Panel at ALA Discusses the Reality of E-Books

Article excerpt

Judy Luther, M.L.S., M.B.A., and principal of Informed Strategies, is an independent consultant in the area of market development. Based in Philadelphia, she has 25 years' experience in the information industry, half on the library side and half on the publisher/vendor side, in various operational and management positions. Here-mail address is jluther@earthlink.net.

Relevant issues include standards, convenience, and functionality Imagine a world where books never go out of print and publishers save money

Imagine a world where books never go out of print and publishers save money on production and distribution costs. These incentives make e-books an attractive way to deliver more content to users more cost effectively. However, e-books are still at the early-adopter stage, and most folks would rather print more than a page to read off-line at their leisure. What will it take for the e-book to catch on and be widely accepted?

This question was addressed by a well-respected panel of industry representatives and users during the 1999 ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans. As co-chairs of the discussion group, Katina Strauch (head of acquisitions at the College of Charleston) and I wanted to learn about the state of the art and understand the critical factors for the success of e-books beyond those who buy widgets.

There are three components to the e-book trade business: the handheld devices that determine the reader's experience, the production process that affects the publisher's system, and the distribution channels that determine the buying process for the customer. Existing business models allocate approximately 40 percent of the list price to the publisher, 20 percent for the distributor, and the remaining 40 percent to the retailer. However, these are changing with new entrants in the market.

Library Applications

To learn about the handheld devices, Nancy Gibbs, head of acquisitions at North Carolina State University (NCSU), acquired 12 of the new machines from SoftBook Press and NuvoMedia. They wanted to evaluate how and where students were going to use this new technology. Delivering content on e-books in a usable way was not easy.

The initial downloading of books was problematic in terms of available space on the handheld devices and obtaining proper licenses so that titles matched the correct machines. They required systems support to download the titles. As Gibbs described their experiences, she wished fervently that their book vendor had been able to provide them with support. One of the early conclusions is that these devices need color and graphics.

The Publisher's Viewpoint

Last year, e-books made headlines with the introduction of the new handheld devices-NuvoMedia's Rocket eBook and SoftBook. Both have limited titles available. Peanut Press, which converts books for the Palm Pilot, is the only developer to use an installed base of existing hardware on which to build. There are a growing number of PC-based e-book developers, such as NetLibrary, NetBooks, and MetaText, that use proprietary formats in an effort to provide additional security in the electronic environment.

Kim Richardson, e-book product manager for R.R. Donnelly, works directly with publishers and pointed out that e-books provide an unlimited inventory, which means that everything is available 24 hours a day, nothing is out of stock, and customers have greater access to content. …