The Future of eBooks in Libraries: The Coming Revolution for the Book

“Das Buch ist nicht tot!”  The book is not dead.  So reads a sign in old German typeface which hangs in my cube, given to me awhile back by one of my librarian colleagues.

And while that sentiment may well be accurate, we’re nonetheless at the beginnings of a sea-change for the book, probably the most dramatic change since the invention of the printing press in the 15th century.  For the “codex” (the basic format of the modern book with separate pages bound together, which supplanted scrolls by the 6th century AD) is at last beginning to be displaced — by a book in digital form.

In case you don’t know, they call these new digital or electronic books “ebooks.”     

Late last month, journalist and media expert Ken Auletta published a much talked about article in the New Yorker which addresses the pricing of ebooks and how this has been especially influenced by competition between Amazon and Apple.  Though Auletta estimates ebooks to represent no more than 3-5% of book sales at present, sales grew 177% last year and could eventually account for 25-50% of all book sales.  Obviously, whoever can control the ebooks market can make a lot of money.     

Auletta tells a fascinating story.  For the last several years, Amazon, as he recounts, has been selling ebooks which can be viewed on Amazon’s own reading device called the Kindle.  It’s now estimated there may be as many as three million Kindles out there. 

But in order to gain market share and sell Kindles, Amazon was actually selling ebooks for less ($9.99) than they were paying for them ($13.00).  Publishers felt this was too low and would eventually hurt their profits by devaluing ebooks.  And they were also concerned about an Amazon monopoly.         

To the publishers’ rescue has thus come Apple and its much ballyhooed iPad, which, among other things, can also function as an ebook reader.  Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs has managed to fashion an agreement with five of the six top U.S. publishers to price ebooks at what is for them a more satisfactory $14.99.  (Giving publishers control over pricing is referred to as the “agency model.”)  In addition, the iPad offers a multi-media potential which the Kindle lacks — for example, with an iPad you could be reading a book and then link to an associated video clip.     

Also in the future ebooks equation is Google and their Google Books project.  Google, as many of you will know, has digitized millions of books.  Though the project, which has ambitions to be literally the largest library in the world, has become bogged down in litigation over copyright and other issues, there are nonetheless plans to open an ebooks store called Google Editions later this year.  Google will allow the publishers to set their own prices for ebooks, and Google’s ebooks have the advantage of being readable on any device.       

How all of this will ultimately shake out (as well as how quickly) is unclear.  As Auletta pointed out in a follow-up interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Apple’s iTunes application (introduced in 2001) challenged the free-for-all/pirating culture of the internet by introducing the notion of paying for content.  Now, much as with the music business, publishers are seizing upon another Apple development (the iPad) as a way to breathe a new digital life into an “old media” industry which, in order to survive, must somehow be paid for digital content.        

Auletta said nothing about what all this may mean for libraries.  His focus was more upon the symbiotic fates of the publishing industry and independent booksellers.  But there is likely to be an effect upon libraries, and it could be substantial.

First of all, and though print will be the principal medium for books for at least a few more years, we have to assume that ebooks will nonetheless gradually evolve into the medium of choice for many library readers, and they will want free access to these ebooks.  But will libraries be able to afford to provide new fiction and non-fiction bestsellers in digital form to its readers if they must pay publishers $10-15 for each download?

Secondly, if a dedicated device such as an iPad or a Kindle is required to download an ebook, will libraries be able to buy these devices and loan them to patrons who cannot afford them?  And if this proves impractical, how will libraries ensure access to ebooks for less affluent patrons who cannot afford the special devices necessary to view them?      

Another issue is the possibility that some publishers (or even authors themselves, bypassing publishers) may go straight to digital publishing, perhaps not even producing print editions of books.  Digital publishing, as a music industry phenomenon for example, drove many retail music sellers out of business.  How can libraries ensure that the same fate does not befall them and the digital divide between information haves and have-nots does not widen even further?

Lastly, even if libraries are able to resolve ebook access problems, there will still be information literacy issues.  Patrons, many of whom may have inadequate computer skills, must be taught how to download ebooks and use the devices necessary to view them.                    

Of the options which libraries will undoubtedly explore in their efforts to provide access to ebooks, one will likely be the formation of consortia.  Consortia afford a model whereby libraries can share costs and jointly provide access.  Even now, through the NCLive network, Greensboro Public Library and most other libraries across the state of North Carolina have access to tens of thousands of full text newspaper, magazine, and journal articles, as well as books and even videos.  And several thousand audio and electronic books are already available through the North Carolina Digital Library

As for the special devices needed to view many ebooks (if indeed the necessity of a dedicated device, contra Google, becomes the norm), it does seem likely that the cost of these devices should drop dramatically over time — much as other technologies such as calculators, televisions, etc. — and perhaps much sooner than we think.

Here at Greensboro Public Library, information literacy is already a major focus, and each week our reference staff teach classes on how to use personal computers, the internet, Microsoft Word, and so forth.  As we move further toward a future in which the use of ebooks will be commonplace, we will probably need to incorporate classes on how to use ebooks and/or dedicated ebook readers into our already intensive information literacy efforts — at least during the coming period in which virtually all of us will have to transition from print to digital.         

Anyway, za book may not be dead.  But it’s changing mighty fast, and libraries and librarians need to start thinking about its future before events overtake them.


