Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 4, Number 9: July 2004

Ebooks, Etext and PoD

Walt Crawford

It’s been half a year since the last roundup—and that’s almost the only reason for this roundup. Don’t expect startling new developments. Instead, we have a range of short items in chronological order, some slightly longer pieces, and a couple of semi-related commentaries. Trends & Quick Takes has a related note on commercial flexible displays.

A new way of telling a story?

J. Knight posted “Everything old is new again: the digital epistolary novel” at eBookWeb on January 8. He discusses Intimacies, a new ebook by Eric Brown, and some claims made for this “new way of telling a story.” An epistolary novel is one told through letters—Dracula and 84 Charing Cross Road are good examples. Intimacies tells its story through a series of emails, an IM transcript, and some online newspaper pages—and you read it with special software (at, if you’re interested). The software creates frames to simulate email, IM, a browser, a pager—and you use various links to make your way through the story.

Knight notes that Brown calls it “popcorn” and agrees: It’s lightweight “even by murder mystery standards.” He found the “voyeuristic nature” of seeming to eavesdrop on email interesting enough to keep him going until the plot kicked in—and the whole thing only took an hour to read, even at the computer (it’s apparently a very short enovel!).

So why mention it at all? Because fans declare in a feedback section that such a book could not exist on the printed page. Knight: “They’re full of beans.” The books noted above “present better stories, and Dracula draws from more types of epistolary matter than Intimacies does…” The new attempt is strictly linear: There’s no real interactivity, according to Knight. “Ultimately, what would keep Intimacies from being published as a print book isn’t the technology behind it, but the fact that it isn’t really good enough to warrant print publication.” (It may not be long enough either—how many novels can you read cover-to-cover in an hour?) Knight, a big supporter of ebooks, goes on to make a broader point:

I’m not sure, really, why people put so much time and effort into trying to make eBooks something different and better than print books. The much-ballyhooed “interactivity” is a case in point. Engineers keep trying to foist it on us, and we keep running back to our plain-vanilla television and plain-vanilla print books because, most of the time, we want the authors and producers to do the work and entertain us rather than having to do their job ourselves…

Sometimes innovation smells like desperation. We’re desperate to create a new form because we’ve failed, so far, to adequately replicate the old one. No one has yet succeeded in making eBooks as readable, affordable or easy to use as print books, so they employ sleight of hand and toss something like Intimacies into the air, crying out, “Look at this! Look at this! (And never mind that pile of abandoned reading devices and rejected formats behind the curtain.)”

I still believe in the future of eBooks, but only if manufacturers and publishers concentrate on the basics: a large, clear screen; long battery life; affordable reading devices; low-priced content; reasonable, not intrusive copy protection.

Maybe this is the best point to discuss something I’ve had on hand for more than a year: the Journal of Digital Information 3:3 (January 2003). It should be available from It’s a special issue on “hypertext criticism: writing about hypertext.” To make it special, the editors tried to make the issue itself hypertextual:

We invited submissions consisting of one or more brief nodes which we would then link together to create a hypertextual journal issue: an interconnected discussion of a topic rather than disconnected articles.

The editors “hope that this issue can serve as a landmark in the way hypertext criticism is perceived by authors, theorists and the general public alike.” They apparently believe the issue is a big success from which “the picture becomes clearer than it has ever been before.” I tried to read the issue more than a year ago. I gave it several tries over several different days. And my conclusion was and is that, if this makes “the picture” clearer, then it must have been wholly obscure before. I was never able to make sense of the issue except as a set of gimmicks. Of course, I’m working at a disadvantage. The editor’s introduction tells us that in the last decade or so, “hypertext fiction and electronic literature has developed immensely.” How many hypertext novels or short stories or whatever have you read? How many are you aware of? I read that “Writers use links confidently, and electronic literature has become widespread on the Web” and I sit bemused.

Part of my problem may be language itself. Here, unaltered, are the first sentences of the first and fifth (last) paragraph of Mez Breeze’s node, with the stirring title “Inappropriate Format[]ing][: Craft-Orientation vs. Networked Content[s]”:

From the point-of-view of this practitioner-plus-reviewer, it seems evident that various web/net/code artists are more likely to be accepted into an academic reification circuit/traditional art market if they produce works that reflect a traditional craft-worker positioning.

In relation to Translucidity functioning in terms of/as an apparatus/application, the dominant visuality of the work overloads [and overcodes] the weighting of the actual content.

Breeze is from Australia. Maybe that version of English is diverging from American faster than I believed. Readers who find themselves immersed in hypertext fiction are welcome to point me to prime examples.

