Library Issues
Editor: Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Ann P. Dougherty
Contributing Editors: Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Steve Marquardt, South Dakota State University; William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Maureen Pastine, Temple University
Vol. 21, No. 2 November 2000


What’s Happening to the Book—
and Why You Should Care

by Jeanette McVeigh


Scenario: It’s 2005 and a young member of the English department is up for tenure. She is one of the leaders in infusing technology into her teaching. She is widely published, or more appropriately self-published, on the Web. Her most recent work received a glowing review in the "New York Times Review of Books." She is engaged in litigation with your university because parts of this electronic book, the more salacious parts, are circulating widely on your university’s computer network. As an "early adopter," she recommended that the library purchase reading devices for her other e-books. After the library invested $20,000 in these devices, the manufacturer folded.

This faculty member also controls the licensing rights to her e-books, and they cannot be lent to other libraries, so if someone wants the book, they, or their library, must buy it. She sells the textbooks she has written via the Web directly to her students throughout North and Central America. Her one book in the old medium, print, has lost its bibliography because the publisher’s website, where the bibliography was stored, is now part of its parent company, a communications conglomerate not much interested in scholarship. Does she get tenure? Before you say "no," find out what you should know before saying, "no".

Technology is changing the artifact we know as a "book” Until a year or two ago, the concept of an electronic book was spoken of as something in the more distant rather than the near future. Who would want to read a 350-page monograph on the best monitor on the best PC? Who would want to take the lightest, most portable of laptops to the beach for a summer’s read? That’s not the case any more. Improvements in reading devices and multiple methods of delivering the electronic text to the consumer have shortened the timeline. Once exclusively the topic of speculation in computer and Internet magazines, the electronic book has become front-page news.

What is an Electronic Book?

There are several answers. Some would distinguish between electronic texts and electronic books but the lines of demarcation are changing so rapidly that "e-book" is frequently used for both. Digitized texts, transferable over the Internet, have been around for a while. Project Gutenberg, the ongoing creation of digitized versions of public domain classics, offers ASCII compressed files for downloading. Through Project Gutenberg, in the days before graphical user interfaces, the works of Shakespeare were on the Internet and were searchable word-for-word. If you knew file transfer protocol, had the right software to unzip the file, and had the time, you could download the re-keyed text from a distant computer to your PC. If everything went well you could read the text on your old monitor with orange type on a black background. This was very hard on the eyes and it highlights one of the obstacles that had to be overcome in bringing the book into the realm of cyberspace. Books are perfect just they way they are. Despite these early limitations, the idea of putting the text of books into electronic format and particularly for using the Internet as a method of delivery, was there for exploiting.

Thirty years later, the graphical interface, hyperlinked capability of the Web, faster communications and faster computers took the electronic book a giant step further. Storing the electronic text for the user to read at a central website, to "borrow" the book for a set period of time, assuaged the copyright fears of academic and commercial publishers. It also followed the old library model of the "checkout" time. In these texts too, all the words are searchable and, even better, you can search the text of all the books in the "collection." Chapter headings, in HTML format, become links to the chapter’s text. The netLibrary company, the most frequently cited example of this type of electronic book service, has entered into agreements with libraries and library consortia to provide electronic titles to public and academic libraries. The largest and most noteworthy agreement is a one million dollar purchase from the University of Texas.

What is a "Reader"?

The version of the e-book garnering the most attention right now is the one designed for a special device called a "reader." Text is loaded onto a device about the size of a book or somewhat larger. Readers can hold the full text of many books. They run on rechargeable batteries. While the industry estimates the number of reader devices at only about 30,000, they project in five years there may be as many as 28 million, yes, million. Some of the more enthusiastic users of e-book devices are business travelers who can load many texts onto a device that neatly fits into a suitcase. Two major drawbacks of the readers are that the text cannot be printed out and must be read on the device and the text can only be read exclusively on the reader. It cannot be downloaded to a PC or any other device. The readers range in price from a high of $600 to a low of $199. These "locked" readers will have more competition shortly as one company brings to market a palm-sized device that can store e-books, play MP3 music files and perform personal organizer functions.

In contrast, many in the publishing industry would agree, that a standard file and format structure, readable on any type of device from a book-type reader to a PC, laptop or personal assistant device, would speed the adoption of electronic books. NetLibrary’s approach of one user per copy, with the actual text residing at the provider’s web site and limited printing is one solution to the fears of intellectual property infringement. The publishing industry’s apprehension that consumers will be making copies of e-books for their friends, the way they presently make copies of movies, is still very real.

