November 24, 2017

E-Books: It’s About Evolution, Not Revolution

Karen Coyle assesses both the e-book industry and library e-book experiments

This June, Gemstar announced that it would no longer produce e-books for the Rocket eBook Reader and would withdraw support for that device in 2006. While this decision signals the end of an era for e-books—and the demise of what was a darned good e-book reading device—it does not, by any means, mark the end of the e-book itself.

At some future date, the Rocket Reader may be looked upon as the Apple Newton of e-book readers. The Newton was the first handheld personal information manager, and although it had a small number of loyal users, most people asked, “Who wants a computer you can hold in your hand?” Today tens of millions of people keep their lives organized in computing devices the size of cigarette packs. Others surf the web and read email on the even smaller screens of their cell phones. The Newton, however flawed, was ahead of its time.

Similarly, criticisms of the Rocket Reader showed our discomfort with the e-book concept. A common statement, usually voiced by someone who would not dream of leaving the house without a book in hand, was, “Who wants to carry around a special device to read books on?” Another was, “Who wants to read on a screen?” Yet we all read on screens, probably more than we acknowledge, as we get more and more news and much of our professional reading from the web.

The Rocket made the e-book obvious. Although it was about the size and weight of a hardback book, it seemed like more of a “device” than ink on bound paper, also a text delivery technology. The Rocket had the audacity to call itself a book, but it lacked “bookness” for most devoted readers.

Rocket represents the first phase of e-books. The e-book hype of the 1990s, promising huge libraries of electronic books available to everyone, everywhere, all the time, burst along with the rest of the dot-com bubble. Nevertheless, the Rocket story reminds us that we are still in the experimental stages of presenting and consuming lengthy texts in digital format. There is no question that we aren’t there yet, wherever “there” may turn out to be.

Text and Sound

Microsoft’s Reader software is still presented as a separate product from other document viewers, but it has changed in other ways over its lifetime. The MS Reader now integrates text-to-speech capabilities with a mechanical but reasonably clear voice. Words are highlighted as they are read, allowing a sighted user to follow along with the spoken words. (There is potential for this as a literacy tool.) The MS Reader also can play commercially produced audiobooks that are available in digital formats. Within the MS Reader’s library, textual digital books and audiobooks sit on the same virtual shelves in the user’s library.

The blend of text and sound is a capability that we cannot contemplate with the paper book. Its greatest support comes from the communities serving the visually impaired and learning disabled. In March 2002, NISO members passed a standard for the coding of digital talking books (DTBook). Defined as an XML document, the DTBook format is designed to be very flexible both for accessibility needs and types of documents. The DTBook format is primarily in use by members of the DAISY Consortium, an international organization with broad membership among organizations dedicated to bringing talking books to readers who need them. When the U.S. Department of Education was seeking to formulate a best practice for accessible digital instructional materials for students with disabilities, the well-developed DTBook standard was already available. The DTBook standard is now also the standard National File Format for accessible curriculum materials. Significantly, the DTBook format can also serve readers with no accessibility issues, which makes it a potential format for mainstream digital materials as well.

E-books: a growing niche

E-book sales were counted separately for the first time in 2002, and although it is a small portion of trade publishing’s $26 billion sales revenue, e-books accounted for $3.3 million in sales. While only a small percentage of what publishers earn on such categories as religious books or standardized tests, e-book sales is one of the few growth areas in publishing. After peak sales in the late 1990s, book sales have been dropping in most sectors. The American Association of Publishers (AAP), leading off an otherwise glum report for April 2003, announced that sales of e-books for that month were up 268.3 percent, with a sales total of $900,000.

This figure doesn’t include those e-book solutions that present open collections of books for unlimited access, such as ebrary or Books24x7 offer. It also doesn’t include all of the public domain titles that exist at sites like Project Gutenberg or the University of Virginia Electronic Text project. Nor do we have any aggregated accounting of the number of e-books that were borrowed from libraries, either on those now-orphaned Rocket devices or through netLibrary. The Open e-Book Forum, the main industry group for e-books, is making an effort to produce both sales and usage statistics for e-books, although the emphasis will be on trade publications.

E-books are only a small revenue stream for its members, but AAP has put significant effort into understanding the legal, economic, and technology issues from the publishing industry’s point of view through its “Digital Policy/E-book Project.” With diminishing sales of hardcover books, AAP recognizes that the development of a new market for digital books can benefit its members. AAP also understands that an immature product and a chaotic marketplace are not ideal for the health of the publishing industry. Admittedly, some of the interest is defensive—the publishing industry has a healthy fear of the problems that have plagued the music industry, like Napster. The hope is to move into the digital age with a good business plan.

The Association of American University Presses also recognizes electronic publishing as a potential future direction. Columbia University, University of California, MIT, National Academies Press, and others are experimenting with offering all or part of their active book lists online. An early report that free online access to the full text of their e-books actually increased sales raised hopes within that highly specialized community that the online collection was a new marketing technique.