Actually, one “node” did seem readable and sensible—Julianne Chatelain’s “Learning from science fiction criticism: Excessive candour.” She notes that the early community of English-speaking science fiction readers and writers “had an uncanny resemblance to the present community of people engaged in working with and on hypertext fiction. In both communities:”

Almost everyone who read the stuff also wrote the stuff.

Most community members where “friends” and as such were unwilling to write anything publicly critical of other members’ work.

Is that it? I’m unaware of any worthwhile hypertext fiction because I’m not part of the hypertext community?

D-Lib, February 2004

Bonita Wilson offered a brief editorial on “Innovations in book production,” coupling an NPR story on Powis Parker’s on-site book-binding machines with Anywhere Books, a nonprofit planning to use a “digital bookmobile” to produce instant books in Uganda. Similar efforts are underway in Egypt and India. Brewster Kahle has demonstrated the capability. I wonder about the claim that you can produce an on-demand book for “as little as $1.00 each”—given laser printing, I’d expect toner and paper costs alone to exceed that figure, except for booklets—but the piece raises an excellent point: Very inexpensive on-demand print books may make more sense than ebooks in third-world countries, since the print books don’t require access to computers and the internet (or electricity, for that matter). “Frequently, there seems to be a tension between how a new technology affects the stakeholders from various communities—in this case, first world and third world communities. It is refreshing when a technological breakthrough can be seen as a positive thing for all.”

True. I should point out that this whole discussion concerns print-on-demand books, which are only “ebooks” when that appellation suits the needs of advocates. PoD books are books, pure and simple.

Rosetta Bulletin, February 9, 2004

“Ebooks: Evolution, not revolution, in book publishing” first appeared in Seattle Book Company’s Rosetta Bulletin e-newsletter and was republished at eBookWeb. It’s an interesting story, debunking the “replacement” theory but still having some questionable facts. And, unlike some recent ebook stories, this one admits that many news stories included lines like “Ebooks will soon replace print books.” It’s also a revealing story in an unexpected way: I learned that Hard Shell Word Factory, an early “e-only” publisher since 1996, has started offering print versions of their more popular titles.

Still, according to Ted Treanor of Seattle Book Company, “ebooks have been doing well for some time.” He sees them as an additional medium, similar to audiobooks. There’s the usual percentage-only growth claim: 30% growth of ebook sales in the first half of 2003 as compared to 2002, as compared to “annual growth of only about 5 percent for print publishing”—and, unfortunately, the usual lack of a reality check: 30% of $2.5 million (say) is still a whole lot less than 5% of $12 billion (for half a year). But it doesn’t look as great when you say “ebook sales increased by $750,000 in the first half of 2003 as compared to 2002, while print book sales increased by a mere $600,000,000.” Those may not be the right numbers, but the magnitude’s right.

Ludwig von Mises Institute, March 22, 2004

Jeffery Tucker edits and provides a good four-page article, “Books, online and off.” That piece explains why the Mises Institute has joined a few other publishers (e.g., National Academies Press) in posting its published books online for free.

The point is to expand the market and not assume a fixed number of consumers. Books online and offline reinforce the viability of each other, just as movies in theaters boost movies in rental, and free radio helps the market for CDs for purchase.

Most recently, the press published a $50 1,550-page hardbound, Man, Economy, and State, with Power and Market—and simultaneously posted the whole text of the book in PDF. This is, of course, a highly specialized nonprofit publisher with a mission to publicize “Austrian economics,” but it’s not the only case. Baen Books posts some science fiction works online to boost the sales of all their books; National Academies has found their policy to work well; and I’m guessing that Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture will do just fine as a print book. I was about to write “despite being available online in several permutations,” but I think “despite” is the wrong word.

E Ink Corporation, March 24, 2004

A press release from Philips, Sony, and E Ink announced Sony’s LIBRIé, the “world’s first consumer application of an electronic paper display module” in an ebook reader. Philips makes the display; Sony puts the reader together and markets it—and will probably control ebook downloading. E Ink supplies the electronic ink to Toppan Printing, which makes it into a film that Philips integrates with circuitry.

The press release touts a “truly paper-like reading experience.” The device is reflective. Resolution is 170dpi, giving “an appearance similar to that of the most widely read material on the planet—newspaper.” There’s not even the claim of book quality: it’s “near-newspaper” print quality. Supposedly, four AAA batteries will handle 10,000 pages, since the display uses power only when an image is changed. The device will only be available in Japan, at least initially.

What would such a press release be without one overenthusiastic statement? Here’s Him Veninger from Philips: “The precision of this new high-resolution electronic ink display technology will revolutionize the way consumers read and access textual information.”

