The cover of the Nov. 25, 2007, issue of Newsweek shouted, “Books aren’t dead. (They’re just going digital).” From Amazon’s Kindle to academic tomes, electronic books are changing the way we think about reading and researching. Yet it is possible that ebooks are also changing the way we think about books in general. In any discussion of the rise of digital books, we must consider this question: Will there be a place for print books in the future?
“Ebooks have been around in small bundles for a while,” says Cynthia Cleto, the global manager for ebooks at Springer. Yet for them to catch on, “Technology and platform had to catch up.”
Indeed, ebooks have been a popular platform for self-publishers and print-on-demand houses for years. For a couple of dollars, paid via PayPal usually, anyone with a recent version of Adobe Reader could download an ebook and save it to a CD. Today, traditional print publishers also see the benefits of offering material electronically.
Springer and other academic publishers took their first foray into electronic publishing with journal content. “We used to do a lot of digital abstracting and indexing,” explains Cleto. “This was a way to give readers a gist of the content.” Academic journals were made available to universities, corporations, medical institutions, and other businesses for a site license fee. Anyone logging into a computer under a licensed IP had access to the full journal article.
However, publishers of science, technical, and medical (STM) books, as well as business and other academic works, saw potential in offering access to books in the same manner. Springer, for example, launched its first ebooks in November 2006 and now offers about 9,000 titles, with plans to add another 4,000 titles per year. ScienceDirect introduced a library of 4,000 books in September alone. The current print catalogs are being scanned to make them digital. New book contracts have digital rights included in the royalties, with a promise to authors that the book will be made available online within months of print release.
The benefits of ebooks over the print version are great, particularly to anyone in an academic or research environment. First and foremost, says Cleto, the information is available 24/7. No more worrying about library hours (or getting kicked out of the library). Secondly, once a library purchases the ebook, it is available to multiple users at any one time (so no more limited borrowing times or waiting for someone else to return the book). The books allow keyword searches, allowing the end user to look for an exact term and be taken right to that page.
From a college student’s point of view, however, perhaps the best thing about STM ebooks is the cost—nothing (above the price of tuition). If the library purchases the license, the student can to log into the publisher’s website via a recognized IP (i.e., a computer on campus rather than an off-campus apartment with a cable modem). The book is available to read online or in print, as the user sees fit. It helps professors too. Rather than create cumbersome, expensive packages of single articles or book chapters for students, the professor can direct the students to the e-version.
STM ebooks require no special readers or equipment, either. “They are fully searchable PDF downloads,” says Christine Scheidegger, marketing manager of ScienceDirect. “All you need is a computer, no special software.”
While it seems that ebooks make research more accessible, the digital books may, in fact, make librarians more valuable. “We have no intent on putting librarians out of business,” says Scheidegger. “Rather, they are integral in providing for the needs of our customers.” Librarians, adds Cleto, are the front line of educating the public on how to use ebooks and how to access them