Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The E-book Tipping Point: Here at Last?

Is print dead? I remember Egon Spengler saying so in Ghostbusters, which dates me quite a lot, and the saying is older than that. But it might well finally be that print is, if not on its last legs, finally set to become just one of a range of options, and not the most popular one at that.

March 16th's New York Times notes that encyclopedia publishers are, finally, taking up Wikipedia's gauntlet and going online in a big way. Actually, it's not that encyclopedias weren't online before; I had a personal subscription to Britannica Online when I was a freelance writer and found using the paper version at the public library too inconvenient (parking downtown was a royal pain and all of the library's copiers were broken), and at roughly $6 a month it was a worthwhile investment. But online reference materials have been slow to arrive, and when they do, their interfaces are often poor and their search engines poorer.

However, the Internet and the way people use it to find information is practically tailor-made for online reference resources. The whole point of ready reference is the quick lookup of information, that mainstay of Google searches. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Wikipedia is not the problem. Publishers' unwillingness to embrace a medium that can enhance, not detract from, what they do is the problem. There is no inherent reason that information found online must be low quality.

The other interesting thing about this development is how much of this reference content is, or will be, open access. $6 a month for Britannica Online wasn't much, but Wikipedia is free--if you've got access to the Internet, at any rate.

Then, ebrary released its report on faculty use of ebooks. The title of the study is a bit of a misnomer, since the survey also covers electronic journals, which thus far have led the charge in moving scholarly content online, and faculty overall prefer electronic journals to print. No surprises there. For books, faculty still prefer print, but many of the responses show that the reason is that ebooks are still, after all this time, difficult and cumbersome to use. DRM restrictions on downloading, printing, and copying are a big part of the problem, as is general difficulty of use. Even e-journals, in my experience, still hew far too closely to the print paradigm, with publishing and navigational features that mirror print. But it doesn't make sense for them to continue to do that, when putting scholarly content online makes other possibilities available. You can look at the survey results yourself if you register with ebrary.

And of course, while the initial furor over the Kindle has died down, it looks like Amazon is closer to getting it right than previous e-book attempts. Whether it's actually gotten it right--probably not, not entirely--remains to be seen, but growing usage and preference for electronic resources, along with reference publishers finally getting their online acts together, suggests that the age of the e-book might, finally, be here at last.

Now, is print dead? That's another question.

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