Michigan Tech, March 31

“A good read—the way in which an idea is read” by John Holmlund appeared in Michigan Tech Lode. It’s a brief piece that considers the potential loss in computer-based books as compared to print books, even if the display problems are solved. It’s an interesting little essay, recommended without further comment:

EContent, April 2004

Safari Books Online seems to be a sensible proposition—a niche service offering subscriptions for $15 or $20 a month to get full-text tech books from O’Reilly, Que, Sams, and other computer book publishers. The writeup in EContent (April 2004, p. 12 & 14) makes it sound like a plausible, workable market: The kind of specialized market that “ebooks” serve best. The collection has been set up so that you can search thousands of books simultaneously; within a homogeneous collection such as computer technology, that’s enormously sensible. What’s surprising, then, is the reaction of Rich Levin of Book Tech Magazine: “It is still very much a niche market, with an extremely small base, and it is questionable if it is ever going to achieve critical mass.” Later, Levin even questions the usefulness of this sort of service: “I’m not sure why anyone would pay to subscribe to this service when the answer to any question a programmer has can be answered instantaneously in a user group.” Say what? I’m as much a skeptic about ebooks as anyone—but putting down a workable niche because you could get wholly-unverifiable answers from some idiot for free strikes me as a bit much. “Critical mass” for Safari Books doesn’t mean 50% of the print books market or 0.5% of that market: It means having enough revenue to exceed costs. Good niches can do that, and can be valuable for those who need them.

Slate, May 5, 2004

Jack Shafer’s “Honey, they shrunk the newspaper” concerns his experience using the electronic versions of some major print newspapers—etext, if not ebooks. One common projection among digital-everything enthusiasts is that your slate reader could eliminate all those pounds of paper landing on your driveway. “I should be raving about how incredibly cool it is to download the searchable and printable versions of three of my favorite papers onto my ultralight, wi-fied laptop and tote them around the house, into the backyard, and onto the subway. So why are these electronic editions as comfortable as a fat man trapped in an iron suit designed by a boa constrictor?”

He finds that the editions—which simulate the print edition—“induce claustrophobia, even when displayed on a large flat-panel monitor.” It’s like “reading a newspaper through a six-panel colonial window in which five of the panes have been blacked out.” He makes an odious comparison to reading newspapers on microfilm.

To Shafer, print newspapers are easy to explore, easy to share, “require no user manual” and never break when you drop them. “Nearly 400 years of thinking have gone into newspaper readability”—and there are sufficiently consistent norms that, although different papers use different typefaces and column widths, you can pick up a new paper and make sense of it immediately.

Shafer exaggerates in claiming that print newspaper circulation is “in free fall”—many of the morning metropolitan papers continue to have growing circulation—but he nails the impact of the e-subscriptions: “More people attend home games of the Class A Delmarva Shorebirds (3,460) than subscribe to the New York Times e-editions (daily, 3,331; Sunday, 2,780).” I’m astonished the numbers are that high. Shafer goes on to suggest ways that big papers could generate e-editions that would make sense—delivering something new and better.

Walking Paper, May 17, 2004

“Once bitten” is the title of this one-page weblog posting about acquiring new media and technologies in libraries. “Have you ever said something that you wish you could take back? That’s how I think many libraries feel about the whole eBook fiasco.” The author goes on to note that ebooks were being pushed by the producers, not requested by readers. He contrasts this with books on MP3, where the library would not need to lend out playing devices and there does seem to be some user demand. There are serious digital restrictions management issues (except for MP3/CD audiobooks), noted briefly, but the general point is good: Just because ebooks/dedicated readers didn’t make sense doesn’t mean that libraries should ignore other possibilities.

This brings one big question and one small-but-growing thought to mind. I’ll drop the question here and possibly return to it in later issues; I’ll mention the thought, which could turn into a full-fledged essay or article.

Question: Why haven’t we heard about the results of those grant-funded ebook-appliance experiments? They got a lot of publicity when libraries were buying hundreds (thousands?) of REB devices, propping up the failing company. What were the actual results? Where are all those readers now? Did their use ever justify the purchase costs—and could that grant money have seen better use? I’m guessing we would have widely-publicized stories about big successes with these dedicated devices. Were the failures simply covered over as libraries rushed to try something new?

Thought: In the case of ebooks (and particularly dedicated ebook appliances), libraries were “getting out ahead” of patrons—demonstrably, since the number of consumers who purchased ebook readers for their own use is so small that nobody’s ever offered an estimate. My guess is that it’s almost always a bad idea for public libraries to try to be ahead of their users in adopting new media, particularly new circulating media. Instead, I believe, it makes sense to be a little behind: Ready at the point where a new medium serves more than the most privileged set of “haves” in the community. But that’s still rough thinking, and far be it from me to criticize library actions. More later, maybe.

