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.

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