eBooks and Libraries

There is a fascinating post from Adrian Hon and lots of good discussion on the revolution facing the book publishing industry (noted via Charkin blog). Adrian is amusingly rude, but spot-on, in his criticisms of the book publishers current web offerings:

Most of these sites are so awful that there’s plenty of room for easy improvement, providing that someone else smarter doesn’t step in and capture all the traffic first. Maybe that someone will be Amazon with Shelfari, or some unknown web 2.0 upstart. But at this rate, it most certainly won’t be traditional publishers. And whoever captures the traffic can capture the sales.

There really isnt an adequate business model for ebooks that any major book publisher has yet produced and the marketing efforts on behalf of printed books are feebly unimaginative. On the other hand many of the large STM (Scientific Technical and Medical) publishers have produced effective systems for selling access to technical literature (especially scientific periodicals). Its not as though publishers could not devise a digital strategy…..

There is much of interest in the comments on Hon’s original posting. But, there is one deep running problem in this discussion of ebooks. The focus is all wrong in being a focus on BOOKs, as individual titles. This discussion should be on elibraries not on ebooks. Hon says:

Physical books are about to be superseded by more advanced technology that will allow for the mass and trivial pirating of every single book ever published.

Maybe, but then again maybe not so straightforward. What if ebooks are primarily distributed and accessed via a system such as Google Book Search? That is not so easily pirated. In such a system what matters is that books can be easily accessed, searched and cited; any pirated digital copies are of no real use without the database access system. Hon also makes the comparison with the iPod. But the success of the iPod system is mistaken by ebook enthusiasts. The key advance of the iPod was that it was a half-decent personal music library. Not that it was another MP3 Player.

In thinking about ebooks we need to think about elibraries first and foremost. Publishers need to think about how their content will be digitally accessed and how it can be sold, and profitably given away. Publishers distribution options have always been title-focussed in the past. They need to start thinking more broadly.

How are libraries of digital content to be accessed and services allocated? The hardware on which ebooks can be read or consulted is not so important.