Wednesday, June 08, 2011

e-Books: The Hottest Infant on the Market?

e-Books grows in interest among professional communicators and instructional designers.

  • Several sessions at the most recent Society for Technical Communication Summit addressed the topic.  
  • Furthermore, the most recent Horizon Report from EduCause and the New Media Consortium names e-Books as a trend that is likely to affect education in the next 12 months.  

But several pieces of evidence suggest that e-books is still in its infancy.

One has to do with hardware and software formats.  They still proliferate. Two broad categories exist and, even within them,  standards compete for supremacy.

Purpose-built e-book readers, such as the Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and Sony e-Reader. Each has its own market.  For example, according to the New York Times (published May 22, 2011 at, the Barnes & Noble Nook has a strong appeal to women.

Although many believe that EPUB is the file format used on all e-reader devices, it is not.  In fact, the Kindle does not support it.

Tablets, such as the iPad and Playbook. The iPad has its own proprietary bookstore with iBooks, but the makers of other devices make compatible software for it.  For example, Kindle has an app that works on the iPad, so people can read Kindle books on an iPad.   Similar apps are available for tablets running under Android and Windows.

Another has to do with the definition of an e-book. Some people see the future of electronic books as interactive, multimedia experiences like the demonstration version of Sports Illustrated prepared by Wonderfactory.  Yet despite those images and claims like those by a recent tweeter at the STC Summit that “PDF is not an e-book,” many of the magazines for the Nook are PDF files.  And readers do not appear to be complaining about them.

Perhaps that gap between the potential and what readers are willing to accept can be explained by acceptance issues.  Several research studies suggest that, despite the acknowledged benefits of e-book readers—portability and lower cost of books—readers are still having difficult y giving up printed books.  That includes young readers.

A recent study noted that students believe that tablets will transform college—but most down own one.  And when they have used them, the study found that students had some practical problems, like writing notes in books.  (Chronicle of Higher Education online, ).

Furthermore, business models for e-books are still being defined—and publishers of books have different allegiances than those of magazines.  Publishers of books embraced the iPad and iBooks because Apple was going to charge more for e-books than Amazon, which had insisted on $9.99 for popular titles.

In contrast, magazine  publishers are as frustrated with Apple as book publishers were with Amazon.  Until earlier this year, Apple would not let publishers offer subscriptions.  Even when they do, Apple won’t provide magazines with information on subscribers, which is essential for advertiser-sponsored publications as advertisers demand demographics of the audience to verify that the magazine is helping advertisers reach their intended customers.  In contrast, Barnes & Noble has partnered with magazines in offering subscriptions and provides magazines with data on their subscribers.

The last piece of evidence that, despite the increasing interest in them, e-books remain  in their infancy is the lack of empirical research on them.  Few studies exist and, of those that do, most explore attitudes towards e-books.

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