Different Ways to Publish

Publishing directly on the Web. Anyone can publish on the web and some e-businesses have taken this to their entrepreneurial hearts. In an arrangement that bypasses the long road to print, authors can publish directly to the web. These e-businesses set the author’s book in a format appropriate for downloading and/or printing out and make it available to the public on a company website. The author sets the price of the work, pays a nominal monthly fee to keep it on the website and the "publisher" and author share the proceeds from the sales. Authors like the autonomy and potential for a larger share of the profits and the format is popular with readers of short forms, such as short stories, serials or novellas. Taking this trend to its extreme, the author can self-publish. If he or she cares to invest in the technology and has the know-how and the time to publicize as well as publish, the author can control everything. The Authors Guild, the largest organization of published authors in the United States, offers a domain name reservation service for authors names and titles and a website promotion service to its members.

Electronic hybrids. Then there are print plus electronic hybrids, which provide print text but incorporate some electronic, web-based element. Publishers are expanding the print-on-demand service to the general public. This is an idea familiar to academics, who have had course texts created from readings from several sources rather than one complete textbook. In this scheme, anyone could go to a photocopy center or bookstore and have a whole book or perhaps only selected chapters printed for a fee after they have chosen the text from the publisher’s website. Publishers would no longer have to estimate the potential market for a book. Ideally, this would mean that a book would never go out of print. Potentially, there would never be another remaindered book. This is an attractive thought to publishers who sometimes see as much as 30percent of a printing returned. It may eventually eliminate the involved and expensive search for out-of-print material.

URL bibliographies. In the same vein of print plus electronic hybrid, some scholarly publishers continue to print the text of the book but put the more time consuming, and hence more expensive bibliographic references, "the scholarly apparatus," at a URL on the publisher’s website. Inside the book is the URL for the bibliography. Gone are the days of flipping to the back of the book to check a source. Now the reader must have a PC or laptop handy to do the same.

Implications for the University

What implications do the many faces of e-books have for the university and the library? As we have seen, some of the ways of using the e-book have been around longer than the buzz about e-books. Let’s begin with the electronic text residing on the e-book provider’s website.

Saving shelf space. Libraries, particularly public libraries, have long been able to "rent" rather than buy books outright. The same is true for this type of e-book. Libraries can purchase perpetual access to the electronic book by paying one price or they can buy, or more appropriately "rent," access for one year at a reduced rate. Even the best library finds it difficult to remove the outdated material on a timely basis. Using this type of e-book, the decision can be made that the book will not be of use beyond a year or two and because it is electronic, it will never take up shelf space and no one will ever have to go to the shelf and remove it. This is especially useful for computer manuals and other time-sensitive material that go through versions or editions frequently. These books cannot be lost or damaged in the way that their paper counterparts can and they never become overdue because they disappear from the borrower’s virtual bookshelf at the end of the borrowing period.

Distance education. Another advantage, especially for distance education proponents, is that the text is available to any authorized user with Internet access. The text is borrowed not from the library but from the e-book company. As mentioned, these electronic texts form a collection that can be searched across titles or full text. This search capability mirrors the way term papers and presentations are researched, a chapter here, a chapter there, rather than whole books at a time. The shortened check out period, usually 24 hours, reinforces this. In the HTML format, linking to video or audio clips within text is possible. Imagine a chemistry text with a video clip of a lab demonstration embedded in the electronic text.

Limited availability. On the negative side, the library still may only buy one access per e-book copy at a time. Only one reader at a time can check the book out and if it happens to be a consortium purchase, the copy may be the shared property of all the libraries in the consortium. Limited printing of the text is allowed. It is intentionally slow. Check out is through the e-book’s provider, not the library. While a record for the book may be a part of the library’s public catalog, the e-book’s availability, whether or not it is checked out, may not. Sharing this resource through interlibrary loan may be expressly prohibited by the licensing agreement and HTML may not be the best delivery format for book-length texts. Then there’s the question of what is "perpetual access" in an ever-changing Internet-based industry, with companies buying other companies, merging or forming strategic alliances daily.

Compatibility Standards

The device-based e-book, the "reader," presents the academic institution with a dilemma similar to the one laptops presented a few years ago. Then, the issue was the explosion in electronic content and how to augment its static "work station" delivery. Now, if the library decides to purchase e-books designed for the "reader" devices, do they buy and "rent out" the devices, as many libraries have done with laptops? Some public libraries have already answered "yes" to this question. At $199 for one of the readers, they certainly are cheaper than a laptop and the devices can change the font size, a boon for low-vision reader. One reader can hold many books, a feature that the industry is counting on to catapult it to that 28 million device figure. If the academic library decides to provide the e-book reader, which one does it buy? Not only do prices differ greatly, but a lack of compatibility standards make deciding which device to chose dicey. Remember beta-max? Can libraries expect the student or faculty member to buy the devices, if the library invests in the books? When enough texts are available as e-books, will students be required to purchase a reader the way some universities require a laptop? At least there will be no more sore shoulders from overloaded bags or backpacks.

