E-books are here to stay

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Electronic books are gaining popularity, especially amongst researchers, but there are still challenges ahead, write Tom Wilkie and Sian Harris

E-books are back and this time, they are here to stay. The Online Information conference in London in December was told that, after a couple of decades of hype and false expectations, ‘we might have reached the tipping point with ebooks’.

But the way in which e-books are used could have a big effect on the role of librarians and information professionals, with publishers in effect replacing librarians as intermediaries between reader and content.

According to Jan Palmen, senior vice president of Innodata Isogen, it had seemed obvious as long ago as 1999 that the e-book was just around the corner. Observers had predicted that the market for e-books would be worth $25bn by 2008. In reality, he noted, the trade revenue in 2007 for pure e-books was unlikely to have been any more than $30m.

Whatever the overall figures, e-books seem to have now become an important part of the information-retrieval puzzle for scientific researchers. ‘We have had very good feedback, especially from researchers,’ commented Olaf Ernst, president of eProduct management and innovation of Springer, which has more than 25,000 e-books, many of which are aimed at the scholarly market. For him, the reason behind the popularity of ebooks in research compared with other types of books is simple: ‘Researchers already do their day-to-day work online. In consumer markets you really have to convince them of a different way of reading books,’ he explained.

James Gray, CEO & president of Ingram Digital Group, which has the e-book platform MyiLibrary, agreed. ‘Universities and corporate research libraries are moving to a preference for e-books. They are very familiar with digital content,’ he observed. ‘STM content is very much ahead at the moment but we are starting to see these trends with social-science and humanities books too.’

Ernst: 'Researchers don't care whether the information is in a book or a journal.'

XML gains ground

Despite this enthusiasm amongst researchers, however, there are formidable barriers to the wider acceptance of ebooks. The first issue is that of file format. In the early days, there were as many formats for an e-book as there were players in the market. Even today, publishers are still struggling with which formats and devices to standardise on and ‘What format?’ remains a difficult question to answer, although XML seems to be emerging as a popular choice.

‘We push publishers to think about XML workflow first. You can push that into any workflow. However, there’ll be a huge legacy of PDFs and other files,’ commented Gray. Scott Wasinger, director of business development & operations for OCLC, which provides e-books through its NetLibrary platform, shares this view: ‘There could be arguments for some of the other formats but I think that XML is the way things are going,’ he observed.

‘We are convinced that the ultimate technology will be XML. It is the central building block for e-content,’ agreed Innodata’s Palmen. ‘It will improve access, allowing re-purposing of content.’

But file format is not the only technology question. Palmen warned that the technology will affect the way in which content is presented and that the switch to e-books is more than just a change of delivery mechanism. He pointed out that ‘people are still thinking about e-books without the “e”.’ Even now, some projects are simply providing PDFs electronically, whereas the idea of ‘downloading e-books in printable form runs against the format of e-books’. In his view, it is wrong to think of e-books as a spin-off to paper. ‘E-books have to have the portability of cellphones,’ he said. They exist in an electronic environment and need multimedia support – for example, talking books and video. Why, he asked, should it not be possible for users to buy a book in English but read it in other languages? If e-books are to be successful, readers need to be able to exchange views and opinions about them, and for to create their own personal digital library.

‘The biggest drivers for e-books are availability and price but then you can differentiate them by doing clever things with the content,’ observed Ingram’s James Gray. ‘What these extra features will be depends on what the readers are doing, whether it is leisure reading or using content to learn, where they might need to write notes to each other in class.’

All these technology discussions throw up other issues too. For example, without some level of standardisation or industry cooperation it is hard to develop archiving strategies. Gray sees this as an important challenge: ‘Portico and others involved in journal digital preservation may have a role in archiving,’ he predicted. ‘We are also working with libraries about this.’

Aggregators such as MyiLibrary could potentially play a bigger role in organising and standardising e-book information than they have in the e-journal world. ‘There are no abstracting and indexing services for e-books at the moment,’ pointed out Gray. What’s more, books do not currently lend themselves well to this sort of organisation. ‘Publishers will start to push authors to write abstracts for chapters,’ Gray predicted.

Business models

Innodata’s Palmen believes that ultimately technical details are secondary issues. He said that the content itself is the key and it is the content owners who will determine the survivors. Publishers who hang back risk losing control over content and missing opportunities to generate revenue.

So how do publishers generate revenue from e-books? Olaf Ernst is confident about Springer’s approach to this – annual subscriptions to collections of e-books with tier-based pricing depending on the size of the institution, with no limits on concurrent usage and full archiving rights to the content that has been purchased. ‘We think that our business model is very successful. We have had lots of good feedback,’ he said. Springer has integrated its e-books with its e-journals on its SpringerLink platform. ‘It’s become more and more obvious that researchers don’t really care whether the information they use is in a book or a journal,’ said Ernst. Unlike the usual approach to journal subscriptions, however, Springer’s e-books and print books are sold as separate products. ‘We totally separated print and electronic. We think they are two different products with two different values,’ he explained.

