Wednesday, April 1, 2015

E-books - managing the transition

Every time a report indicates that cherished traditional concepts like classroom teaching, printed books, writing with pen and paper or reading printed newspapers are more effective than their digital equivalents you can almost hear the collective sigh of relief that maybe we can soon return to the world we once knew before all this new technology came along. We all have an instinctive fear of the new and an often illogical love of the practices we grew up with. I have my own blind spots when it comes to new concepts whereas I fully embrace some of them. Maybe the results of some studies are affected by the fact that the test group was more used to the traditional method then the digital version. In the early days of say the motor car you would probably have found that the majority preferred horse carriages until the new invention had matured and the advantages became self-evident. It's funny how we have happily abandoned some media (vinyl LPs, audio cassettes, VHS, letter writing, film cameras) but hang on passionately to others (above all books).

An interesting article by Dan Cohen, What’s the matter with ebooks? In our praise for print, we forget the great virtues of digital formats, calls for some balance in the debate between printed and digital literature. Even if reports show sales of e-books leveling off this is really a mirage since a great deal of e-reading is not traceable. There are vast amounts of e-literature available from open publishers as well as private publication and the mainstream surveys only track sales of commercially published e-books. I read vast amounts on the net but almost never commercial e-books and I'm sure millions of others do likewise. As the technology improves and new business models emerge (many present models almost actively discourage e-reading) the present analogue/digital debate will become largely irrelevant.

... jump forward 10 or 20 or 50 years, and you should have a hard time saying that the e-reading technology won’t be much better—perhaps even indistinguishable from print, and that adoption will be widespread.

Reading will become digital even if the transition will not be as abrupt as the move from analogue audio or from fixed to mobile telephony. Digital reading offers an enhanced reading experience with advanced referencing and notetaking functions as well as multimedia support. Future digital reading interfaces could well be able to reproduce the feel of leafing through a first edition or ancient manuscript in a way that would be impossible in print today unless you are privileged enough to have access to the right library. The present arguments in favour of print will probably evaporate as digital publishing matures. Cohen argues that we should shift the focus from preserving tradition to embracing digital publication and focusing more on how to successfully manage the transition.

I’m a historian, not a futurist, but I suspect that we’re not going to have to wait anywhere near forty years for ebooks to become predominant, and that the “plateau” is in part a mirage. That may cause some hand-wringing among book traditionalists, an emotion that is understandable: books are treasured artifacts of human expression. But in our praise for print we forget the great virtues of digital formats, especially the ease of distribution and greater access for all—if done right.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, thanks for this. I too think we are missing some important tricks here not least making sure we clearly differentiate between the eBook and the print book that has been digitised (what I am now called the digital pBook).

    Nick Gibb has been calling for "state sponsored textbooks" but seems to be talking almost exclusively about print books - see for more thoughts on this.