Bound by the bound book

dusty book

The audience was aghast; “pay more, you say?”  The incredulous response came at a recent(ish) JIBS event, upon the suggestion that there might be some circumstances in which a library would be willing to pay more for e-book content.  Which got me thinking – what would we be (potentially) willing to pay more for?

In a mixed audience made up of librarians and e-resources staff, publishers, academics, and others, one of the main grumblings of discontent was at the frequent linking of the cost of an e-book to the cost of a physical book.  An enlightening talk from Liz Martin at IOP Publishing explained some of the processes and costs unique in producing an electronic version of a title.

But cost isn’t the only area in which the potential of e-books is being linked to that of a physical copy.  Freed from the limitations of paper, the e-book offers the possibility of connected content, of using the best available media to explain ideas, and of giving users more powerful tools than simply digital versions of post-it notes and highlighter pens.  Too often e-books are sold to libraries and other users as flat PDFs of featureless ePUBs.  This doesn’t add the value we would be willing to pay more for.

The most obvious way that this thinking is hampering the potential of the e-book is in creating a usage model which treats an e-book in the same way as one would treat a physical copy.  The limitation of ‘concurrent usage’ is to treat an e-book as though there are individual electronic ‘copies’ owned by the library.  Alternatively, a token system suggests that the e-book has been ‘used up’ after a certain point (perhaps a nod to the worn, torn and tattered pages of some of our older textbooks!)  Either system can create a barrier to usage at the point of need, unnecessarily akin to a physical copy already out on loan.  The removal of such barriers would surely add value.

The inability to move thinking away from the limitations of the physical did for the golden-age for recording artists; authors looking to protect their digital rights and ensure they are remunerated for their hard work and knowledge might consider how adding value can avoid them facing the same fate.  Downloading an illegal PDF might have the same content as an e-textbook not currently available to the user via their library.  An e-textbook with connected content and rich media, available anywhere and at any time adds value beyond what could be easily replicated.

If we can stop thinking of the e-book as a simple online facsimile of a physical copy, we can stop thinking of a product made up of ‘1s’ and ‘0s’ costing as much as one which you can hold in your hand!  We might even be willing to pay more for those ‘1s’ and ‘0s’!

Michael Stevenson, University of Manchester Library

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