As with file formats, there are many different approaches to pricing models and access. James Gray of Ingram Digital Group believes that choosing the right model is a key challenge for publishers. ‘If a publisher sells a copy of an e-book to a library there is a far greater distribution potential than with print,’ he pointed out. ‘There has been a big take-up of the multi-use, perpetual-access model. Libraries want to buy content for pretty much open access to their community and they want to know that they’ve got ongoing access,’ he commented. ‘Then there is the question of whether the price should be the same for large and small institutions.’

Scott Wasinger of OCLC believes that titles is a gap between the expectations of e-book users and the publishers of these titles. ‘Currently e-books represent less that five per cent of most publishers’ total revenues so, for many, the risk of lost print revenues outweighs the gains of electronic revenues,’ he commented. ‘The models need to evolve to encourage more adoption. When users perform searches over a mass of authoritative content they need to be able to do this without worry that another user will take their access slot to the e-book they need. The market needs to evolve towards increasingly fair use in terms of access, printing and sharing.’

MyiLibrary: Electronic access to books brings the possibility of new and personalised features.

How they are used

Another complication in developing ebook technology and pricing models is that it is very difficult to predict how readers will behave as they approach e-books. In a presentation at Online Information 2007, David Nicholas, professor of library and information studies at University College London (UCL) warned that ‘no one has a clue what the users will do.’ He stressed that it was dangerous to generalise from the behaviour of users of e-journals and to think that e-books would be used in the same fashion. Preliminary research into the usage of e-books has uncovered very different patterns of user behaviour to those known from electronic journals, he said.

Nicholas was reporting on research that he and colleagues in the Centre for Publishing at UCL had conducted into the impact of the introduction of e-books to the University College London scholarly community. The work took the form of a deep log analysis of e-books usage of Oxford Scholarship Online (OSO), one of three e-book packages introduced to UCL.

‘We know an awful lot about ejournals,’ Nicholas said, ‘and we can describe the behaviour of the virtual scholar – researchers and scientists – from e-journals. But we know little about the behaviour of students, social scientists, and scholars in the arts and humanities.’

Although he stressed that he was reporting only on a pilot project, some of the results were counter-intuitive. ‘No one is doing any serious reading at all online,’ he said. Users are engaging in ‘power browsing’, he continued, with sessions lasting only three and a half minutes on average, with a relatively short time spent on any single site. Users spent as much time searching as viewing the content.

OCLC has made similar observations on its platform. According to Wasinger, the average session time for users is 15 minutes, while the average time per book is 8.5 minutes. ‘This tells us that users go in, use the platform to perform a very specific search, find exactly the book and section that they need, copy and paste it or take notes then get out,’ he said.

Interest in older works

Another surprise from Nicholas’ study was that there was much less concentration on new books, in contrast to the searching behaviour on journals. Nicholas thought that this was probably due to students not being interested in recent publications. Curiously, his team found that economists used older titles whereas philosophers made greater use of current material.

Springer’s Ernst has observed a similar level of interest in older books. ‘We see that people care about quality content, not whether it’s old or new, as long as it’s available for their research.’ This prompted him to note that digitising ebook backfiles might be a reasonable option for the future, although Springer does not currently have concrete plans to do this. And such an interest in older books is also born out by the experience of Google Book Search.

Springer has more than 20,000 books on Google and sees no real difference in interest between the old and new books.

OCLC’s NetLibrary platform: OCLC has noticed that users don’t spend much time reading books online

Part of student life

UCL’s David Nicholas believes that ebooks may have reached a tipping point because they offer ‘condensed, distilled knowledge’. A big issue for students was access to text-books. Digital delivery could mean much wider access and therefore could prove very attractive to students. In the study, books that appeared in the UCL library catalogue were more likely to be used, perhaps because lecturers were reluctant to recommend books to their students that were not on the university library catalogue.

With e-books playing such an important role for students it is not surprising that usage varied from month to month and tended to be tied to the rhythms of teaching. More than half of all the views made in March 2007 were to politics titles, but these accounted for only one fifth of views in January and one third in February. Mondays attracted the heaviest usage, 20 per cent of weekly page views. Saturdays recorded the lowest figure but, unexpectedly, Sundays recorded a relatively high level of use at 14 per cent of page views.

There was, Nicholas warned, a lot of volatility in the usage patterns and so the situation would have to be monitored closely and continually. However, he did draw some pointers for the future. Electronic delivery means that the biggest user groups will no longer have to visit the library and so libraries will become more remote from their users. Will it be possible, he wondered, for libraries to justify their buildings and occupancy of prime real estate? In contrast, the development of e-books means that publishers will be getting closer to users. Will the e-book age result in publishers becoming the new librarians, and librarians the new publishers?