Intellectual Property Rights

The print-on-demand concept capitalizes on searching for appropriate parts of a book. Electronic collections already feature this, only this time the end result is in print. While this is already done for college textbooks and the new version is designed for the public, the question arises: will faculty and librarians soon be purchasing chapter by chapter rather than book by book?

What about the other hybrid—the printed text of the book without the bibliography? Disassociating the scholarly text from its referenced framework is a critical issue in scholarship. Does the library place the URL on the bibliographic record in its catalog where the note "bibliography" would be? What will happen when that publisher is bought by or merged with another publisher? Will the URL go the way of many locations on the Web—disappear? And if the URL changes, who will note it on the record and how will they know? Can the new owner of the work be relied upon to pass on the information or even maintain the bibliography’s page if the book itself is out of print? Does this web version belong to the author or the publisher? In the already murky waters of intellectual property rights, this muddies the waters further.

Nagging Questions and Fears

The book, in its many and mixed electronic forms, raises some of the same nagging questions and fears that the Web has raised in other areas.

  • Which one of the forms discussed above will be the Windows of the marketplace?

  • If the library purchases the e-book readers, and the readers can hold many books, how does the library keep track of which book is on which reader?

  • There are staff considerations, too. If the library purchases specialized devices, who recharges the batteries? Who maintains them? Is this one more task to add to the list of duties of the technician or librarian who looks after the public computers and laptops?

  • More philosophically, what do libraries do about print? Are there titles that should be kept in print as well as electronic format? Who will use the print, if they do? Libraries have asked the same question about electronic journals. In that case, they have found that as budgets get tighter and more journals become available, they are canceling print in favor of the electronic.

Changing Relationships

Relationships are changing rapidly. Will academic libraries be bypassed as publishers go directly to the students with a standard package of full text electronic journals and e-books at a per semester price?

As authors seek more control by using the Web as the format and the distribution medium, how will libraries find out about authors’ work? How will the works be evaluated? Who will review them and where will the reviews appear? Current book reviewing sources will no doubt review e-books as well as print. Websites are already attempting to find and review the hardware, software and content of electronic books. How will noteworthy e-books be identified?

The problems search engines experience in searching all of the Web may be the same that librarians and academics will have in finding good electronic texts. The Web’s dynamic nature resists complete inclusion. In the future, the old publisher-centered channels of advertising and promoting forthcoming books may be supplanted by entrepreneurial authors using e-mail and push technology.

Publishing and electronics industry watchers seem to agree that the mix will persist into the near future. The adoption of any one device or format will depend upon the reading public’s awareness and satisfaction with the electronic results.

Innovation and Durability

There is no lack of innovation in the pipeline. Random House and Time Warner have announced that they will create a new e-book imprint. Microsoft has created the ClearType software that claims to enhance the readability of any electronic text. Franklin is marketing a multimedia, palm-sized device that plays audio, displays an e-book and acts as a personal organizer.

NetLibrary has created its own e-book reader software and has entered the print-on-demand arena. In comparison with the vast number of books in print, few electronic titles exist in any one format but that is changing. Barnes and Noble has promised to make available its entire catalog for print-on-demand. NetLibrary has over 20,000 titles and adds more each day.

Finally, the book has been a durable, reliable method of delivering complex information, old and new ideas and just plain enjoyment for 500 years. With so many electronic formats vying for attention, can any contend that they will be that durable? Can we really believe, as has been promised, that nothing will go out of print? Can any web-based company be counted on to provide anything in perpetuity and what form will that perpetuity take?

Jeanette McVeigh is Electronic Resources Coordinator at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.

Mountainside Publishing, Inc. Library Issues: Briefings for Faculty and Administrators (ISSN 0734-3035) is published bimonthly beginning September 1980 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc., 321 S. Main St., #213, Ann Arbor, MI 48104; (734) 662-3925. Library Issues, Vol. 21, no. 2. © 2000 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc. Subscriptions: $75/one year; $140/two years. Additional subscriptions to same address $25 each/year. Address all correspondence to Library Issues, P.O. Box 8330, Ann Arbor, MI 48107. (Fax: 734-662-4450; E-mail: Subscribers have permission to photocopy articles free of charge for distribution on their own campus. Library Issues is available online with a password at <>

last modified: Oct 2000

Produced by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc.