Shawn Douglas

Thursday - Oct 13, 2011

E-books and e-readers doing well in libraries, education centersIn August 2008, Mark Mahaney, a leading business analyst with Citigroup, stated “the Kindle is becoming the iPod of the book world.” He reckoned that the Kindle — Amazon’s highly-popular e-reader — would sell roughly 380,000 units in 2008.

Fast-forward to 2011. Ever secretive of their sales numbers, Amazon is estimated to have sold between 5.4 to 8 million Kindles in 2010, with even larger numbers likely by the end of the 2011 sales year. Even if we use the more conservative number, we’re still talking about 14 times the units being sold a couple of years later. It’s difficult not to translate that to significant adoption of e-books and other digital written content, especially with EPUB-based platforms like the iPad strongly playing in the mix.

Of course, there are plenty of other signs that e-books and e-readers are becoming more popular, especially in libraries and the education sector. Let’s look at a few of those indicators.

1. Libraries: The folks at Library Journal released the results of their second annual Ebook Penetration & Use in U.S. Libraries Survey, and those results tell a story of e-books gaining ground in libraries around the country. According to their results, compared to last year there has been a 10 percent increase in the number of public libraries offering e-books, with a 184 percent increase in the average number of available e-books. Academic libraries saw small increases as well, though not as pronounced as the public realm.

Recent news stories seem to support Library Journal’s survey. Whether it’s high-profile entities like the U.S. Air Force or small local libraries like the one in Lexington, Nebraska, interest in and adoption of e-books at libraries is increasing. “We’re using mobile devices like tablets, netbooks, and smart phones more than ever,” Air Force Services Agency administrative librarian Melinda Mosley told the Air Force. “We’re interested in providing service to our customers anywhere, anytime, in addition to providing face-to-face services at our libraries.”

A similar story is told in the city of Lexington, where Kathleen Thomsen works as the director of the Lexington Public Library. “We have so many people coming in and inquiring about e-books,” she told the Lexington Clipper-Herald. “The new technology is really growing.”

Yet while interest in e-books is increasing, both Mosley and Thomsen paint a similar picture of one of the speed bumps along the way: there’s a learning curve to using e-readers and e-books. In each case the additional component of “how do I use this?” comes into play. The solution is on-site education in the form of “sandbox sessions” and “technology petting zoos,” allowing people from all walks of life to learn how to use emerging reading technologies to read the content they want.

Jim Hahn, a researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who performed a recent case study on technology and the library, agrees that despite the popularity of e-books and e-readers, educational and utilization-related barriers still slow the march of tech saturation in the library.

“Librarians have a sense that today’s rapidly changing technological landscape should be reflected in the services they provide,” he said in his case study. “But while enthusiasm and curiosity are in abundance in the library technical field, consensus on precisely where and how to merge library-specific expertise and emerging digital tools remains elusive.”

2. Education sector: A collaboration of non-profits EDUCAUSE and The New Media Consortium since 2005 has yielded an interesting annual report called the Horizon Report. This report “identifies and describes emerging technologies likely to have a large impact over the coming five years on a variety of sectors around the globe.” This year’s 2011 Horizon Report (PDF file) focuses on the education sector, and at the top of the list is the e-book.

The authors of the report make several important points about e-book adoption in the realm of teaching and learning. They mention that traditionally many constraints to e-book adoption exist in the academic realm, including scarcity of titles, inadequate features for scholarly work, poor publishing models, and excessive digital rights management (DRM) placed on digital material. “Most of these constraints are now vanishing,” the authors say, pointing to a wider variety of digital academic materials, replete with more interactive elements that make scholarly work easier to perform. The authors also point to the Directory of Open Access Journals and its 7,000+ journals (nearly 50 percent of them searchable at the article level) housed there as further proof that scholarly work is making its way to the digital realm.

Despite the advances e-books are making in the sector, the authors still recognize that DRM, pricing, and reader-dependent formats hinder further adoption in the academic world. However, the ubiquity of iPads, Kindles, and smart phones among students (and even professors) will keep the demand for high-quality, interactive digital information formats strong, pressuring publishers and universities to give students and teachers what they want.

3. Publishers: New publishing statistics were released recently, courtesy of content producer and publisher Aptara. A survey of over 1,300 book publishers from 2009 to 2011 revealed a great number of things, as reported by ePublishABook.com.

Among the notable statistics was an increase in trade e-book publishing output, rising from 50 percent to 76 percent in the past two years. Additionally, an expansion of the market and not necessarily a reduction in sales is likely responsible for a loss of market share for Amazon and its Kindle. But while Amazon may be losing market share of e-book platform sales to EPUB devices like the iPad, Amazon’s ardent support of Kindle titles across a wide variety of platforms is drawing publishers closer to the Kindle format.

Finally, there’s an encouraging sign from publishers in the education sector. Enhanced e-books that provide richer multimedia and interactive experiences are increasingly being developed. Aptara states that 35 percent of K-12 publishers are developing enhanced e-books, noticeably more than the 21 percent of trade publishers delving into such development. However, just because publishers of education materials are seeing the benefits of enhanced e-books to learning, it doesn’t mean they’re all doing it well.

An interview last year with Theodore Gray, author of the popular enhanced e-book “The Elements,” sheds light on this problem. Gray, well versed in publishing a quality interactive e-book, was asked what mistakes traditional book publishers are making with e-books. He responded by stating that quality programmers aren’t being treated equally as well as quality authors, and many gimmicks are being mistakenly thought of as “meaningful interactivity.”

“Just adding something that rattles around on the page does not mean you have enhanced the reading experience or added to the user’s understanding of the subject,” Gray noted. “The interactivity in ‘The Elements’ is very minimalist, and this is one of its strengths. There were a whole lot of ideas for interactivity that we didn’t put in, because they didn’t pass the test of actually making the book better.”

And therein lies another problem for the publishing industry to tackle. Enhanced educational e-books must focus on providing interactivity that positively contributes to the learning experience. Loads of bells and whistles do not necessarily lead to a quality educational e-book.

4. Twitter: Though not based on solid data (read: somewhat anecdotal), the popular social networking tool Twitter has provided an interesting window into the world of e-publishing. As a regular user of the site, I’ve focused my interests on topics like education, writing, and publishing. Through those interests I’ve had the opportunity to interact with numerous authors, publishers, and programmers.

One of the interesting aspects of Twitter is the use of hashtags to aid others in finding information. For example, #ebook, #publishing, and #writing are popular hashtags appended to tweets. Users can then perform a search on a hashtag to participate in trends, broaden their understanding, and meet new users.

Despite their practicality, it’s still a bit difficult to acquire quality data analytics of Twitter hashtags (though that’s slowly changing). With a bit of creative ingenuity, I ended up with an estimate of 1170 uses of “#ebook” in a recent twenty-four-hour period. I suspect this sort of hashtag usage, when considered with the lively chats and tweets of the publishing community, is at least a small indicator of where e-books are going. If data mining services like TweetVolume and Hashtracking become more prevalent, it may be significantly easier to track the popularity of e-book and publishing trends on the social network.

Social networking aside, evidence appears to be mounting that how we read and learn is fundamentally changing. As e-readers and tablets become more ubiquitous, publishers, libraries, and education facilities are increasingly under pressure to adapt their e-book strategies. It doesn’t mean that the transition will be easy, but it’s undoubtedly in full motion.

Photo via John Blyberg, Flickr Creative Commons