I know that there has been a lot more interest in eBooks following Amazon’s introduction of the Kindle and Kindle DX, but I was surprised to hear that ebooks, while only making up 3% of the book “publishing” market, represent the fastest growing segment of the book market according to this New York Times article. I wonder if ebooks are beginning the logarithmic rise that mp3s did not too long ago to (almost) replace CDs. MP3s were around for awhile before the firebrand RIO PMP300, and the style-and-function conscious Apple iPod took the stage and catapulted the digital audio file technology into something more than just a new technologically mediated way to listen to music. The iPod with iTunes added a streamlined system for selling, distribution, and portable playback of purchased songs. This, combined with rampant file sharing and a proliferation of inexpensive portable mp3 players, catapaulted mp3s over the walls of the compact disc stronghold. Now, the rows of CDs for sale in big brick-and-mortar stores are dwindling. Will the same be true in the near future for books and bookstores?
Amazon and Interead have reading devices and online ebook stores. Many folks are scanning books and making them available online. It seems like history may be repeating itself with books following the music model of going online–bits and tech replacing words on a published pulp page. I’m weary of this transition, because I like controlling the bits that I own. However, Amazon’s ability to remotely change the way a Kindle works (as in the case of the text-to-speech feature that was killed) leaves me concerned about who controls the device after it is purchased.
Those concerns aside, what does the ebook mean for libraries? Ebooks are much cheaper than books, which would give a library the ability to purchase more of them to satisfy their readers. But, I don’t think the big ebook companies (like Amazon) or publishers want ebooks to follow a lending/reselling model that we’ve enjoyed with real books. With a real book, I can lend it to a buddy, or sell it to someone else. Additionally, lending and reselling may take place indefinitely for the life of the book. This is not possible with the current offering of ebooks. Amazon prohibits lending, and Interead allows you to trade books four times (kind of like Apple’s iTunes model of sharing songs–read more here). Additionally, there is the initial cost of a reader. Electronic paper displays on ebook readers are much easier on the eye than traditional, backlit LCD, but this is a new and apparently costly (I wonder how much of this is licensing and not materials production) technology. The point of libraries is to make reading available to a wide audience, but a greater shift to ebooks may marginalize libraries and their patrons. What solution might the publishing industry offer libraries? What should folks like us demand of the publishing and tech companies in the long term as books transition to the digital realm? This seems like another case of the haves-vs-the-have-nots, and those persons with access to technology will make off with the spoils. However, according to the Wall Street Journal, the homeless (this is not to say that all homeless experiences are the same) have computers and get online (read more here).