The Challenge of ebooks

Yesterday I was in London, along with a group of people with a wide range of experience in digital resource management, OERs, and publishing for a workshop which was part of the Challenge of eBooks project. Here’s a quick summary and some reflections.

To kick off, Ken Chad defined eBooks for the purpose of the workshop, and I guess the report to be delivered by the project, as anything delivered digitally that was longer than a journal article. I’ll come back to what I think are the problems with that later, but we didn’t waste time discussing it. It did mean that we included in the discussion such things as scanned copies of texts such as those that can be made under the CLA licence, and the difficulties around managing and distributing those.

For the earliest printed books, or incunabula, such as the Gutenberg Bible, printers sought to mimic the hand written manuscripts with which 15th cent scholars were familiar; in much the same way publishers now seek to replicate printed books as ebooks.

With the earliest printed book, or incunabula, such as the Gutenberg Bible, printers sought to mimic the hand written manuscripts with which 15th cent scholars were familiar; in much the same way as publishers now seek to replicate printed books as ebooks.

The main part of the workshop was organised around a “jobs to be done” framework. The idea of this is to focus on what people are trying to do “people don’t want a 5mm drill bit, they want a 5mm hole”. I found that useful in distinguishing ebooks in the domain of HE from the vast majority of those sold. In the latter case the job to be done is simply reading the book: the customer wants a copy of a book simply because they want to read that book, or a book by that author, or a book of that genre, but there isn’t necessarily any further motive beyond wanting the experience of reading the book. In HE the job to be done (ultimately) is for the student or researcher to learn something, though other players may have a job to do that leads to this, for example providing a student with resources that will help them learn something. I have views on how the computing power in the delivery platform can be used for more than just making the delivery of text more convenient: how it can be used to make the content interactive, or to deliver multimedia content, or to aid discussion or just connect different readers of the same text (I was pleased that someone mentioned the way a kindle will show which passages have been bookmarked/commented on by other readers).

The issues raised in discussion included rights clearance, the (to some extent technical, but mostly legal) difficulties of creating course packs containing excerpts of selected texts, the diversity of platforms and formats, disability access, and relationships with publishers.

It was really interesting that accessibility featured so strongly. Someone suggested that this was because the mismatch between an ebook and the device on which it is displayed creates an impairment so frequently that accessibility issues are plain for all to see.

A lot of the issues seem to go back publishers struggling with a new challenge, not knowing how they can meet it and keep their business model intact. It was great to have Suzanne Hardy of the PublishOER project there with her experience of how publishers will respond to an opportunity (such as getting more information about their users through tracking) but need help in knowing what the opportunities are when all they can see is the threat of losing control of their content. Whether publishers can make the necessary changes in currently print-oriented business processes to realise these benefits was questioned. Also there are challenges to libraries in HE, who are used to being able to buy one copy of a book for an institution whereas publishers now want to be able to sell access to individuals–partly, I guess, so that they can make that link between a user and the content they provide, but also because one digital copy can go a lot further than a single physical copy.

Interestingly, the innovation in ebooks is coming not from conventional publishers but from players such as Amazon, Apple and from publishers such as O’Reilly and Pearson. (Note that Pearson have a stake in education that includes an assessment business, online courses and colleges and so go beyond being a conventional publisher.) Also, the drive behind these innovations comes from new technology making new business models possible, not from evolution of current business, nor, arguably, from user demand.

So, anyway, what is an ebook? I am not happy with a definition that includes web sites of additional content created to accompany a book, or pages of a physical book that have been scanned. That doesn’t represent the sort of technical innovation that is creating new and interesting opportunities and the challenges come with them. Yes there are important (long-standing) issues around digital content in general, some of which will overlap with ebooks, but I will be disappointed if the report from this project is full of issues that could have been written about 10yrs ago. That’s not because I think those issues are dead but because I think ebooks are something different that deserves attention. I’ll suggest two approaches defining to what that something is:

1. an ebook is what the ebook reading devices and apps read well. By-and-large that means content in mobi or ePub format. Ebook readers don’t handle scanned page images well. They don’t read most pdf well (though depends on the tool and nature of pdf used, but aim of pdf was to maintain page layout which is exactly what you don’t want on an ebook reader). Word processed files are borderline but mostly word processed documents are page-oriented which raises the same issue as with pdfs. In short WYSIWYG and ebooks don’t match.

2. an ebook is aggregated content, packaged so that it can be moved from server to device, with more-or-less linear navigation. In the aggregation (which is often a zip file under another extension name) are assets (the text, images and other content that are viewed) plus metadata that describes the book as a whole (and maybe the assets individually) and information about how the assets should be navigated (structural metadata describing the organisation of the book). That’s essentially what mobi and ePub are. It’s also what IMS Content Packaging and offspring like SCORM and Common Cartridge are; and for that matter it’s what the MS Office and Open Office formats are.

I had a short discussion with Zak Mensah of JISC Digital Media about whether the content should be mostly text based. I would like to see as much non-text material as is useful, but clearly there is a limit. It would be perverse to take a set of videos, sequence them one after another with screen of text between each one like a caption frame in a silent movie, and then call it a book. However, there is something more than text that would make sense as a book: imagine replacing all the illustrations in a well-illustrated text book with models, animations, videos … for example, a chemistry book with interactive models of chemical structures, graphs that change when you alter the parameters; or a Shakespeare text with videos of performance in parallel with text…that still makes sense as a book.

[image of page from Gutenberg Bible taken from wikipedia]

5 thoughts on “The Challenge of ebooks

  1. Pingback: ebook workshop – and tag cloud | The Challenge of Ebooks

  2. I think the problem with ebook, is that is has completed “java-ed” as a word. I think a PDF can be an ebook (and pdf as a format is supported on more e-readers than epub is). And that ignores iBooks – because without a JPEG / MP3 dominant standard, why not make your own?

    DRM will almost certainly prove fatal too.

    I feel with ebooks, they are a nice idea, but will get swept away by something much bigger that deals with all these problems.

    I wanted to make this – http://www.pgogy.com/james/book/1.html – into an ebook – but am not sure “offline access” is a good enough reason. Demonstrate where it’d be consumed where there is no internet to augment the content?

  3. Pat, just a quick come back on pdf: I deliberately didn’t define ebooks in terms of formats *supported* by ebook reader but as those which ebook readers display *well*. Reading a PDF on a kindle is a miserable experience. Reading one on a phone or small-screen tablet is often not much better. For a decent reading experience the text needs to reflow depending on screen size (and orientation).

  4. Pingback: The Future of Digital Textbooks « Looking Up

  5. Pingback: The Future of Digital Textbooks | Looking Up

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