Open eBook Forum, June 3, 2004

“Record eBook retail sales set in Q1 2004; Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code tops bestselling Ebooks for May.”

That’s the head on a press release issued during Book Expo America. For a change, there are dollar numbers behind the usual percentage increases. First quarter 2004 saw 46% increase in units over 2003Q1, but 28% revenue increase—in other words, average prices continue to drop (the first-half 2003 unit increase was 40%, revenue 30%). What do those huge increases amount to? 421,955 “eBooks” sold, with $3.233 million in revenues—still considerably less than one-tenth of one percent of print book sales.

One enormous unanswered question: do those “eBook” figures include PoD print books?

Longer Articles

Dorner, Jane, “Literature of the Book—e-books,” Logos 14:3, republished on eBookWeb in two parts.

“E-publishing is still a self-defining medium, so choosing the literature of the e-book is a daunting task.” Dorner explicitly excludes e-journals, “a different matter altogether.” She admits that it’s way too soon for a balanced assessment of the field; “my list will just be an historic snapshot of roughly where we are now.”

Then we get the hype: “The consultancy firm, Accenture, has predicted that by 2005, e-books will make up 10 percent of all book sales.” That such a prediction could appear in 2003 is nothing short of astounding and would require a bizarre redefinition of “books”—or, I suppose, an increase in ebook sales of roughly 10,000% over the next two years!

Hype aside, this is an interesting treatment. Here’s what Dorner has to say about linear narrative, what books do best: “Unfortunately, e-books do not cope well with language in continuous text.” But, she says, e-publishing is just a child, “barely 30 years old.”

Did Alan Kay actually use Apple’s Newton as the basis for his Dynabook? That’s not the way I remember it, but it’s been a long time. Dorner says, “Interactive fiction has…burgeoned—but it does not sell.” “Burgeoned is one of those interesting terms, particularly for something nobody buys.

The second half is a list of books—all print books (and one article)—and a handful of “online e-ssays” and “online e-zines about e-books.” It’s a curious list and perhaps more interesting for that. Dorner comments on a book about digital type that paper, ink, typography, and print techniques “is replaced now by screen resolution, e-ink, and e-paper.” “Is replaced” seems a bit excessive with ebooks at less than 0.1% of the print book market, but that’s the wording.

Dorner doesn’t agree with Lawrence Lessig’s view of copyright or the idea that Disney and its ilk are manipulating the law for their own purposes. She notes that Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck may be overrated and has “some cranky ideas” (I couldn’t agree more). She states that Being Digital is an “accessible and stimulating look at the digital lifestyle of the future, and the way in which it will merge audio and visual experiences.” After all, Negroponte couldn’t possibly be wrong…

All in all, worth reading.

Doctorow, Cory, “Ebooks: Neither e, nor books,” February 12, 2004.

This is a text version of a talk Doctorow gave at the 2004 O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference. It’s worth noting that Doctorow is both a science fiction writer (who’s successful experimented with “giving away” his books online simultaneously with print publication) and an EFF person. This speech carries a Creative Commons “no rights reserved” license, so I could legally reprint the entire thing, sell it for profit, use it as the basis for a best-selling novel, or whatever. The 14-page piece is a fascinating read, whether you agree with Doctorow or not—and I frequently don’t. Here’s his set of eight ideas about ebooks and books, which in expanded form are the first half of the paper:

Ø    Ebooks aren’t marketing. Well, they are (that is, they can be used to market print books) but they shouldn’t just be marketing. And here’s an odd one: “In the final analysis, more people will read more words off more screens and fewer words off fewer pages”—although the latter assertion has zero real-world evidence to back it up. (That sentence continues; in fact, Doctorow apparently believes that ebooks are the inevitable future of books: “ebooks are gonna have to be the way that writers earn their keep.”)

Ø    Ebooks complement paper books. “For now,” apparently, given his preceding sentences.

Ø    Unless you own the ebook, you don’t 0wn the book.” Clearly, I’m not part of the digerati, since I haven’t the vaguest idea what “0wn” means. There’s a lot more here, including a repeat of Kahle’s claim that you can produce a “four-color, full-bleed, perfect-bound, laminated-cover, printed-spine paper book in ten minutes, for about a dollar.” Which I flat-out don’t believe unless “book” means booklet.

Ø    Ebooks are a better deal for writers. Because, in science fiction, word rates are measly, so “the primary incentive for writing has to be artistic satisfaction, egoboo, and a desire for posterity. Ebooks get you that.” Sure they do.

