Friday, June 29, 2007

Ebooks: The Waiting Game

Book publishers have no favorite among the various ebook formats and are playing a waiting game, according to a new TechNewsWorld article.

"Ultimately, the consumer will decide what it likes," said a VP at Simon & Shuster. The status quo of publishers reluctant to take charge and shape the future is consistent with comments made at the recent "Ebooks 2.0" forum at the ALA annual conference I wrote about recently.

The waiting game presumably includes not releasing all popular frontlist bestsellers in ebook format at the same time they are made available in print. The cost of ebooks is also similar to print versions--and sometimes more expensive. Enthusiasts can expect to pay a premium until the industry shakes out. Some had thought it would be necessary to drop the prices significantly in order to build the market, but so far it isn't happening.

A great ebook reader device at a reasonable price is necessary for widespread adoption by the public, but Sony's reader and the iRex Iliad are far too expensive to be catalysts. On the horizon are new readers, such as Amazon's Kindle and Bookeen's Cybook, as well as others from Asia. Will any one of them capture the imagination of the public, dominate the market, and usher in the era of leisure reading with ebooks? The answer is currently inaccessible.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Ebooks 2.0

Ebook usage is up, but how are they used? That’s the Big Question that emerged from the “Ebooks 2.0” forum at the ALA annual conference in Washington, DC, which included reps from libraries, vendors, and a publisher. The publisher was Island Press, the vendors were Ebrary and Ingram Digital Group (MyiLibrary), and the libraries were National University and the University of Denver.

Brian Weese of Island Press said they know ebook usage is up but the problem is they don’t know how ebooks are used. That’s what’s holding publishers back. Most believe free content will bite into sales. He brought up the anecdote of a Stephen King book that was put up online in installments and readers were asked to voluntarily donate a buck on the honor system—but few did that.

How to distribute content without losing sales? Weese said publishers don’t want a PDF emailed around the world with no one paying for it. So fear is a major factor resulting in ebooks limitations. Publishers have experience with the hardback, paperback, and audio versions of books, but not much with the electronic format. They are waiting for someone to lead the way forward but no one has taken charge yet. What is needed is ebook usage information. They have received minimal feedback so far.

Rich Rosy of Ingram echoed Weese by saying ebook usage is up but they don’t know how they are used. Google Book project publishers say their print sales are going up as a result of their inclusion but they can’t validate that claim, he said. National Academies Press ebooks are available free online but their print sales are still high.

University libraries are doing studies on how ebooks are used and those will provide needed information to vendors and publishers, Rosy said. There are many platforms—but there is no ideal platform yet. Some publishers now include in their catalogs a statement like, “This book will be available in ebook format,” whereas before vendors like Ingram didn’t know what would be available. The timeframe is contracting—things are moving forward quickly.

The Next Big Question: How is the ebook really being used, Rosy said. Every vendor has stats that say ebook usage is up, but what does that mean? Change will be driven by librarians who will decide what purpose and role ebooks will play.

Leslie Lees of Ebrary said the development of ebooks is dependent on librarians and their tolerance, as well as trial and error. Some answers are emerging, such as the need for ebook approval plans to make choices. In 2008, ebooks will be integrated into approval plans with all the major vendors. The question remains: How does everybody make money with ebooks? He talked about Ebrary’s recent survey to librarians on ebooks and the finding that most patrons find ebooks not through Google but by way of the library catalog and website. Usability studies and usage statistics will drive purchase decisions.

A couple of the speakers didn’t have powerpoint presentations. They just stood up and spoke. I found them difficult to follow at times whereas if a slide is up on the big screen, I can always look at that. I can’t imagine getting up on stage in front of a roomful of my peers at a national conference and just talk without having cobbled together a presentation. I think it’s a matter of professionalism.

None of the participants was such great a public speaker that he could rely on just his voice to get his points across. One of the university reps spoke from written notes in a monotone. It was almost painful to try to follow along with him. Too busy to create slides? Then why speak? Having said A, you must say B. Very few people are so good that they can educate and entertain an audience without slides. I didn’t hear any today. I think it should be understood that anyone who is speaking should take the time to bring slides. It’s a matter of respect for your audience and professionalism as well. I’m surprised to see this isn’t the case!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Glitch in Live Search Books

Earlier I wrote about some problems with Microsoft's Live Search Books. For example, if I type in a search and the results total, say, 750, Live will only give me 250 results and no more. Why is that?

I talked to a Microsoft rep at the ALA conference in Washington, DC. I told him about the 250 limit and he said someone else had mentioned it to him. "It's a bug," he said. It is a problem on Microsoft's end. It has nothing to do with the user's computer memory or anything like that. He said he was passing along the information to the appropriate parties and they would try to fix it.