Integrating the e-book

A good test of a new technology is whether it integrates with more established technology or whether its newness sets it apart from the day-to-day in our lives. The Rocket Reader seems to have suffered the “like a sore thumb” syndrome, but other e-book technologies are beginning to play well with others in the technical ecology.

One example is the Glassbook Reader software, which Adobe acquired in 2000 and rewrote as the Adobe E-book Reader in 2001. Early this year, the ubiquitous Adobe Acrobat Reader was updated to a new version (6.0), which replaces both the original Acrobat Reader and the Adobe E-book Reader. Version 6.0 incorporates many of the features of the e-book reader such as a bookshelf, annotating capabilities, and copyright protection for commercial e-books. The distinction between a PDF file that is an e-book and a PDF file that is, well, any other kind of document, will be less obvious to users of Acrobat Reader 6.0. This essentially “mainstreams” the e-book, making it a product line that most of us consider part of the basic tool kit of online document delivery—a significant development from a company as influential as Adobe.

The device dilemma

Just what to use to read an e-book is still an issue. There is near universal agreement that reading an e-book on a standard computer screen while connected to the Internet is not the reading experience users seek. In 2002, computer makers announced the tablet PC, a laptop computer with a screen that acts like a virtual piece of paper. The tablet screen can be held like a notepad and can be used to take hand-written notes. It was also presented as an e-book reading device. So far, however, tablet PCs do not seem to have captured the market; it appears that a two- to three-pound, $2000 machine is not what people want as an e-book reader.

People want to have their e-book on a portable device, preferably one that they have with them anyway. For many, that device is a handheld computer that fits easily into a coat pocket. About 60 percent of the e-books sold today are in Palm Reader format, which exists for Windows, Macintosh (8.6 and up), Palm OS, and Pocket PC. Another large percentage is in MS Reader format, which runs on handheld devices with the Windows CE operating system.

These files can also be read on full-sized computers, but, clearly, people gravitate to a digital book they can easily carry with them. Still, the ideal portable device has eluded the computer industry.

Serving library users—offline

Companies in the e-book market focus on libraries because libraries buy books and services and because they are where the reading public gathers. For companies that already have an e-commerce solution for the sales of e-books, providing library lending is a logical next step.

An online book sale requires the exchange of a “token” (credit card number) that can be verified as valid. The book is then transferred to the user’s computer with certain protections in place that prevent the user from providing a usable copy to others. Change the credit card number to a library card number, add an expiration date to the protections that exist, and you have the beginnings of a library lending system.

Two e-book technology companies, Adobe and OverDrive, have recently announced solutions for libraries. The Adobe Content Server allows libraries to lend books to their patrons via Adobe PDF format on personal computers and handhelds. These books are in the same format as the ones sold through online bookstores. The Adobe technology is behind both netLibrary and Baker & Taylor’s (B&T) e-book lending functions.

If OverDrive is not a household name it is because the company’s technology generally powers other brand names. OverDrive provides the functionality behind the window dressing of many e-book sales sites on the web, including Yahoo! and Barnes & Noble. OverDrive’s technology allows the sale and transfer of e-books in any of their popular formats. It also allows the seller to set file protection and other conditions of the sale.

These capabilities translate well into library solutions, and OverDrive recently began marketing a library e-book server that is like a virtual shelf that libraries can fill with e-books they have purchased (or other digital documents they have obtained or created, such as government documents or local archives). Notably, OverDrive allows public libraries to deliver the sort of popular, frontlist titles that users expect. This library solution is now in use at the CLEVNET Library Consortium, Cleveland, and King County Library System, WA.

Another e-book sales company, FictionWise, has developed a library solution called LibWise that allows users to download e-books onto their handheld devices using an infrared beam from a computer at the library (as in “beaming” with a Palm Pilot). Users can also download these books from home through their computers and then load them onto the device. Access to these books expires at the end of the lending period, as with the other library lending solutions.

The format Babel

E-books can be loaned to a computer in the user’s home or office, or to a handheld or portable computing device. The user can read the book off- or online, in whatever environment. Choice, however, creates something of a dilemma for libraries. There are dozens of different e-book formats, and a handful of them serve the majority of “mainstream” e-book consumers. But none of them serves everyone.

Microsoft’s MS Reader only runs on machines with a version of the Windows operating system. This includes the handheld devices running Windows CE but doesn’t cover Macintosh computers or Palm OS handhelds. The Adobe Reader is available for a wide range of devices including Macintosh, Linux, and Palm OS. However, the Adobe Reader cannot run on older Palm OS devices, and the files in that format are much larger than the simple files that the Palm Reader accepts.

Ideally, a library could purchase the e-book content and deliver it in whatever format the user desires, but that is not how it works. To have an e-book in both Microsoft Reader and Adobe Reader formats a library would have to purchase two copies of the e-book. The same is true for other formats such as the Palm Reader. And if a library decides to standardize its e-book offerings on a single platform, not all books that are produced in e-book format will be available because some publishers have not contracted with all of the e-book distribution services. In this still immature market, delivery format is part of the competitive edge that companies are experimenting with, and each format is considered a separate product by publishers and distributors.

