Friday, May 02, 2008

The Sound and Fury of Ebook Naysayers

On the cover of the latest issue of American Libraries is a graphic of a print book with digital innards. The feature story is called "The Elusive E-book." It's gotta be Walt Crawford, I said to myself as I flipped to the table of contents. Nope. Instead, it's written by one Stephen Sottong.

He starts off by dissing "the pundits" who predicted some time ago that half of reading material today would be delivered electronically. I know I'm in trouble when I read that Sottong has a background in academic librarianship. That's how I knew he was completely serious when he wrote that resistance to ebooks wasn't generational or psychological, it was physical:

They relate to the fact that as a species, we were designed to scan the horizon and do fine tasks seated with our work on the ground or in our laps.

And that, Sottong believes, is the death knell for ebooks. The Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle are doomed because they are overpriced (at $300-$400). But products are priced by what the market will bear, and the price of the Kindle isn't dropping. It will if the market won't accept $300-$400. Why would anyone pay that much for a device when the display and resolution aren't as good as a print book, he asks. The answer, of course, is that there are many more factors involved in each person's decision to buy one.

People won't read entire books on these readers, Sottong assures us, yet that's exactly what I have done myself. I've read dozens of books on my Sony reader, and on my desktop computer as well. Somehow I didn't make it into Sottong's academic research. Like other book lovers, I read many at one time. A reader is a great leap forward for many like me who don't want to carry around a load of print books. But it doesn't matter how many books a person reads at one time anyway. There are several good reasons why people would want all their books in digital format rather than in paper. To say readers aren't needed because most people read only one or two books at a time is a non sequitur.

I feel justified when I get to the part where Sottong pats the aforementioned Walt Crawford on the back by quoting his laconic judgment that "Print books work." Crawford recently authored a lengthy piece on ebooks in which he admitted he doesn't own an ebook reader. As for Sottong, I see no admittal that he owns one, either. Considering what he wrote, I can't believe he does. People who predict cloudy forecasts for ebook readers seem unacquainted with them.

I've written before about the eventual death of paper and Sottong's article serves to reinforce my belief in everything I said. The switchover will be a long process and Sottong and others want to use that to pretend there is no trend toward ebooks. It's psychological. They don't want it to happen. That is the source of their opinions--forget the research, surveys, etc.

Sottong has some, I'm sure well-intentioned, advice for libraries:

Libraries that use subscription e-book services should consider dropping all but online reference books and placing the rest of the funds back into their print budgets.

My own prediction is that libraries will ignore this terrible advice and continue serving patrons their information in as many formats as possible, and most importantly, full-text ebooks from vendors such as NetLibrary, Ebrary, Books24x7, etc., as this is the wave of the future and patrons will continue to demand more full-text ebooks. I want more books in ebook format right now. And some publishers are delivering because they see the market. Too many books I want are only available in paper, and that's not good.

The ebook naysayers need to read an excellent article in the same issue of American Libraries called "Killed by Kindness: How Well-Intentioned Nostalgia Harms Today's Libraries."

But what emotion can we say we feel upon listening to the death cries of the representatives of the old book world order as a new one emerges?