Ø    Ebooks need to embrace their nature—which revolves around the “mix-ability and send-ability of electronic texts.” On the value axes of a paper book, “ebooks fail.” That is, they can’t beat (or match) print books for typography and the like.

Ø    Ebooks demand a different attention span (but not a shorter one). Sorry, but I read his whole spiel three times, and I’ll be damned if I can understand what he’s saying.

Ø    We need all the ebooks. Again I’m not sure just what he’s saying, although he does talk about a “proper ebook revolution.”

Ø    Ebooks are like paper books. That leads off a long section that compares ebooks to paper books, and you’d have to read it.

Doctorow is one of those who thinks “scary hax0r kids” is a meaningful phrase, and maybe it is to his audience. He says as a certainty that “fewer people are reading fewer words off fewer pages every day,” which is almost certainly false, while at the same time admitting that “screen resolutions are too low to effectively replace paper.” He has the usual sneering reason that we buy physical books—“because of their visceral appeal.” What about because they work?

Am I recommending this piece? I think so. With considerable reservations. Or maybe reservati0ns, if I knew the difference.

Two from VALA

I believe both of these PDFs came from the 2004 VALA conference (Victorian Association for Library Automation), the latest in a series of strong biennial Australian conferences. They should not be difficult to find on the web. Both are worth reading, even if I’m poking a bit at some of the content. I’m not offering adequate summaries in either case.

Wendy Abbott and Kate Kelly, both at Bond University Library, write “Sooner or later!—Have e-books turned the page?” Here’s another paper that acknowledges that my straw men really did walk on two feet, noting “decades of premature ‘death-of-the-book’ prophecies” and a specific 1979 assertion from computer scientist Chris Evans: “The 1980s will see the book…begin a steady slide into oblivion.” Despite all that, the authors say, “In all probability, the e-book is here to stay and set to eventually take its place alongside its more traditional antecedents.” [Emphasis added.] The paper discusses market forces and ebook experiments at Bond. There’s a bit of easy futurism in that discussion—“The eventual convergence of mobile phones, PDAs, laptops, notebooks and wireless communications will produce small mobile devices with unparalleled portability, computing power and connectivity. As mobile devices become ubiquitous in everyday life…” Convergence: it’s inevitable.

Never mind. The Bond case study chose an easy target: The School of Information Technology, with students who are “erratic library users” and with IT books well suited to ebook use. I’d expect that ebooks would work better in such a setting than almost anywhere else. Bond signed up for a 2-user license for Books24x7—but that didn’t work out because the vendor had absurd tracking requirements. Back to the drawing boards, or, rather, to Safari Books, first in a trial period, then with all of 90 titles from Safari’s 3,000-title (or 1,500-title) list, again with a two-user license. Those 90 books cost about as much as Books24x7’s 3,000 books would have cost. How well were those books used—by IT students, note, with the 90 books selected on the basis of usage? “During the first two months that the 90 Safari Books titles have been available, approximately 40% of the books have been accessed.” In other words, students have looked at 36 books at least once. That’s hardly a massive success story, but these are early days! Comments about what students liked and disliked about the books follow. Then there’s one of those tricky numbers-versus-percentage comparisons: 66.4% of the print collection (size unknown) was circulated in the first two years of availability, while 40% of the ebook titles were accessed in the first two months. Maybe that shows ebooks as being “more popular,” but maybe not.

Paul Mercieca of RMIT University titled his paper “E-book acceptance: what will make users read on screen?” The abstract notes “the reluctance to read large textual titles on current screen technology.” My question: Why should the library or university make users read on screen?

Why wouldn’t they? He notes the studies showing that on-screen reading is 25% to 40% slower than print reading and that we tend to skim on the screen. He notes that students are reluctant to use electronic textbooks—but would consider using them in the library “primarily if there was no alternative printed texts.” When asked, students found that screen reading from PDF images caused eye strain. Even those who found on-screen reading relatively easy said they were reading on screen “because they had to.” The study goes on to suggest enhancements that might seduce students into screen reading: additional material, animations of key concepts, inclusion of other media. We’re also told that libraries may be important in “developing acceptance” of electronic textbooks.

I repeat: Why should students be forced to read on screen? What higher societal purpose is served by forcing them to use a medium they clearly dislike for long textual reading? I see no answers in this paper.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 4, Number 9, Whole Issue 52, ISSN 1534-0937, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG. Opinions herein do not reflect those of RLG. Comments should be sent to Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2004 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

All original material in this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non­Commercial License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, California 94305, USA.