Defending the honor of ebooks (and innovation)

Is the ebook a dead format? How eBooks lost their shine. The Reason Actual Books Are So Much More Memorable Than Ebooks. US Ebook Sales Decline. These are some of the headlines I’ve seen recently perpetuating the (suddenly popular) notion that ebooks are not ‘in’ anymore. That they have somehow failed us. That nothing compares to the reading of actual physical objects in the world. That the challenges the publishing industry has seen with ebooks (i.e., declining sales) point in the direction of a ‘format’ on the verge of dying.

Such articles aren’t only written by informed bloggers and journalists but also by industry professionals with significant experience in the publishing and library and information science markets, particularly those catering to consumers and public libraries. They exhibit a great deal of knowledge and sensible arguments about the challenges the publishing community (trade, in particular) has had with ebooks, focusing largely on the shortfalls of various business models to deliver revenue as predictable as revenue from print, the technological issues associated with ‘formats’  that haven’t been able to deliver a fully satisfying reading experience, and, not to be overlooked, the fierce competitiveness within the market itself, which has often resulted in ‘the powerful’  thriving even if their offerings were inferior to those by various start-ups (most of which perished in recent years).

In short, technology has not been able to ‘disrupt’ book publishing the way it has disrupted other industries in the not-so-distant past (e.g., music, news), and here we are at a crossroads again, asking some existential questions.

I have written countless articles on NSR explaining the benefits of ebooks to transform the world (the core mission of this portal) and pointing publishers, librarians, and all who work with books in one way or another in the direction of more open-mindedness, sensibility, and courage to step beyond what is familiar, safe, and predictable. I have often argued that the challenges we have been facing were not brought on our industry by external factors but by our own unwillingness to chart new territories and create better conditions for those very users we often point to when justifying declining sales.

In light of this emerging trend to dismiss ebooks as a force to be reckoned with in its own right (and I see it as an undeniable force), the attempt here is to put the spotlight (back) on the true value and potential of ebooks, yet to be discovered and explored by publishers and libraries. I will let others analyze what numbers and figures really mean (they, too, are open to interpretation). My aim is to shed light on the profound potential of ebooks to transform how knowledge and the written word reach us and why it is our collective moral responsibility to not give up on ebooks and to keep looking for better solutions. I believe they are already within our reach.

* * *

The promise of the digital medium is to democratize and equalize access to knowledge, which, like information, wants to be available to any person, anywhere (important for libraries). The potential of the digital medium, as we’ve already seen with other industries, is to create new ways of earning and generating revenue for content creators (important for publishers). The power of the digital medium is to take the  knowledge usually thought of ‘belonging’ to institutions, government entities,  cultural circles, and most affluent urban areas and spread it to remote parts of the globe so that reading can more easily become an integral part of human existence regardless of a person’s location (crucial for readers). This is where the moral responsibility comes in.

The main reason we have been slow to tap into the promise and potential of ebooks to deliver results for publishers, libraries, and institutions of learning, I believe, has been our reluctance to take the necessary steps requiring us to transform within. In essence, we have ‘managed’ ebooks far more than we have ‘led’ with them. Managing, whether in private corporations like publishing houses or government institutions like libraries, means we need not make drastic changes to who we are as professionals and what we’ve done for centuries. Leading, on the other hand, requires us to get uncomfortable, take risks, and possibly be blamed for an experiment that fails.

Ebooks require leadership above all because they are pointing us in the direction of unchartered territories. They were never meant to deliver predictable revenue as print books. Their environment simply doesn’t allow for it. But it allows for many other ways in which knowledge can be shared, an author can be discovered, and a book can leave a profound impact on the society. They also allow for many new ways in which a publisher can thrive financially and a library can stay relevant when its lights are turned off and its building is miles away from a person’s home. Best of all, they allow for many new ways in which our industry can join forces with other industries to make books and reading omnipresent, the same way movies are omnipresent in places like hotels, airplanes, etc.

Ebooks have asked us all along to rethink what they can do that print books cannot. They have asked us to innovate, not replicate.  Clearly, we haven’t listened because we have treated them as print books. We even use the same terminology we use with print books when discussing them or interacting with them. For example, ebooks can be ‘borrowed’ or ‘leased’. They have a ‘retail’ price. They are purchased in advance via a shopping cart. They are static entities packaged to mimic something that exists in the physical world.

Perhaps our industry finds itself at a crossroads again  (on the trade side, at least) because we haven’t listened attentively to what ebooks have been asking us the past two decades. Perhaps the time is now ripe for us to consider some of the following:

  • readers do not want to pay for digital content, this includes ebooks and ejournals
  • readers have shown to be willing to read ebooks when the right conditions are created for them
  • today’s readers are savvy and capable of recognizing benefits of both formats; if given a choice, they’d want to have access to both
  • digital content cannot be valued the same way as print content
  • digital content enhances (rather than endangers) the existence of print content
  • ebooks are merging with other formats (which makes figures pointing to ‘decline in sales’ misleading)
  • the impact of audio and multi-media as an integral feature of ‘reading’ is profound
  • the impact of self-publishing on traditional publishing and libraries is profound
  • libraries can no longer (efficiently) keep up with the onslaught of published literature (in any format)
  • ebooks, like all digital content, defy traditional curation and categorization
  • digital medium’s ‘native’ mode is access, not ownership
  • ebooks have the power to make all libraries equal
  • ebooks have the power to make all institutions of learning equal
  • ebooks have the power to make all publishers equal
  • ebooks have the power to make all authors equal
  • ebooks have the power to make all readers equal

In the words of Winston Churchill, which I end with to drive the point home, “Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse.”

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