Searchable collections

We tend to think of e-books as individual texts, analogous to books, each separate and individually contained. There is another view of e-books that is similar to our view of the World Wide Web: a body of texts that can be treated either as a single unit or a kind of database. This is the model of ebrary and Books24x7, two online systems that offer an integrated collection of e-books that can be searched, viewed, and used as jumping off points for further research. netLibrary has also recently added this capability: the books that a library has purchased, as well as the public domain books that netLibrary carries, can be searched as one full-text database.

The ability to turn a collection of books into a searchable whole is ideal for the reference collection. Ovid, a database vendor, has used its database technology to turn reference books into their logical units for searching and for display. These digital reference books can be updated “in place” and on more frequent schedules than printed versions of the same works.

ABC-CLIO’s new e-book collection contains 300 reference titles. Over the next five years it will be issuing each of its books simultaneously in digital and paper formats, in order to build comprehensive subject collections in key areas. Libraries can purchase individual titles or an entire collection.

Gale’s Virtual Reference Library, available in late 2003, will have both book and database views for the works in its collection. In the book view, the titles will have tables of contents, indexes, and lists of illustrations linked to pages in the book. In the database view, the user will retrieve an individual entry that can be printed or emailed, similar to an online article. The interface will include many of the capabilities that reference librarians and expert searchers have come to expect in an online search system such as a search history.

Linking out

The e-book collection can be further expanded with broader search and linking services. netLibrary is working on ways to allow its collections to be included in metasearch options that libraries employ against other networked resources such as abstracting, indexing, and full-text databases. The University of California’s eScholarship project is experimenting with using OpenURL to link bibliographies and citations within the online University of California Press books to the university’s union catalog and to the many licensed resources of the library.

Books in the ebrary collection can interact intelligently with a variety of reference sources. In this way, the networked e-book becomes open to a whole range of web services, and the e-book loses its standalone identity and becomes part of a whole matrix of information resources.

That’s an e-book?

It is likely that if you ask users of these services if they read e-books, some of them would say no, and they would be right—in a way. One company representative referred to this approach as “research, not reading.” No one really expects users to read whole books online, but some librarians and library users are discovering the great reference value of being able to do keyword searching within a set of books. This integration of full-text searching with other search capabilities offered by libraries will not seem revolutionary to library users who take full-text searching for granted through their exposure to the web and large, full-text databases from vendors. It has, however, the capability to revolutionize the work of the library’s reference staff, allowing them to dig deeper into the collection than they ever have before.

Digitizing books allows them to be used in a variety of different ways. The same books can be presented both as standalone texts with virtual covers or decomposed into keywords in a mix with other digital texts. Individual chapters from textbooks or entries from encyclopedias can be integrated with online courseware or added to a professor’s web-based syllabus. Publishers are experimenting with new models, such as the custom textbooks professors can create using McGraw-Hill Primus Online.

Working with library models

With B&T’s E-Content Delivery System (ED), librarians can buy e-books through the same library vendor they use for books. In fact, ED allows librarians to purchase books and make them available for loan in Adobe PDF format. The books are also available online in HTML format for browsing and short-time viewing on a library-branded web site.

This model was pioneered by netLibrary, a company that was new to the library market only a few years ago but whose name is synonymous with e-books to many librarians. Now owned by OCLC after a period of economic instability, netLibrary was the first company to systematize the lending of digital books, but in a model that mimicked that of the one book, one loan model of libraries. To many it seems incongruous to treat a digital file like a physical object, i.e., a book that is out on loan is not available to other users, but this satisfies publishers’ desire to limit simultaneous uses to the number of copies that the library has purchased.

This lending model also helps libraries integrate e-books with their book collection. Both netLibrary and ED imitate the circulation function of library systems, allowing libraries to set short circulation times for reference books and longer times for nonfiction and fiction. These systems produce statistics not only on circulation but also on usage and turnaways. You know every time a book is browsed and every time a user tries to access a book that is off the virtual shelf.

Where’s Harry?

You can’t write about books today without at least one mention of Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling, the author of that famous series, has not (yet) given permission for the Harry Potter books to be produced in e-book format. Yet a pirated version of the latest tale of wizardry was downloaded in Asia, where the printed text would not arrive for many months. Knowing that some eager fans have gone to the effort of pirating Rowling’s books, rekeying the text, can be taken as proof that there is real demand for books in electronic form.

Few books will match Harry Potter’s superstardom. However, other circumstances can fuel the demand for books that can be accessed as easily as any web page, such as serving distance education, bringing robust collections to rural communities, or adding virtual shelves to an overcrowded urban branch library. We can all expect the next decade to be a rich one for the evolving e-book.

About Karen Coyle

Karen Coyle ( is a librarian with over thirty years of experience with library technology. She now consults in a variety of areas relating to digital libraries. As a consultant she works primarily on metadata development and technology planning. She is currently investigating the possibilities offered by the semantic web and linked data technology.