Will Live include an advanced search page like the one Google Books has? He said yes, it was in the plans for some point in the future. He said they had just put up the copyrighted material from publishers within the past few weeks, suggesting maybe now some work would be done on these problems I mentioned.

As with Google Books, it just seems this isn't a high priority with them.

The Glitch in Google Book Search

Earlier I wrote about a glitch in Google Book Search. For example, when I type in the phrase "Homeland Security" Google returns roughly 5,000 hits--or so it says. But when I try to actually see those 5,000 hits, the results dry up after only 150 or so. What happened to the other 5,000 Google promised?

I had the opportunity to speak to a Google representative at the ALA conference in Washington, DC. She said it was a glitch and "they are working on it." She also corrected me on the notion (or wishful thinking on my part) that Google Books was a separate database from the main Google one. It isn't. They both draw from the same thing, she said.

I'm not sure how much some of the vendor reps really know about these things, but surely the people working on Google Books know very well about this problem and hopefully are finding a solution. It doesn't seem like a high priority, does it?

Can Blogs Be Trusted?

This presentation was supposed to feature 2 bloggers: Jason Zengerle of The New Republic, and Eric Alterman of The Nation. Alterman never showed up. Zengerle's remarks, I thought, seemed designed for an insider political blogging crowd. I'm not sure that's what was in attendance. I follow the political blogs a bit but a lot of his discussion focused on events I was unfamiliar with, and I'm sure many others in the audience were having trouble following along as well.

In the photo above, Zengerle is in the blue shirt sitting at the table. The other 2 people are looking for Alterman.

Can program descriptions be trusted? I don't recall the write-ups of this presentation I saw before the conference advertising it as what I heard. I find this is a problem with not only ALA but SLA as well: pre-conference program descriptions promising one thing and delivering another.

I have to question the choice of speakers as well. Zengerle and Alterman are both liberals. Propping both of them up on the stage with no countering conservative would have been like listening to a two-headed monster (if Alterman had actually shown up). Why was no conservative blogger invited? There are plenty out there. I fault the Law & Political Science Section (LPSS) of ALA/ACRL which seems to be the party responsible for this presentation. That is not competent event planning. Should I conclude that the people running LPSS are a bunch of liberals who have a psychological problem handling an opposing viewpoint?

ALA has earned a reputation as a biased left-wing outfit that shuns a large portion of the American political public. This doesn't help.

Zengerle got in a few good shots at his right-wing counterparts. "Power Line used to write about Bush as if he were Einstein," he said, claiming he reads that blog "just for amusement." And Hugh Hewitt "writes about [Mitt] Romney the way Power Line writes about Bush."

Exhibits at ALA & SLA

What's the difference between the exhibits at the American Library Association (ALA) and the Special Libraries Association (SLA) annual conferences?

A lot of them are the same companies. One difference is that the women reps at SLA this year in Denver were hotter than the women at the ALA booths in Washington, DC. At SLA, I'd rate the woman at about 7.5. From what I've seen at ALA so far, I can only award a rating of 6.5.

But the really big difference, which I'm sure people who have been to both have noticed, is that there is no free food at the ALA exhibits! You have to pay for everything, and the food offered for sale at the Washington DC Convention Center is grotesquely overpriced. At SLA, you could eat all day long in the exhibits. Free food and drink everywhere! But today at ALA--nothing!

Is the free food coming? Maybe it will arrive Sunday--or Monday at the latest? What are exhibits worth without free lunch or free desserts or free drinks like I got at SLA?

I haven't been to the ALA conference in several years. Is this the way it always is? No food? You have to buy that expensive garbage they sell there? I take this to mean the vendors don't feel they need to offer free food at ALA. They've got the librarians on a leash. No point in spending money when you don't need to. ALA, the bigger conference of the two, seems more of a prole event, while SLA caters to a more refined audience.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Google Book Search vs Live Search Books

Google Book Search and Live Search Books are the largest databases of full-text books on the internet. Most of their holdings are books in the public domain, but both now include more recent copyrighted titles as well. Google claims over a million records, while Live had over 800,000 last I heard.

The Shifting Sands of Google Book Search

For the past several days, I input the same words and phrases into Google Book Search. Every day, it spit back a different number for each search. Maybe they added some books, so the number is higher for each succeeding day? Not so--the number has actually been going down every day! Perhaps publishers are insisting that Google remove their books? Or could it be the search engine is either intentionally or sinisterly inaccurate?

