This Slashdot discussion about bn.com's decision to discontinue selling eBooks reminded me to write about my own experience with eBooks.
First, my experience of eBooks at work. About a year ago, my library started subscribing to netLibrary's eBook collection. These titles are now catalogued, and I come across them from time to time in my reference work. The downside is the somewhat cumbersome individual registration process, complete with another username and password to remember. The upside is that once this has been completed, library users can login and use available eBooks anywhere with an internet connection, 24/7.
Still, even when the initial registration has been completed, accessing an eBook from a library catalogue is a multi-step process.
- Select the link within the library catalogue to view the eBook in netLibrary
- Login to netLibrary
- Decide whether you just want to browse the book briefly or "check it out" for a longer period (during which time, other users can't check out the book - obviously an anachronistic concession to copyright law)
Unless your internet connection is really slow, all of the above is still probably faster than pulling a book from the library shelves.
netLibrary has several enhancements for the eBook medium. It allows you to search the full-text of the book for search terms. This is particularly nice for reference librarians who might be trying to find whether a particular book mentions a particular issue. A good printed index is better than most search engines any day, and fortunately, if a book does have an index, you can browse through it on netLibrary. netLibrary also allows you to make bookmarks and notes in the books that you are reading.
I have noticed that some netLibrary books can be viewed natively within the browser, while other titles can only be viewed via the Adobe Reader. I don't know if this is because of DRM (Digital Rights Management), but it is far more cumbersome and difficult to view titles within the Adobe Reader. Also, the variation here is disconcerting.
I have tried printing a couple of pages from a netLibrary book and didn't have any problems. So on the whole, the netLibrary collection of books is a helpful addition to our library's collection. netLibrary's law collection is not huge, but it does contain a lot of Nolo legal self-help titles which my academic library doesn't get a lot of, but which are useful to recommend to pro se people. One concern that I have about netLibrary is that although it's a decent enough collection, it's homogenous. There is little room for customizing a library's netLibrary collection. I worry that as library budgets are cut, which tends to happen, cash-strapped libraries might rely more on their netLibrary collection (which is also quite cost effective for the library) as opposed to their print collections which are chosen locally. The danger is that library collections, like bookshops, will become too homogenized and centralized.
I'd now like to mention my experiences reading an eBook at home on the Adobe Reader. This has been my first experience with eBooks at home. Until the recent release of the Adobe Reader, no eBook readers were available for Mac OS X users. I downloaded two eBook versions of Nineteenth Century novels from Amazon. They were much cheaper than the print editions - only around $2-3. I am not interested in buying eBooks unless I get a substantial discount!
There were a few hoops involved in getting past Adobe's much-reviled DRM, but it wasn't as bad as I thought it might be. Of course, I haven't yet tried to move my eBooks to a different computer, so I haven't really felt the claws of the DRM personally.
So I'm now reading Charles Dicken's Dombey and Son on my iBook via the Adobe Reader. This book is over a thousand pages long. I thought that it would be strange and difficult to read a novel like this as an eBook. Actually, in some ways it's more comfortable. I can lie in bed with the iBook on my chest and have the Adobe Reader automatically scroll at a slow speed which matches my reading. This saves me from a lot of scrolling and I can easily vary the speed if I need to. If I'm feeling particularly lazy, I can have the iBook read the book aloud to me. Admittedly, computer-generated voices are still quite nasty and very expressionless. It's also nice to be able to change the size of the text, and highlight pages and make notes without damaging the book. As a librarian, I have a major and irrational hang-up about marking up my own personal copies of books.
I think that eBooks have a lot of potential and I hope that they can work out. One of their biggest attractions for me is that they can reduce the growth of my bulky and heavy printed book collection. (It's so easy to accumulate books, and if I move back to Tasmania, I'm going to have a huge freight bill to move it)
If eBooks ever going to take off, they'll need to overcome these three hurdles. Cost - eBooks must be significantly cheaper than printed books. Although I bought Dombey and Son and Anna Karenina cheaply - this was for the most generic bare-bones Amazon.com eBook edition. I should also be able to buy an eBook of a Penguin edition with a critically acclaimed translation and introduction for only a little bit more. Content - People need to get into the habit of reading eBooks. This won't happen until it's the rule and not the exception that all new titles are published as eBooks. DRM - This must be easy to set up and unintrusive for the average reader. DRM which makes it difficult for consumers to keep their purchased content as they upgrade their hardware or software, or backup their purchases will keep people away from eBooks.
The only reason why DRM exists is because the content providers don't trust their customers. In this case, Adobe doesn't trust Adobe Reader users not to upload their eBooks onto a web site where anybody could download them for free, or make them available to the world on peer-to-peer file sharing services. I think that content owners have a legitimate concern here. But the thing is that trust is a two-way street. For consumers to buy-into eBooks, they need to trust that they're not paying money for something that will disappear in a year or two - or whenever the content owners happen to feel miserly. So how can content owners say to consumers, "trust us that your eBooks will not disappear because of a computer problem or one of our whims" when it's clear that they don't trust consumers at all?