Electronic Books: A Major Publishing Revolution

By Hawkins, Donald T. | Online, July/August 2000 | Go to article overview

Electronic Books: A Major Publishing Revolution


Hawkins, Donald T., Online


"And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end..."

-Ecclesiastes 12:12

General Considerations and Issues

even in Biblical times, books were a major way to record, store, and transmit information, and it was clear to the preacher of Ecclesiastes that the book business would go on for a long time. And indeed, time has proven the truth of his words. Despite all the advances in electronic information and the widespread delivery of information to the desktop via the Internet and the Web, the book publishing business continues to thrive. Book reading has become fashionable again, and studies show that consumers continue to devote signif icant time to it. There is even a "town of books", Hay-onWye, Wales, which claims to be the largest second-hand and antique book-selling center in the world. With 30 bookstores offering an estimated one million titles for sale, this claim may well be true. For a book lover, a visit to Hay-onWye is truly an amazing experience.

THE BOOK INDUSTRY

Book production began in the Middle Ages, and passed through a watershed with the invention of movable type and the printing press by Gutenberg in 1450. There have been many significant technological advances since then, but until the advent of the Internet and electronic commerce, the book industry remained essentially unchanged. Even today, publishers still produce printed books and sell them through bookstores. It is currently estimated that approximately 50,000 new book titles per year are published, and that the book publishing industry generates over $80 billion in revenues annually. Recently, the rise of megastores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble, and especially online bookstores such as the well-known Amazon.com, has conspired, in the U.S. at least, to sound the death knell of the independent local bookstore.

Books have endured because they are remarkably well engineered. They are easy to use, generally portable, relatively cost-effective, and they require no instructions or manuals for their use. Paper and ink have superb characteristics for storing and conveying information. Paper provides a reflective surface conducive to reading in a wide variety of light conditions-from the intense lighting on a sunlit beach to the dim light of the full moon. The ink on paper does not flicker and cause eyestrain, which is a problem with screens.

Despite the attractive qualities of printed books, their drawbacks have long been recognized. They can be extremely costly to produce, store, ship, and sell. Because they are a static medium, revisions typically take a signif icant amount of time and effort to produce, so there is often little incentive to keep them up to date. Searching for information in books and retrieving it can be difficult. The success of the retrieval is generally only as good as the indexing. Distributing books electronically has therefore been a continuing gleam in the eyes of developers of electronic information products.

The most recent trend in the book industry is the development of electronic books (or ebooks), which has the potential to be the most far-reaching change since Gutenberg's invention. (Ebooks have recently been characterized as "a meteor striking the scholarly publication world" [1]). Ebooks have been a subject of imagination since the science fiction stories of the 1940s. Alan Kay, the well-known visionary, is generally credited with first envisioning the practical development of ebooks in 1960 with his "Dynabook". Others have been thinking about ebooks ever since online information systems became firmly established in the marketplace, but interest in them has become widespread only recently. One recent sign of their acceptance is the first review of an ebook published by Library Journal (it appeared in the April 15, 2000 issue and was highlighted on the cover).

It is not a difficult conceptual jump to move from databases of article abstracts to databases of the full text of articles to ebooks. …

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