E-Book Scenarios Updated
By Mick O'Leary
3 years ago in this column I made sweeping forecasts
for the future of e-books ("E-Book Scenarios" ONLINE,
vol. 25, no. 1, January/February 2001, pp.62-64). Some
of them have occurred exactly as predicted, and stand
as proof of my prescience and insight. As for others...well,
let's not dwell on the past.
My failed forecasts dealt with individual e-books
used in e-book readers, which I thought would be commonplace
by now. I expected a price plunge in readers that would
bring them into the mainstream, as occurred with VCRs
and DVD players. I expected that e-books would supplant
print in some applications. Instead, today's e-book
readers may soon be seen in the Museum of Forgotten
Technologies, and e-book sales have disappointed for
the past few years.
Nevertheless, there are encouraging signs. E-book
sales in recent months have been turning up. Next-generation
readers, whether as dedicated devices or as part of
handhelds or laptops, may break through. So maybe this
prediction isn't wrong, but just a little early. And
whenever I see some poor kid trudging along with a
30-pound book bag, I tell myself, "It's just got to
FOUR E-BOOK TRENDS
My predictions about e-book uses, on the other hand,
were right on. I said that the e-book killer apps would
be in texts, manuals, reference books, and professional
books, and indeed that's what's happening. These kinds
of publications are available in numerous e-book products
from several STM and reference publishers. In fact,
the market has evolved to the point where four clear
trends can be spotted:
Use, Not ReadBooks that
you consult or read in short sections are more suitable
as e-books than those that you read at length. The
technical limitations and inconveniences of e-books
are tolerable when you're only reading a few pages.
Thus texts, manuals, and reference books, which you
use rather than read, work best as e-books.
Aggregations, Not Single WorksIn
a reference collection, bigger is better; a collection
of e-books, which can be searched as a single database,
is far better for reference than one book.
Institutional Customers, Not IndividualsAs
with other types of proprietary online content, most
people obtain access to e-book collections through
institutions, especially libraries. Several e-book
products have subscriptions for individuals, but the
real action is in selling to libraries and corporations,
which can deliver big customer numbers.
Subscription Pricing, Not TransactionalThe
growth of the previous trend owes much to flat-rate
subscription pricing becoming the norm for e-books.
Transactional pricing, in whatever form, is no longer
acceptable in most institutional buying.
USE, NOT READ
In other words, "The more time you spend with a book
at one sitting, the less attractive it is as an e-book." Thus
novels and general nonfiction e-books aren't (yet)
commoncan you imagine the latest 750-page Harry
Potter bestseller as an e-bookbut works used
for reference are. Some of the first commercial e-book
sites, including Books24x7, ibooks.com, and ITKnowledge,
were collections of computer and information technology
texts and manuals. These remain classic "use, not read" books.
Safari Tech Books Online continues this pattern.
This trend has broadened into other STM areas, with
reference text collections from Knovel, Books@Ovid,
and Wiley Interscience Online Books. All of these are
of course of interest not only to students, but also
to practicing professionalsphysicians, engineers,
scientists, and technicians.
As for general reference, in the past year, three
important e-book collections have appeared: Oxford
Reference Online, xreferPlus, and netLibrary Reference
Center. Each has a large collection100+ titlescovering
a wide range of subjects from prominent, library-oriented
reference publishers. Other leading reference publishers,
including ABC-CLIO, Wilson, and Gale, also offer some
important reference titles as e-books.
NOT SINGLE WORKS
All of the examples in the first trend are collections,
which dovetails perfectly with the "Use, Not Read" concept.
If you want to read a specific book, then only it will
do; if you're seeking a specific bit of information,
any number of reputable reference books will serve.
And the more the better, because it increases the number
and variety of your answers.
Information technology books have also shaped this
trend. Computer and information technology reference
publishing is dominated by a small number of publishers,
including Microsoft, O'Reilly, Que, Sams, and Sybex.
These houses have been active in distributing their
lines as e-book collections, providing complete online
reference libraries for computing and information technology.
Comprehensive professional literature aggregations
are available in other STM fields, represented by collections
from Knovel, Books@Ovid, and Wiley. Each contains a
broad selection of texts and manuals in their respective
The general-reference collections mentioned aboveOxford
Reference Online, Xrefer Plus, and netLibrary Reference
Collectionare comprehensive aggregations of short-entry,
single-volume reference works, representing every major
I'm not alone in having overestimated the potential
of e-book sales to individuals. Several e-book sites
began with subscriptions to individuals as the main
element in their business models. Even netLibrary originally
offered individual subscriptions. Questia, however,
is the poster child for this. It started with a high-profile
campaign targeting school and college students, but
its disappointing performance is a cautionary tale
for the individual sales business model.
E-book sellers have awakened to the value of sales
to institutions, especially libraries. (Why this particular
wheel had to be re-invented is a mystery, given the
long-established and flourishing market for selling
electronic content to institutions. Book publishers,
it seems, are particularly slow to get it.) In contrast,
netLibrary has always concentrated on institutional
sales, despite its willingness to sell a subscription
to an individual. All three of the general-reference
collections sell to libraries. Lately, ebrary has been
moving actively and successfully into library consortium
sales. The STM text collections are intended for institutional
Institutional sales are a win-win-win situation for
all three parties: sellers get large, predictable customer
groups; users get access to big collections without
direct, out-of-pocket costs; and libraries provide
yet another valuable and unique service to their constituents.
The growth of institutional e-content markets has
gone hand in hand with the spread of flat-rate subscription
pricing, including consortium deals that greatly lower
the cost to members. Subscription pricing is now the
standard model for institutional buying. If you are
an e-content seller and you don't offer it, don't expect
a second look.
Most e-book sellers have subscription pricing. It's
part of the reason for ebrary's recent prominence in
the library consortium market. The STM text distributors
typically offer subscription pricing. Oxford Reference
Online and xreferPlus have it, but not netLibrary Reference
netLibrary's experience is suggestive. When I first
reviewed netLibrary in 1999, I praised it generally,
but hoped it would eventually move beyond its buy-the-book,
check-out model. It hasn't, and I think this pricing
model has held back an otherwise innovative and well-designed
Let's not blame netLibrary too much, since it is
constrained by its publisher partners, who are, as
I've noted, a little slow on the uptake. Oh well, let's
not blame them, either. Just look how long it took
the online industry to get away from connect-rate pricing.
Content sellers do everything well except sell.
E-BOOKS COME AROUND
To summarize, e-books are finally beginning to act
like other forms of proprietary online content. They
are available in large comprehensive collections that
support powerful reference applications; institutions
provide access to for most users; subscription pricing
is the rule. I've referred to e-books as the "last
mile"the last major form of publication to become
widely available online. We've long had journals, magazines,
newspapers, broadcasts, etc., etc.it's about
time we're getting books.
Finally, all of this reinforcesyet againthe
powerful, even necessary role of the intermediary in
the provision and dissemination of information. Whether
that intermediary is an information center, a library,
or an information broker, the principle is the same.
The gap between content producers and users is just
too wide. The intermediary partners with the producers
on one side and with the users on the other, putting
great amounts of added value in between. It's been
that way for other kinds of information for about oh3,000
years or sonow, it's e-book's turn.
Mick O'Leary [email@example.com] is
library director at Frederick Community College in Myersville,
MD. Comments? E-mail letters to the editor