E-books and Their Use


While electronic books in various formats have been around for quite a few years, they have become popular only very recently. This is particularly evident in comparison with electronic journals, which have been a huge success in libraries (particularly academic institutions). This, however, is currently changing considerably, largely due to the appearance of hand held e-book readers, which have radically changed the user experience. This article discusses the factors behind publishing trends for electronic books and journals.

E-books, Their Use by the Public and Through Libraries

Elhanan Adler

While electronic books in various formats have been around for quite a few years, they have become popular only very recently. Even today, their use in libraries is quite limited. This is particularly evident in comparison with electronic journals, which have been a huge success in libraries (particularly academic institutions) to the extent that current print periodicals have virtually disappeared from most academic libraries, and backsets are also rapidly being weeded out in favor of digital versions. For example, in the last ten years the number of electronic journals subscribed to by Israeli academic libraries has increased from about 6,000 to over 30,000, and the number of unique institutional subscriptions (title x institution x publisher/aggregator[1]) stands at over 600,000. By comparison, the number of e-books available in Israeli academic libraries is very small, and most are links to free books and not current trade publications.

This trend, however, is currently changing considerably, to the extent that it is common to speak of 2009 as “year zero” of e-books, ignoring all that came before. This is largely due to the appearance of hand held e-book readers, which have radically changed the user experience.

E-books and e-journals are read differently, and subsequently differ in the way publishers see them relative to the user community. In e-journals, individual articles are generally read; these articles comprise a small number of pages that can be read on a normal vertical computer screen without major discomfort. Many readers also use the electronic journal primarily as a means of selection and delivery, sending interesting articles to a local printer to be read in print. Such selective printing is allowed under library licensing conditions. Reading an e-book, however, often involves consecutive reading of dozens or hundreds of pages, which can be very tedious from a vertical screen. Publishers of e-books are also concerned over loss of control over use of the books, and therefore, do not allow extensive copying or printing.

In discussing e-books, we must distinguish between different types of e-books and their purposes. The earliest e-books were simply static versions of print books keyed into the computer (as pioneered by Project Gutenberg) or later scanned and converted to electronic text by optical character recognition (OCR) software. These projects were limited to public domain (out of copyright) texts, which have no licensing restrictions. Thus, it is has been possible for many years to download a free complete version of any of Shakespeare’s plays. While it is questionable whether the  experience of trying to read such a work in its entirety in a plain  format is a pleasant one, such a text could be easily used for searching for particular text, or for copy-pasting sections into another textual file (as in a student paper). An Israeli example of such texts can be found in the Ben-Yehuda project, which recently added the writings of the poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik, after copyright on his works expired.

With the advent of reasonably priced scanning equipment, many libraries began creating “Digital Surrogates” of works in their collections—particularly rare items, which were not generally made available to the public. The libraries’ purpose in this was often preservation: providing a digital copy to readers prevented wear and danger to the rare originals, but once these works were scanned, they could be made available to the public at-large at no additional expense or effort. Since rare library materials are usually quite old, and therefore in the public domain, there have been no copyright issues involved in such projects.

Many libraries and archives have made major investments in digitizing unique materials, which are now available world-wide and not only to a small group of scholars, creating a significant “democratization of information.” Subsequently, Google also joined this activity with “Google Books,” scanning millions of books from the collections of participating libraries. Google did not limit itself to public domain publications and claimed that it was legal to scan in-copyright works as long as they were not made fully accessible to the public. This claim has been the subject of litigation for several years, and an agreement reached between Google and some of the rights holders was recently rejected by an American court. It should be noted that while “Google Books” has made all its public domain material freely accessible, Google is a commercial company, and there is no iron-clad guarantee that this policy will continue or even that Google will maintain the project in the future. From this standpoint, there is an advantage in digitization done by libraries and archives, which have a long tradition of preservation and consider this an obligation. In all these cases, the scanned books are visual copies of the print originals although perhaps enhanced with word searching (to the degree that the printed text can be automatically deciphered) and with some zooming capabilities.

