Sunday, August 30, 2009

Future of electronic books difficult to read

The failed promise of digital content – Part 4: Books

The transition from paper books to digital books sounds like a great proposition.
School kids won’t develop back problems from carrying backpacks overloaded with thick textbooks.
People who move won’t have to go through the laborious task of packing box after heavy box of hard-cover and soft-cover books. (Unless they’re collectors.)
Fewer trees will have to be cut down and ground up to make paper.
The advent of electronic book readers like Amazon.com’s Kindle, Sony’s Reader and other devices means that people can store hundreds of books (as well as newspapers and magazines) onto the memory of a portable device. That will make vacation travel lighter for many. It also will reduce the clutter in many homes.
But the future isn’t entirely clear for digitized books.
First you have to buy the e-book reader, which isn’t cheap. Amazon’s market-leading Kindle 2 costs $299. Sony last week lowered the entry-level price for its cheapest e-book reader to $199.
But that doesn’t include content. Digital best-sellers typically cost $9.99.
In the future, will reading be limited to those who can afford digital book readers?
My concerns with digital books have to do with open standards, the role libraries will play and the availability of older content.
Sony made a smart competitive move when it decided to adopt the open Epub format. Sony’s adoption of Epub means that owners of its Reader devices can acquire books from many sources, even public libraries. Open standards also mean the ability to share e-books among devices, such as an e-book reader and a smart phone.
I can only hope that Amazon.com will follow suit.
Many public libraries will let users “borrow” a digital copy of a book for free for 21 days. But libraries have to purchase licenses for those copies, so they’ll have only a limited number of copies to hand out. Still access to digital books through libraries is a very good thing.
It will be interesting to see how libraries balance purchasing digital books vs. physical books. With paper books, they have something to show for their money and to stock on shelves. With digital books, they have only virtual items stored in computer memory.
Another issue is older content. This includes works in the public domain; orphan works, where the owner of the copyright is in question or can’t be located; and old copyrighted works.
Just as with music, movies and TV shows, copyright holders may have little interest in digitizing works where there isn’t an easy payback.
Google has stepped in to fill this niche by digitizing libraries, but its involvement has been highly controversial. Critics don’t want so much content controlled by one corporation. Proponents say Google is the only hope for scanning millions of books and creating a comprehensive digital library because it has the financial resources and the commitment.
(See article “Google Book Search - Is it The Last Library?” at The Register.)

Photo: Sony’s Reader device family

Previous articles in the series “The Failed Promise of Digital Content”:
Part 1: Music
Part 2: Video
Part 3: Newspapers and magazines

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