I tried the phrase "Next Attack" today and Google returned a result of 904 items. But what does this number mean? 904 books? When I went through all the pages and tried to get to that 904th book, Google stopped at number 484! Where are the other 400+ plus books I was promised? 904 doesn't exist when I try to find it. Well, it's just a glitch that wouldn't be repeated with another phrase, right?

Next I tried the phrase "Homeland Security" which gave me 5123 results. I decided to go through all the pages, but that would take some time, wouldn't it? But wait! To my chagrin, there are really only 155 books! Where are those other 5,000 books on homeland security Google assured me were in this database? False advertising? (In fairness, I just tried the search again--5,161 results! But of course, on the last page is book number "162 of 172."

How about a rare word? "Sapajous" garners 645 results, but after going through all the pages it gives me only "416 of 436"! Google rarely gives as much as it promises!

If Google has a display limit, why does it differ for each search? Of course, the same thing happens when you search the open internet at As you sift through the results of your search, the numbers often pull back once you go through all the result pages. But surely with a much smaller, finite database, such as Google Books, this shouldn't happen. Can't I receive an honest number when I'm only searching a mere 1 million records?

The Brick Wall of Live Search Books

The numbers at Microsoft's Live Search Books don't move. Same thing every day I try the same search. And there is a limit to how many of your results you can view. That doesn't change either.

The phrase "homeland security" draws 749 results (the search process is slower than Google's, but that's okay as long as the results are honest!). But wait! When I try to see book number 749 by moving the scroll button all the way down to the bottom, it stops on book number 250! I can go no further.

Let's try "Next attack." 732 results. The same story. The results stop at book 250 and won't give me the rest, although I suspect they really are there. I take this to mean if I want to see all results for any search, I must get the result number down to 250 or less. That's easily accomplished. My rare word "Sapajous" draws 43 results and Live give me all of them.

"Jesus Mohammed Buddha Moses Krishna" gives me 260 results. Will Live give me 251-260? No way. 250 is the absolute limit.

The answer for using both search engines, I suppose, is that you need to get your results down to no more than 250 so you can be sure to see everything. But I'm the sort of person who wants to sift through all results on a topic and pluck out those that are useful. This often involves going through literally thousands of records. That just isn't possible with either of these databases that I can see.

Live's book result numbers are usually much lower than Google's. The only exception seems to be Religion, where Live often beats Google. I'm not sure what this really means anyway, since Google's numbers seem to be inflated.

Unlike Google, there is no advanced search page for Live Books. The "intitle" limiter works (although that isn't advertised anywhere) but "inauthor" doesn't.

Conclusion: I'm not satisfied at all with either book search product. Both refuse to give me what they promise! If I can't see 750 books, don't promise that many!

Google will have a booth at the ALA conference in Washington in a couple weeks. I'll be sure to go there and ask about the Book Search engine.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Library 2.0 Bubble

Google's Blogsearch shows a heavy increase in the use of the term "Library 2.0" in 2007 compared with 2006. The increase is 6-10 times greater. Is a bubble forming (possibly to burst) or is this merely the initial part of a long, upward graph to last for many years?

The only reason I ask is because there is a lot of talk about a Web 2.0 bubble and whether it exists or not, and will it burst. Are MySpace and Second Life positioned for a hard fall?

I've noticed on some of the Library 2.0 social networking groups on places like Ning and Facebook that many of the librarians actively involved say they are having trouble keeping up with all the various social sites and saying anything substantial. I keep hearing librarians say they are the only ones at their library with an interest in 2.0. Something like a wiki is set up at their library site, and then abandoned, because there isn't really much use for it or interest in it.

The librarians on these sites represent a very small minority of the total number of librarians. It's really just the vanguard that has any involvement whatsoever with 2.0. Most librarians have no interest in it, and when it comes up in a discussion, they pretend until the topic goes away.

Will some members of this vanguard of librarians get tired of it, frustrated with their solitary fascination with online social tools not shared by their co-workers, and drift away? Or will more and more librarians become inoculated with the 2.0 virus, inject fresh ideas and keep the trend line moving upward for years to come? As goes Web 2.0, so goes Library 2.0?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

ALA's Stand on Iraq

Years ago when I was a library student, several of the older veteran bookmen told me they weren't members of the American Library Association (ALA) and strongly disapproved of it because it involved itself in things that had nothing to do with librarianship and catered toward fringe elements within in.

Times haven't changed at all. At this year's ALA annual conference in Washington, DC, one of the marquee events will be a forum entitled: "Should ALA Take a Stand on the War in Iraq and Other Non-Library Issues?" Aren't you just dying to know what librarians of the ALA variety think of the war in Iraq? Don't you think Congress and the White House are wringing their collective hands and pacing their collective floors wondering what that verdict might be?