Digital Books: More Diverse Than Their Print Equivalents

Recent years have seen the advent of digital books which are more diverse than their print equivalents—books that can be displayed in different fonts and formats, books that can be digitally annotated, underlined, linked to other locations within the book or outside it, for example. Such books can often be read non-linearly, jumping from place to place (which may not be how the author intended the book to be read). Many trade books are available in these formats and major publishers now see this as a central part of their business.

E-books that are within copyright (in Israel, seventy years after the death of the author; similar periods apply in other countries as well) present special problems for publisher, libraries, and the general public.

First and foremost, publishers are concerned with loss of commercial control over their products. While it is technically possible to “borrow” a book and make a photocopy, this is generally considered to be both blatantly illegal and a significant effort; furthermore, the resulting copy is technically inferior to the original (quality of image, paper, binding, etc.). By contrast, copies of digital objects are easy to make and distribute in multiple copies, the copy is technically identical to the original in quality, and there is often a feeling that making copies of digital objects is somehow less “illegal.” Publishers are therefore justifiably concerned that illegal copies may seriously impact the sales of their products (as already is a problem with movies and music). There are currently two major approaches to this problem: supplying access to the book via an aggregator, which provides the reader with streamed access (one page at a time, limited printing capability); or providing the entire work but with digital right management (DRM) built into the digital object to prevent it being copied or to turn it unreadable after a period of time.

Aggregator sites that provide e-books through libraries often use a model copied from the conventional print circulation systems. The library purchases a number of copies of a work and sets its own circulation periods. When a reader requests a book, it is “loaned” to him for a set period during which that copy cannot be used by another reader. Technically, this can be done either by accessing the work at the aggregator’s site or (more popularly lately) downloading a file to the reader’s home computer or hand-held reading device; the file becomes unreadable at the end of the loan period. One publisher has recently gone so far as to require libraries to re-purchase the books after some 25 loans, claiming that a paper copy would have required replacement also after this many loans.

Publishers and Libraries: Love-Hate Relationship

The appearance of hand-held reading devices, such as the Kindle, Nook, and iPad, has raised a major issue between trade publishers and libraries. While academic publishers have traditionally sold primarily to academic and research libraries and continue to do so in the digital era, trade publishers have always had a love-hate relationship with libraries. Public libraries purchase large numbers of popular fiction and non-fiction; however, each copy may serve a large number of readers without any additional income coming to the publishers. In the digital era, when there is no significant cost in creating additional copies of a work (as opposed to the costs of printing, binding, and shipping a conventional book), it may be tempting for publishers to attempt to bypass libraries entirely and sell directly to the public at a very reduced cost. E-book suppliers such as Amazon have not been positively oriented towards libraries, preferring to sell primarily to the general public. Until very recently, Amazon did not even formally allow libraries to purchase e-books on a Kindle and then loan the Kindle to readers.

Preservation (or perhaps lack of it) is another aspect which seems to encourage suppliers to sell e-books directly to the general public. Libraries purchase resources “forever” (or at least until they decide to de-acquisition them). Libraries therefore are concerned that the digital works they purchase will continue to be readable as technologies change. The public is much more forgiving, and if a book purchased is no longer readable after a few years because the format is obsolete, the equipment no longer functions, etc., this is not a major issue—just as people may have collections of video recordings which are no longer viewable on today’s equipment.

Unlike popular publications, academic works are marketed primarily through university libraries, and sales to the general public have always been more limited. Many academic publishers now offer libraries purchase or rental of large collections of their publications, assuming that intensive use of some will be evened out by little or no use of others.

It would appear at this point in time that the publisher-library paradigm with relation to popular trade publications may be changing, and that many publishers would prefer to sell directly to end users, with the work “locked” to a device or to a user account to prevent illegal copying. This may prove much more profitable than selling copies to libraries to be used by multiple readers. As the e-book becomes more and more popular, it will be interesting to see how this relationship develops.

[1]      An aggregator is a commercial service providing access to material belonging to multiple publishers.

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