearly dead and would reach its demise in about 5 years.

Sims outlined;

Three scenarios that could undermine our business:
1. What if Virgin or another company offers an eBook reader for free with a 2 year contract for $9.99 a month and get 3 free anytime eBooks every month (very Netflix-esque). These would likely be promoted heavily at discount chain stores and campuses. They could also offer Read-As-You-Go plans.
2. What if publishers abandoned printing books and instead allowed licensed eBooks to be printed by vendors and partners only. Libraries would continue to get print books and have to pay twice, for content and printing. Some libraries might adopt the print on demand technology, but guess what? Libraries are back to fixing printers all the time. What if FedEx/Kinkos starts printing books for people?
3. What if Google announces the creation of Google Publishing? They could offer best-selling authors huge signing bonuses (e.g. 50% of sales and 50% of ad revenue). eBooks might be sold for $2.99 to read online with ads, or $9.99 to download and transfer to other devices and with no ads. And they would likely make no provision for libraries…except the lovely one reading computer station per library.
… We have to work with ALA to lobby to get copyright law changed so that we can lend eBooks in a meaningful way. The other option is to just give up on collections, service, and librarianship.

Sounds reasonable. Sounds bleak for the future of the pBook, whether it’s 5 years or 10.

Awakuni discussed the technology involved in the eBook movement, and also observed that;

What does this mean for libraries? We need to add value to the reading experience on digital devices. How can we offer this up with the tools we have now (can’t). She sees us moving toward a “haiku culture” with digital content. We’re moving away from solitary reading to sensory, social, and arguably more shallow. Libraries have to keep up our eContent for the “haves” and not just the “have nots.” We will definitely see more people preferring the electronic to the print, and what are we doing to meet that demand? Do we know what our patrons want? What formats do they prefer? What categories or genres do they check out most?

Also sounds reasonable, and adds significant demand on already limited library budgets to make eBook readers available to lend.

Bankhead concluded by talking about;

… the role of the public library with eBooks in the future. Books are simply packaged words, a time transfer of knowledge, culture, and entertainment. Books show us what the past was like and what the future may hold. eBooks are just another format and formats change over time. The history of bamboo books in China exceeds in duration the use of paper books. When eBooks first came out in the 1990s, they failed pretty badly and left a bad impression with people due to bad selections, formats, and digital rights management. But now eBooks are becoming popular because of the wide availability of eBook reading devices and apps. … Libraries need to change from curators of predefined collections to distributors of access.

Even more reasonable, and a perspective we’ve heard for many years now, the eBook is just another format – the fundamentals of librarianship have not changed. Or, have they? And, will the eBook be beyond the acquisition capability of libraries?

The Positive Opinion Regarding the pBook

The technology review I noted at the beginning is from “Technology Review: Published by MIT” by Christopher Mims, “a journalist who covers technology and science for just about everybody”, in his article also published September 21 titled The Death of the Book has Been Greatly Exaggerated. Mims goes on the record by predicting that eBook expectations have peaked and will be followed by disillusionment.

I’m calling the peak of inflated expectations now. Get ready for the next phase of the hype cycle – the trough of disillusionment. The signs of a hype bubble are all around us. Mostly in the form of irrational exuberance. In Clearwater, Florida, the principle of the local high school recently replaced all his students’ textbooks with latest-gen Kindles – without, apparently, any awareness that formal trials of the Kindle as a textbook replacement led universities like Princeton and Arizona State University to reject it as inadequate.

His graphic illustrates this point very well.

Mims goes on to point out that;

Here’s the reality this kind of hype is up against: back of the envelope calculations suggest that ebooks are only six pecent of the total market for new books. How can that be possible, when Amazon recently said that ebooks are outselling hard-cover books at Amazon.com? Easy: Amazon is only 19 percent of the total book market. Also, Amazon has something like 90 percent of the world’s ebook market.

He justifies his opinion by pointing out that;

The backlash against ebooks by those who aren’t so in love with technology for its own sake has yet to begin, but it’s coming. Ebooks are adequate for reading novels, but the makers of the Kno, (in)famous for being the world’s most gigantic ebook, believe that their technology is the only way to replace the specialized class of books we rely on for our education — textbooks. If they’re right, the experiment in Clearwater, Florida is bound to run into problems.

And as for the death-by-2015 predictions of Negroponte, it’s just as likely that as the ranks of the early adopters get saturated, adoption of ebooks will slow. The reason is simple: unlike the move from CDs to MP3s, there is no easy way to convert our existing stock of books to e-readers. And unlike the move from records and tapes to CDs, it’s not immediately clear that an ebook is in all respects better than what it succeeds.

The Realistic Opinion Regarding the pBook

So, who’s right? Maybe the real future is somewhere in the middle. Probably eBooks won’t take over the whole world of books in 5 years, but eventually it seems reasonable that the eBook will become the format of the 21st Century library (assuming there is one). Will copyright laws change to allow the public library to “lend” (or re-license, or whatever it will be called) eBooks? Probably.

The major question is still – How will the library remain relevant in the 21st Century community? Some will argue that this pBook vs. eBook evolution is just a bump in the road for libraries, a change of format. Maybe. But even so, that doesn’t negate the impact of the education reform that is coming. Have you heard about the “Waiting for Superman” documentary expose’ of the US public education system? You will.

I strongly recommend that the serious librarian who is concerned about their profession’s future and interested in helping to shape that future read both of these resources I’ve highlighted in their entirety. (Thanks to Craig for opening these issues to us all.)

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