Monday, February 8, 2010

E is for evil

E-books aren't evil necessarily. They can be a convenient way to read, and digital books will make an enormous wealth of literature and knowledge available. But there are some important downsides. Here's a summary.

There are a number of great benefits to e-books, especially from an academic perspective:
  • Access. E-books provide easy and instant access to huge numbers of books - especially books in the public domain. Whereas in the past you had to hunt for these, or, in more recent years, read them online, now they are portable on e-readers, which make them convenient and easy to read and carry around.
  • Markability. Some e-readers give you the ability to write in the book without feeling guilty. This ability is really important for concentration, comprehension, and memory.
  • Read-aloud. Some e-readers will read a book aloud. This is great if you prefer to listen to your books, and especially for the visually or reading-impaired.
  • Storage. For travelers especially, e-readers allow you to carry around a whole bunch of books, easily. They free up shelf space. This is most important for libraries; e-books will allow libraries to offer many more books to their clients without straining storage space.
  • Library books. Many public libraries now offer e-books that you can download online. They are easy to sign out without visiting the library, and easy to return: they just become disabled after the loan period ends.
  • Competition. E-books offer some competition to regular books, which hopefully will have a positive effect on prices. There seems to be relatively healthy competition between online stores selling e-books, with the exception of cases of vertical tying, as I'll discuss further below.
  • Newspapers and magazines. Many newspapers and magazines are available for the Kindle, while some - though fewer - are available at the Sony e-book store. E-subscriptions could create a new and much-needed revenue stream for newspapers and magazines - and, it's a very convenient way to receive them.
  • Royalties. E-book vendors such as Amazon give a far greater percentage of royalties to publishers and authors than what authors recieve on print sales; Amazon just announced that it will offer, on certain conditions, almost 70% of the e-book sale price in royalties to its authors and publishers.
  • Circumventing censorship. E-books can be made available even where print versions are banned. See this post by James Turner.
However, there are also a number of downsides:
  • Online E-books. Although many public libraries now offer e-books online, academic libraries seem to be slower to get on board. Unfortunately, many academic libraries have adopted only a type of e-books that can't be downloaded, but that can only be read using a browser in a special web portal. These, I have found, are almost useless in an academic setting: they can't be underlined, note-taking features are extremely limited, and printing is limited to a very few pages a day - so the articles can't be brought to class. HotBook agrees that this type of e-book is a disaster. So have my students.
  • DRM. Digital Rights Management can be a huge pain for purchasers of e-books, without, it seems, being effective in preventing copyright infringement. DRM seems more effective as an anti-competitive practice than as a mechanism to prevent unauthorized copying; plenty of books are available through unauthorized sources online. Nevertheless, DRM puts up all kinds of barriers to access and convenience. With many DRM-protected e-books, you can't loan your book to a friend. Your e-book becomes tethered to your device - and possibly only certain devices so that, although you may have the capability of reading e-books on both your e-reader and your phone, the book you bought may be restricted to your e-reader device, unplayable on your phone. When you switch to a new device in a few years, you may not be able to take your books with you. Also, as happened to me recently, DRM can be glitchy. Some of my DRM e-books recently became disabled due to a bug in the library-book lending system. Cases like this are very frustrating. These factors could turn many off of e-books.
  • Open Source Software. Many e-books are non-DRM and can be managed using open-source software. Not only is this software free -- it can also be continuously improved by the Open Source Software community. However, DRM e-books cannot be legally used in Open Source Software, meaning that you can end up stuck using whatever software your vendor happens to provide.
  • Vertical tying. Many books are sold that only work on particular devices, preventing owners of Sony e-readers from reading e-books bought at Amazon, and preventing anyone without a Sony e-reader from buying from the Sony e-book store, for example. Here, DRM is used to force customers to buy particular devices and to reduce competition between e-book vendors.
  • Disappearing e-books. Although it's great to be able to access e-books for free with ease from the library, the prospect of disappearing books seems to run counter to the technological possibilities and potential of the technology.
  • Copyright term. The technological expansion of access to books coincides with the extension of copyright terms (the length of time that copyright applies), countering that expansion by blocking off access to books or making them only commercially available.
  • Software limitations. The e-readers and software available now seem very rudimentary: note-taking functions are extremely limited; cut-and-paste functions are often disabled or laden down with copyright notices; and a lot of the software is simple, clunky and buggy.
  • Format. E-books look OK, but they're not exactly beautiful. E-readers don't display colour at this point, and formatting can be a little wonky. Some e-books and documents can be hard to read, even for those with good vision. Limited formatting capabilities may limit the usefulness of e-readers for reading magazines and newspapers. The Apple iTablet offers itself as one exception.
  • Accessibility. Universities have been working with companies to ensure that e-readers are accessible to those who are visually impaired. Although the read-aloud function available on some e-readers is a great step forward, it has been impossible for those who are visually impaired to properly navigate the menus and software functions of the device. Hopefully this will improve soon.
  • Price of books. Many ebooks are very expensive - especially academic books. Taylor & Francis offers many of its books at the ridiculous price of $100-$200. When standards and technology are still in flux, and people change gadgets every two years or so, e-books that you purchase now may only be good for a year or two, either because they are tethered by DRM to your old device, or because standards have changed. Most people can't afford to spend that kind of money on a book that could expire or become incompatible in a year or two. It is especially ironic that academic books should be so expensive, when most academics neither need nor expect to make any significant money through publishing.
  • Price of technology. E-readers are expensive. To large groups of people around the world, they are unaffordable. Mobile phones equipped with e-reading software are one less expensive option. See this post by James Turner.
  • Jobs. E-books could change the employment landscape of the newspaper industry and the publishing industry as a whole - affecting especially those implicated in production and delivery. However, in the case of newspapers, this shift may have already taken place as a result of the online availability of news. In the case of libraries , if the provision of e-books is outsourced, as it now appears to be, library staffing - in cataloging and circulation especially, could change. This is to say nothing of the impact on brick-and-mortar bookstores. The current feeling seems to be that e-books will not replace regular books. Nevertheless, there will very likely be an impact.
  • Environment. Although e-books save paper, the e-reader is yet another consumer electronic device that will be disposed of, create energy costs, and damage the environment.
  • Troubleshooting. Who knew that you'd ever have to call IT to troubleshoot a book?
Let me know what I've missed...

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