I wish I knew. I think that it will be some time before we have eBook technology at a point where it is as ubiquitous as a physical book. There are many issues to be worked out. First is a relatively simple issue of format. We currently have almost as many formats of etexts as there are providers. Each one has it’s own positive and negative attributes, but, for the most part, they all seem to be proprietary for the sake of channeling the revenue stream around ebooks towards each supplier’s own business. There doesn’t seem to be big advantages of one format over another. We’re not talking the difference between a wave audio file, which is essentially uncompressed and an mp3 with has 2/3 of the frequencies removed to make the file smaller. At most, we have text files that are more searchable than others. The real reason behind file format differences is that Amazon doesn’t want you using their ereader to read books purchased elsewhere. They’re in the business of selling books and they need you to buy your books, in whatever format, from them. In this, they are no different from any other ebook seller. Once we have a standard ebook format (or dedicated ereaders that can read multiple formats), then we can start focusing on the books themselves.
The biggest issue in all this for libraries, is that we’re not talking about books. The public libraries around me are lending out ereaders. I think that’s great, to a point. If their goal is to help educate the consumer on different ereader platforms, this is a great way of doing it. If their goal is to deliver books in a digital format, they are completely missing the boat. When you search the catalogue at the public library, you see an ereader with a list of books that are loaded onto it in a note field. I thought that we were in the business of lending books. Shouldn’t one be able to go to the catalogue, search for a title and see that you have a choice of formats to enjoy that book in? Not take out an ereader and hope that there is something that you want to read on it. The focus needs to remain on the books, not the format that they are distributed in. I recognize that this is in some ways also the nature of ebook collections. Most libraries list their ebook on a separate web page from their catalogue and categorize them by distributor (which usually effect which etext format they are digitized in and which reader you can read them in.) Again, we’re taking our focus away from the books themselves. This would be akin to sorting your physical book collection by the place the book was purchased. The end user doesn’t care and nor should they.
The other big issue around ebooks is copyright control. We’ve been through all of this with music for years and we still don’t have it figured out. How do we ensure that the creator of a book (author and publisher) is enabled to continue to focus their energy on creating more books? How will it work that an author can be effectively reimbursed for their time, energy and talent and encouraged to continue to produce great books to read? There has to be some control in an age where books, music, imagery and so much more can easily be distributed, copied and altered. This would be the argument that Amazon would give to the need for a proprietary digital book format. If an entity can control the encoding and distribution of the books, then they can guarantee that the creators get what is due to them. From a library perspective, this significantly hampers the ability to lend out books in the traditional manner that we have done for a century and a half. How can you lend a digital edition of something and know that you will get that one copy back without it being copied or changed? The book retailers and publishers haven’t figured it out yet, hence Amazon’s letter to Buffy Hamilton. There are so many models to be looked at and I’m sure they have all be investigated to some extent. I’m not sure what the answer is. I suppose if I did, I’d be in a position to make my first million! But the business model behind selling and lending ebooks is key to the development of the industry.
Many people are getting frustrated, running away or simply swearing by the comfort of the old physical book. I think that this is an exciting time for books and libraries and this is one of the main reasons that I’m making a significant career change into the world of librarianship. I look again to the music industry. In the late 19th century, you enjoyed music by playing it. You could go to concerts, but if you wanted music in your home, you would have to sing or play the piano. You would have to get intimately involved in it. As great as the recording industry is in many ways, it has given businesses control of musical taste and has allowed a more passive approach to music appreciation. With the current advances in technology and the significant shifts in the music industry, it is much easier and cheaper for people to get involved in an active way in music. Anyone that wants to, can easily and inexpensively create and distribute their own music. Passive listeners now have a much broader spectrum of music that they can listen to and they are in a position to make up their own minds about what is good and bad and where their tastes lie, rather than waiting for Billboard Magazine to tell them. A more active involvement in reading and writing has already begun. More and more people are writing their own material and distributing it themselves. Readers have to wade through more material that me be “of a lesser quality,” but they get to choose what they like instead of a book publisher who has to make a financial commitment based not on what is good, but what will repay the financial investment.
It’s an exciting time to be in libraries and I am eagerly awaiting the next wave!