Monday, September 13, 2010

ebook Economics

Did you know that the Darling Library has nearly as many ebooks as it has physical books? As of May 20, 2010 we had 52,410 different ebook titles and 53,762 book titles on the shelves. These digital books are not like the increasingly familiar ebook formats sold to individuals that work only with certain readers such as Amazon’s Kindle (TM) .

Nearly 40,000 of our ebooks are part of a wide range of academic titles to which we subscribe through ebrary. The ebrary model caters to libraries and allows us to have multiple simultaneous users – so long as they can log in through our library’s proxy server. And no special e-reading device is required. Their pricing, based on the number of FTE students we serve, makes these books very affordable.

NetLibrary is another vendor from which we have purchased a significant number of ebooks. Instead of paying an annual subscription, we paid a one-time price for these like we do for ink-and-paper books. We purchased two of the four NetLibrary “packages” through our membership in the Christian Library Consortium. Again, the pricing for these ebook packages is based on student enrollment making the cost very affordable. For example, last year we paid $1 per full time HIU student for 398 ebooks in a Religious/Theological Netlibrary ebook Collection. This is very different from how hardcover books are typically purchased -– selected title by title.

In the case of a physical book, publishers must estimate the demand and manage their supply carefully, weighing the economic risks of misjudgement. Then books can go forever out-of-print and become unavailable when demand dwindles. But due to the nature of digital media, no one really knows the cost of publishing an ebook. Once it has been created in digital format, making multiple copies is not costly at all.

So, the question is, What are libraries (and individuals) willing to pay? What pricing models will be mutually beneficial for publshers, vendors, and end users? What formats (pdf?) and value added features (such as the ability to highlight and make notes in the margins) do library patrons require to make the investment worth while? After all, who cares how inexpensive they are if no one wants to use them?

The current aggressive competition among e-reader sellers indicates a nervous lack of confidence that the reading public is fully convinced of migrating to e-reading. And rightly so. Beatrice Krause, Opinion Editor of The Hope International Tribube writes,
"E-books are inarguably more convenient and more eco-friendly, but they simply do not hold that same special place in our hearts... Reading is an intimate thing, but e-books bring a cold impersonal side to books that does not belong." (1)

Beatrice is not alone. Therefore, we will see efforts to try to woo her in the way of continued improvements in design and technology, gimmics like adding a scratch and sniff old musty book smell sticker with the sale of each e-reader and more interesting developments in ebook economics.

(1) Krause, B. (2010, September 9). Refusing an Empty Bookshelf. The Hope International Tribune, p. 7.

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