ALA became over-politicized a long, long time ago. I imagine it occurred alongside the cultural shifts brought about in the 1960s. Radicals have embedded themselves in ALA and it is now a left-wing association far removed from the political mainstream of America--and of course, it shouldn't be overtly political at all.

The person arguing "for" ALA participating in non-library issues is Michael Gorman, the notorious ex-president of ALA. This is significant. Gorman is a Luddite who has disparaged such groups as bloggers and internet surfers.

The radical left librarians are in the profession primarily to spend their time advocating for non-library issues. They are here because no one else would take them. That's why I call such people "fake librarians." Their first impulse is to spend their time and effort on non-library matters. Such as politics. Social work. "Causes" such as global warming, world poverty, and the like. Library problems don't interest them. Library trends, especially those involving the latest technology, leave them cold and fearful.

Library Science is alright with them; Information Science (IS) isn't. I believe there is great fear among the political fringe elements regarding IS, and the reason is that expertise in IS tends to elbow out the political radical mind, which has no interest or aptitude for it. The greater IS is integrated into librarianship, the greater the threat to the extremists. It will eventually destroy them. That's why I see IS as the savior of Library Science, because it will upgrade the library profession in terms of the average required skill level, it will upgrade the quality of students who enter the profession, salaries will rise, and the fringe elements will be pushed out and will be forced to migrate elsewhere.

The social workers masquerading as librarians want ALA to spend its time on worthless, pointless, embarrassing resolutions on issues like Iraq precisely because it has nothing to do with libraries--that's the point, that's their point. They don't understand, or care, that such proclamations erode the reputation of librarians in the eyes of Congress and others.

I met several academic librarians at the recent Special Libraries Association (SLA) conference in Denver. I wondered why they joined SLA as I thought most academic librarians were in ALA, and their response was that ALA didn't have much for them. They agreed with me that the ALA conference program had little of interest to them or to most other librarians.

I haven't been to the ALA conference for several years, but it's in DC and I'm in DC so I'll go and see the carnival this time, despite the strange program. Of course, there will be the usual Democratic Party stars in force--Bill Bradley and a Kennedy. Wouldn't be ALA circa 2007 without that, would it.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Ebrary's Ebook Survey

Ebrary has released an ebook survey conducted earlier this year. Almost 600 librarians responded, although the vast majority of them are academic librarians. Few public or special librarians are represented.

The most surprising news was that most students & faculty find ebooks through the library catalog or the library website--not Google or other search engines. But I'd like a clarification on this particular question, because it was worded this way: "How do patrons find ebooks?" Librarians answered the survey, not patrons, so how do the librarians know the answer? If I were a student, how would my university know how I was finding ebooks?

The librarian who was asked to comment within the survey noted:
Until e-book reading devices are preferred to printed books and are commonly available, the e-book collection will not be seen as preferable when the intent is to read an entire work.
Ebooks are mostly used for research, not for pleasure; most titles purchased are nonfiction. They are not intended to be read from cover to cover, and are used differently if the user is acting as a researcher or as a leisure reader buying the latest bestseller. The ebook market for research books is much more well-developed than the leisure market because it is supported by the academic community. One must wonder if public library support is necessary for the leisure ebook market to take off, as well as the introduction of low-cost dedicated readers that would be as desirable for reading as ipods are for listening to music.

A strong majority of librarians preferred not to duplicate the purchase of print and electronic titles. I wouldn't prefer to do that either, but it depends on your users, and what they want, and where they are, and how they use the books.

A majority of the respondents are "somewhat to very concerned" about the implications of interlibrary loan and ebooks. My view on ILL is that those transactions will continue to decrease as more and more ebooks are available to the user--either through vendors like ebrary and NetLibrary, or by way of free ebooks on sites like Google Book Search or Live Search Books. ILL will eventually become a last-resort service for finding those few scarce items that have never been digitized.

I keep hearing so many people who still seem skeptical that ebooks are the wave of the future. But they represent the only practical way libraries can continue to satisfy the information needs of their users. In many ways they easily improve upon traditional library models--ILL, physical books available only to those who are able and willing to go to the library, etc. It's not a steep upward curve at this time, but it will be, eventually.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Which Ebooks Are Popular with Consumers?

The consumer ebook market has been a dud, according to some industry watchers. But what types of ebooks can or would sell well?

Success stories so far include Ellora's Cave and eHarlequin. Some people buy ebooks because they have an advantage over paperbacks: it's tougher for other people to see what you're reading. So if you want to read something raunchy in public, an ebook offers you a measure of privacy you wouldn't otherwise have.

