image A bomb threat at Brooklyn College emptied the library building (photo), preventing me from delivering my talk on E as a bridge: How e-libraries and the right e-book devices could bring nations, socioeconomic classes and generations closer together.

The librarians loved the XO-1 I demoed at lunch, however, and I was especially tickled by the eagerness of a Pakistani librarian to introduce XOs to children in her city so they could enjoy picture books in E. Along with Wayan Volta of OLPC News, another invited speaker at BC, and Lisa Ellis, our peerless host, I’ll be rooting for her dream to come true. Josh Gay, a gifted young organizer from the Free Software Foundation who also has helped out at One Laptop per Child, was there, and while OLPC resources are stretched thin, I’m mightily hoping that OLPC volunteers can put up country-by-country lobbying tips for XO boosters at the grassroots level. Best of luck to Josh and colleagues on this front!

Few signs of E in NYC

But is the entire planet absolutely screaming for XOs and e-books? No nirvana yet. Educause has just published a provocative article headlined E-Books in Higher Education: Nearing the End of the Era of Hype?—complete with a question mark. I agree with the punctuation. We’re not out of Hype Land. E-books as a mass phenomenon have a way to go.

Both in New York and on Amtrak, I didn’t see a single soul with a Kindle or other dedicated e-book reader—maybe I’d have fared better in Business Class rather than Coach. Returned to the Washington, D.C., area, I did notice a young lady on the Metro subway intently staring at a cellphone screen and asked if by chance she might be reading E. No, she was just updating her contacts list. With cellphones so ubiquitous, you’d hope that NetLibrary and similar outfits would get the message if they want E to be more than a groan-inducer and laughingstock.

Groans over E

In that vein, a science librarian from Brooklyn College told me how much students hated to learn that books they needed were available only in E. Like me, they intensely dislike the prospect of having to consume e-books in front of a computer monitor—so often the case with services like NetLibrary. Remember, these kids grew up on computers. Here’s to the tablet / PDA / cellphone option, and a backoff from DRM, which, by helping to prop up the Tower of eBabel, makes it harder to enjoy E on cellphones and variety of other devices! As I keep pointing out, DRM is a toxin for both sales and literature—a point that Josh entertainingly and eloquently reinforced at the Brooklyn conference. Introduce E to students in the wrong way, and they’ll learn to hate e-books, just as so many at Brooklyn College are apparently doing.

The college librarian’s observations there were entirely consistent with some stats that the Educause piece reproduced from Ed Walton, acting dean of University Libraries at Southwest Baptist University:

Student and Faculty Preferences for P-books Versus E-Books

College Students Conduct Research Textbook Leisure Reading
Ratio 2.3/1 3.6/1 30.8/1
P-book 56.3% 67.5% 80.1%
E-book 24.5% 18.5% 2.6%
No Preference 13.2% 7.9% 11.3%
No Response 6.0% 6.0% 6.0%
Ratio 10.0/1 N/A N/A
P-book 80.0% 92.0% 92.0%
E-book 8.0% 0.0% 0.0%
No Preference 8.0% 4.0% 4.0%
No Response 4.0% 4.0% 4.0%

Notice? While optimists would note that 18.5 percent of the surveyed students preferred E for textbooks and 7.9 percent had no preference, that’s still a distinct minority despite the greater ease of searching for information within E. Furthermore, 80.1 percent favored p-books for recreational reading, 11.3 percent had no preference, 6.0 percent gave no response, and a mere 2.6 percent preferred E for recreational reading.

Of course, publishers of recreational books shouldn’t kiss off the 13.9 percent willing to do E, the total of the 11.3 and 2.6; and I’m also gratified that close to 38 percent of students favored E for research or had no preference. Still, the study offers one more clue as to why global e-book sales at the retail level are probably several hundred million at the most, compared to the tens of billions of annual sales of p-books.

Correctly, the Educause article noted that more recommendations of E from professors could drive student adoption of e-books. Still, E also could be much easier to use.

