Monday, 27 September 2010

SOLO10 (Science Online 2010) and eBooks - the future?

Just came across a blog post on the eBook session I attended at SOLO10.

As the post says, the session was poorly attended with only about 10 people present. I was surprised at this low turnout, especially when you consider there were around 200+ people present at the conference (the other parallel sessions must have been packed!).

Why was the session poorly attended? And why did I attend it?

Poorly Attended: Well, eBooks are not necessarily exciting! Plus, SOLO10 is 'Science online' and so the delegates may not consider eBooks as 'online'.

Why did I attend: My view is that 'times are a changing' and that eBooks (e-textbooks) are going to be a big thing in the future. Gone will be the days of undergraduates bent double lugging textbooks around in their backpacks (I can dream), and students will have their e-textbook reader of choice loaded up with all the textbooks they need for the course, all weighing less than 750 g.

In the blog post at blogs, Frank Norman has asked some similar questions to the above. And put together an overview of the discussion at the session. I would like to add to that discussion.

Frank has captured the key point of the discussion in his post, and I can see some of my comments (non-attributed) present, and I would like to expand on those:

ebooks are currently overpriced: I believe this is true (well, I said it), and publishers are trying to be greedy and apply their old business model. Just do a search on Amazon for eBooks on Biochemistry or search Amazon for a textbook on Biochemistry. Notice anything? Prices are remarkably similar, and yet the traditional textbooks require paper, printing, storage and transport, whereas eBooks are just a series of electrons sent down wires from a hard drive. I think the cost of eBooks is going to go in the same direction as Apps for smartphones, prices are going to go down, and authors will make money from volume of sales and better 'royalty deals' with the online 'publishers' (Amazon and Apple for example), than with the traditional publishing industry.

Roles of Amazon and Apple: Can't recall if I said this, or not, but it was discussed. Apple has gone with the epub format (not a great format, in my opinion, it is based on HTML and CSS - same as this webpage) on the iPad (and interestingly Apple's Pages word processor can now export to epub), and Amazon has gone with the Mobi format for the Kindle (It should be noted that there is Kindle software for the iPad, iPhone, PC, Mac, Blackberry, and Android phones, e.g. Kindle software on iPhone and iPad. In addition, Amazon has a set of tools to convert books from epub to the Mobi format (more details)).

Value of publishers: This was an interesting point. My argument is that the publishers are 'gate keepers', that is, they control what is published. This was certainly true up until about 15 years ago, and then the world wide web came along and so now almost anyone can publish. However, to publish 'in print' on paper (be it a journal or textbook) you need a publisher. They have the final say. Now, with the advent of devices such as the Kindle and the iPad do we need publishers? Why not publish direct with Apple or Amazon? A publisher present (Cold Spring Harbor Press) in the session argued that publishers add value in connecting the author with their audience. So are publishers going to become 'public relations'?

Why do people borrow books?: This was one of my comments. My argument is that the reason people borrow books from libraries is that books are expensive (average biomedical undergraduate textbook is £30 - 40). It is interesting if you look at Penguin Books. When Penguin Books was founded in 1935 they produced cheap paperback books for around 6d (that is 2.5p GBP, or about 4 cents US; more details on Penguin history and see How the Paperback Novel Changed Popular Literature). In 1935 a hardback book cost around 8 shillings (that is 40p GBP, or roughly 60 cents US; source). The result was a lot of Penguin paperback books were sold.

Now, if you use the calculator at the National Archive then the 8 shillings is equivalent to £15 (~$22 US) and 6d is around £1 ($1.50 US) in 2010 (this figure is most probably based on the retail price index (RPI)). If you use the calculator at Measuring Worth then 8 shillings is equivalent to £76 (~$120 US) and 6d is around £5 ($7.50 US) based on average earnings (2009 figure)**. This shows that the price of hardbacks has not really changed since 1935, when based on RPI, but has significantly dropped in terms of average earnings. Interestingly the current cost of a paperback has increased based on RPI, but is still in line with average earnings.

So, eBooks may be the 'Penguin' book of today? They will (hopefully) drive down prices and put more books into the hands of more people.

Regular updates: This was another one of mine. Frank argues in his blog post, and also in the session, that authors won't want to do this, possibly due to the "intellectual effort required", and there is no mechanism to recover the cost. Well, in some fields regular updates are required, particularly, for example, in the sciences where published data may rapidly change, or in computing where screen-shots, available systems and databases etc., are constantly changing. An electronic format would allow for rapid and easy updating. And the new version could be released and charged for as a new edition. (After all, every time a new addition of a printed book comes out you don't get a free update (or even a discount) if you bought the last edition.) Plus, if the cost point of the book is right then previous owners may be willing to pay for the new edition, plus new customers get the latest most up-to-date version of the book available.

The bottom line is things are changing. The current publishing industry has lost control of the gates, and they are not adapting to the new way things can be done (and we all know what happens when adaption stops, we get extinction). As Martin Robbins said at in the "Rebooting" (aka the future of) science journalism" at SOLO10 - "there is going to be a bloodbath and we are going to be making black pudding" - and I think this may happen. Guess I might have to put my money where my mouth is.....

** Interestingly biological books cost 0.11 and 0.9 cents US per page (Nature 138, 196-196 (01 August 1936)) in 1935. I wonder what it is now?

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