Another market for ebooks are tech geeks who want the latest ebook readers and huddle close to the cutting edge of new technology and have something cool that most people don't.

So then it's easy to predict other potential ebook markets that would be profitable during the early stages of its development as well: hardcore fringe political writings on both the far left and right of the spectrum, and incendiary, extremist religious writings. In other words, the edges will fill in first, while the traditional stuff in the middle will be the last to make a big splash in the ebook world. In this scenario, during the early days of ebook reading, if you want to identify a fanatic, you would look for someone carrying a dedicated ebook reader.

Google Books Adds Big 10 Libraries

The Big 10 university libraries have signed on with the Google Book library project, adding a potential treasure trove of millions of new books to their database.

This announcement comes on the heels of Microsoft Live Search Books, Google's main competitor in this arena, adding copyrighted content from major publishers to its online library.

We now have these 2 giant skyscrapers--Google Book Search and Microsoft Live Search Books--adding new "floors" to their edifices as they race to ebook heaven. Will they ever join? Should they? Will one abandon the race--and its books--leaving the other as the sole victor? Or is it 2 separate forces forever, neither completely conquerable?

Metaphysical questions aside, these are heady (heavenly?) times for those of us (consumers and librarians) wanting more print books digitized and made available for full-text searching, for many reasons as I've outlined before.

SLA Denver Attendance

At the closing session of SLA Denver 2007, I heard SLA President Rebecca Varga announce the total attendance as 5,046.

I think that's what I heard. I just searched the net for confirmation of the figure but can't find anything about it--not sure what that means. Shouldn't SLA have something about it on their website? Not to rush anyone, but what are they waiting for? Did I miss it? I don't see a link. Well, eventually.

Varga said words to the effect that she was "very pleased" to announce that number, but looking over previous conference attendance figures, it doesn't look good at all, especially considering the high-profile opening and closing session speakers (Al Gore and Scott Adams). Denver doesn't seem like such a bad place to go for a conference either. No worse than other places SLA has ventured to lately.

If we go back as far as 15 years, Denver attendance was third lowest. Only Nashville (3,852) and Los Angeles (4,652) were lower. 5,046 is nothing to write home about, and is a big drop from last year's attendance at Baltimore of 5,844.

What conclusions can we draw from this?

Al Gore didn't pull them in. No one can seriously make a case that Gore brought in a lot of people to this conference. He's a politician, and he is a speaker-for-hire. That's pretty much his job these days. I imagine he was paid a pretty penny for bringing his song-and-dance routine to SLA. I'm kind of heartened about this because I don't think members should be pulled in to the convention by a politician and I'm skeptical any should be invited as the featured speakers.

There are risks in lassoing a politician as the keynote speaker. It is tantamount to an endorsement, especially when the SLA CEO was an appointee by the administration of said politician. Funny thing about politicians, they have a way of dividing people, and in this case, association members. The risk is in ripping apart SLA and creating divisions where none were before by trotting out such a controversial figure while no one on the other side of the aisle showed up.

Varga also mentioned at the closing session that a speaker had been invited to SLA 2008 in Seattle but he backed out. I didn't hear any mention of who what person was, but I'll go out on a limb and suggest it wasn't a prominent Republican. And that's what SLA needs to invite, in the interests of political neutrality. This is the Special Libraries Association, not the Janice LaChance Association. When it reflects the biases of one or a few of its leaders rather than the ideals it should embody, all is lost. God help SLA if they invite Michael Moore next year. Obviously, I don't think they get it.

Denver is not a place a lot of members want to go to. What else should I think? I had never been there before, and I wasn't that impressed with the place. Too many aggressive panhandlers on the 16th Street mall, and too many "skid row" type boarded up stores for my tastes.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Microsoft Live Books Improves

Microsoft Live Books now includes many recent copyrighted titles, added as part of a deal with dozens of publishers. You can now search the full text of these books and view a certain number of pages, about 20% of the total. I don't see a feature for printing pages.

The new interface tells you how many pages you can still view under the copyright terms. There is a slide rule on the far right for quickly moving to any section of the book. Here is a screenshot of the interface:

Links are provided if you want to buy the book from the publisher, Amazon, or B&N. For older books in the public domain, you can download the entire file.

This takes us another step forward in the ability to search as many full-text books as possible without needing to check dozens of URLs, which is still necessary for a comprehensive search. Anyone interested in ebooks as either a consumer or librarian should applaud this move.

Microsoft Live Books hasn't received nearly as much publicity as Google Book Search, but it is a great resource as well. Last I heard Live Books had close to a million titles but probably they've gone over a million with this deal.