8 Responses

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by sell ebooks and Jason G, Goodhut. Goodhut said: The Future of eBooks in Libraries: The Coming Revolution for the … […]

  2. I don’t think the ebooks in the library would work its not affordable for the everyday person where they can borrow books for free. Loaning ereader too would be too expensive to replace for libraries.

    • Our local library here in Guelph, Ontario Canada has already begun offering a variety of e-books for free over their library server. It’s only a matter of time, before Google scans all the paper back books in the world, and charge whatever price they feel like to anyone interested in reading in e-book format.

      I think libraries should think what the future of media will be? Look at cable TV which is going the way of horse and buggy (save local TV campaigns were running all summer in 2009). Why should someone in a lower income category fork over $40/ month for basic cable, only to be told when to watch their favorite programs and smothered in ads, when on demand TV shows over the Internet can be viewed for free.

      Who would think Blogging and Tweeter and FREE News on the Internet would do in the magazine and newspaper industry?

      Something to think about next time you visit your local library!

      One more thing, Best Buy will be offering downloadable versions of their latest movie releases, to their customers, beginning in 2010 and they predict sales will surpass DVD rentals by 2012.

      If you would like to know the future of transportation email me!

  3. […] on E-books and the Future of Books Posted on July 19, 2010 by pdurham000 In a follow-up to our recent post on the future of electronic books and libraries, check out this neat article from the LA Times about all the innovative ways books are being […]

  4. eBook-Verkauf leicht gemacht


    Der amerikanische eBook-Markt hebt endgültig ab – wenn
    auch noch auf vergleichsweise überschaubarem Niveau. Innerhalb
    von zwölf Monaten explodierten in den Staaten die Umsätze
    mit elektronischen Büchern um 228%. Ermittelt wurden die
    Zahlen vom International Digital Publishing Forum (früher
    “Open eBook”), einem Lobbyverband zahlreicher Publisher und
    Händler. Im Vorstand des IDPF sitzen unter anderem Vertreter
    von Adobe, Random House und Overdrive.
    Die renommierte GfK-Gruppe (ermittelt u.a. auch die TV-Einschaltquoten)
    legte heute spannende Daten zum deutschen
    eBook-Markt vor.
    Demnach wurde in Deutschland im ersten Halbjahr dieses
    Jahres rund 65.000x für eBooks Geld bezahlt. Der Großteil dieser
    Verkäufe dürfte dabei auf das zweite Quartal entfallen, kam
    der “Marktmotor” Sony Reader doch erst Mitte März in den
    Die Verlagsgruppe Randomhouse etwa vermeldete hierzulande
    seitdem mehr eBook-Umsätze als in den vorigen drei Jahren
    (Zitat /Quelle:

    eBook Verkauf hat einen entscheidenden Vorteil gegenüber
    den herkömmlichen Vertriebswegen: Nämlich keinen persönlichen
    Kundenkontakt. Wie Sie selber sicherlich wissen, entscheidet
    Sympathie, die man dem Verkäufer gegenüber empfindet,
    oftmals über den Kauf oder Nicht-Kauf eines Produktes.
    Die Sache verhält sich beim eBook Vertrieb jedoch gänzlich anders.
    Denn hier entscheidet der Kunde in erster Linie über den
    Nutzen, den er mit Erwerb Ihres eBooks erzielt. Sowie anhand
    der Verkaufsseite, über die Sie Ihr eBook anbieten. Was die Sache
    jedoch auch nicht unbedingt leichter machen muss. Denn
    neben einem guten eBook, einer verkaufsfördernden Webseite
    stehen Ihnen im Internet eine große Anzahl an Mitbewerbern
    im Wege, die Ihnen einen erfolgreichen Verkauf sehr schnell
    verbauen können. Eröffnen Sie beispielsweise einen Buchhandlung
    in Ihrem Ort oder Ihrer Stadt, so ist die Anzahl der Mitbewerber
    auf Ihr lokales Gebiet begrenzt. Anders jedoch im Internet.
    Hier stehen Ihnen nicht nur eBook Shops als Mitbewerber
    gegenüber, sondern auch die Webseiten, die ähnliche oder gleiche
    Suchbegriffe auf Ihren Homapages beinhalten, die möglicherweise
    auch Ihr eBook bzw. Ihren Shop beschreiben. Und so
    stehen Sie oft sehr schnell vor folgendem Problem: Sie haben
    zwar ein hervorragendes und informatives eBook, eine ansprechende
    und verkaufsfördernde Webseite – ABER keiner findet

    Sie. Und so zerplatzt die Illusion eines erfolgreichen eBook-Vertriebes
    oft schneller als sie gekommen ist.
    Genau mit dieser Problematik befasst sich dieser Ratgeber.

    eBook-Verkauf leicht gemacht

    Wenn Ihr Interesse an diesem Ratgeber habt folgt dem Link.

  5. […] hier den Beitrag weiterlesen: The Future of eBooks in Libraries: The Coming Revolution for the … […]

  6. You didn’t even address the issue of making the eBook experience just as practical as the physical book experience. For example, the eBook system has not yet figured out how I can transfer ownership of a purchased eBook, just as I can give a physical book away. This and other practical issues (i.e., loaning an eBook, selling an eBook) will have to be figured out before the eBook revolution can truly be complete.

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