DRM vs. usability—and better business models

And the key to ease of use continues to be not just better gizmos but appropriate standards and an end to DRM. I fervently hope that the right business models can evolve to banish DRM even from libraries (reliant on expiration of access), and, of course, a TeleRead approach could expedite that while still compensating writers and publishers fairly. As one option, we need to think about measuring demand for individual books—with adequate fraud-proofing!—so that they can be disseminated widely without today’s hassles for users. See the possibilities here for well-stocked national digital library systems?

In a related vein, libraries need to consider the permanent checkout model, under which library users could keep at least some titles permanently. With social DRM in use—nope, that’s not traditional DRM, just putting owner-specific identifiers in books in plain English and perhaps in other ways—permanent checkout would be more practical an option. Josh hates the term “social DRM,” he doesn’t want anything positive associated with those initials, but he appeared very open to the concept itself. In fact, the Free Software Foundation likes the idea of watermarking, a close relative of social DRM, as an alternative. Here’s  hoping that forward-looking publishers and policymakers will be listening if they truly want young people to learn to love E.

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  1. >>>A bomb threat at Brooklyn College emptied the library building (photo), preventing me from delivering my talk on E as a bridge: How e-libraries and the right e-book devices could bring nations, socioeconomic classes and generations closer together.

    That really, really sucks. Of course, we never heard a thing about it on the news at all. Why couldn’t the eejit have waited til *after* you spoke?! Or given up the stupid idea altogether!

    Place to see people do e-reading in NYC is on the subway!

  2. David,

    Thank you for your continued advocacy of an improved digital reading experience. At BooksOnBoard, we offer email support seven days a week night and day because the ebook experience remains by no means seamless. We try very hard to make the entry of new users into the world of eBooks as painless as possible.

    Often this succeeds, but it is also frequently a very daunting task. Our support team sees a broad range of issues readers face in getting access to their ebooks. We also see the confusion created by efforts at proprietary standards like Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s BBeB.

    Moreover, Microsoft has essentially abandoned the loyal long-term users of Microsoft Reader, another large company’s earlier attempt at proprietary standards. Microsoft has – as far as can be observed since there has been very little communication – done little or no interoperability testing on Microsoft Reader in well over a year, meaning that users who adopt new operating systems such as Vista and Windows Mobile 6.xx are left to fend for themselves. BooksOnBoard tries to help the users that get caught in these situations, testing solutions and patchwork fixes that seem to vary by device in the mobile world with MS Reader.

    The BooksOnBoard Support team is very encouraged by the new Adobe epub format and the evolving interface of Adobe Digital Editions. We also like the improvements being made by Mobipocket. We hope both developers continue their improving focus on understanding our readers real requirements and desires.

    Until something like Social DRM achieves acceptance by the publishing community – particularly the major publishers who control most of the revenue stream – the issues associated with DRM and proprietary standards are not likely to go away completely. But keeping a spotlight on the questions surrounding DRM and ease of use is critical to ultimately result in a much more satisfying and productive ebook reading experience.

    Thanks again, David.

    Bob LiVolsi

  3. You’re very welcome, Bob. You and other independent retailers—for example, Fictionwise, Diesel eBooks and—all share this frustration with the eBabel mess. Let’s hope that the IDPF and publishers will pay attention.

    The IDPF could help by encouraging experimentation with social DRM, as well as by releasing an “Intel Inside”-style logo for nonDRMed .epub books and programs and sites that could handle them. An all-inclusive logo covering DRMed books, too, once there was an encryption standard, would follow. Of course, the best solution to DRM incompatibilities, by far, is no DRM. Without Adobe DRM involved, there is no Adobe .epub—it’s truly a nonpoprietary format to the best of my knowledge, even if it is hardly perfect.

    Meanwhile can you tell us more about Vista and Win Mobile 6.xx and Microsoft Reader. What are the problems and solutions (feel free to link)?

    Big thanks,

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