Ebooks what ebooks?

by Derek Morrison, 21 February 2010 (updated 24 February 2010)

Any views expressed in this online essay are those of the author alone and should not be construed as necessarily representing the view of any other individuals or organisations.

In a fairly detached way I’ve been interested in the trajectory of the ebook concept and how it would eventually come to be realised in a mainstream way.To date I have been happy to let the pioneers and early adopters cut down some of the undergrowth so that we could begin to glean some of the more interesting and potentially educationally profitable directions. Recently, however, some personal experiences of using e-reader software on a new smartphone has caused me to reflect on what a useful form factor of an ebook has to be and how this contrasts with other perceptions of the ebook concept which can be the polar opposite of what most end-users think of as a book, i.e. for the purposes of my posting it’s a highly portable physical entity that is a vector for, and presenter of, organised information or a narrative. Note that “highly portable physical entity” emphasis.

But yet it’s the growing ubiquity of such portable e-reader devices which are going to present a number of challenges for higher education institutions steeped in a traditional library curation model for how resources are, and should be, allocated and loaned. Perhaps the greatest challenges are ones of perception about what are ebooks and then how they should be accessed and consumed. For example, in the University of Lancaster’s description of its NetLibrary service the ebook is perceived as an online resource subject to authentication and access restrictions; it’s not something which is downloaded for use on a user’s portable e-reader. Indeed 15 minutes of inactivity on any online book and it is put back on the virtual shelf where it may then be selected by another student. This curated model is pretty typical because IPR and licensing is still grounded in a world based on content and its information mediated by a derivative of dead trees rather than by an iTunes, Amazon or perhaps even, more relevant, a BBC iPlayer type model. I mention the latter because the BBC download service in effects “lends” time-limited digital material to users who are situated within a delimited internet space, i.e. the UK.

Consequently, those interested in studies exploring the evidence, experiences and impact of ebooks in Higher Education first need to consider what conception of an ebook is being applied by those undertaking such work. For example, although the JISC National e-Books Observatory Project which presented its final report in November 2009 has added much to our understanding and the University College London CIBER team involved in the observatory project have been funded to carry out further work into 2010 the ebook model being applied was that of the server-based campus or service online resource rather than that of a download to a portable device. Furthermore a key focus of the e-Books Observatory Project was on student and staff attitudes and behaviour regarding ebooks rather than on the nature and impact of reading devices per se. Consequently, the deep log analysis methodology adopted by this Observatory project only makes sense in the context of real time use of online resources, i.e. the study was of a tethered interaction with a server delivered resource (page 48). On page 22, however, we find that the reseach indicated “users want to put course text e-book content onto portable devices”. So if the subjects of the Observatory project study consuming their ebooks, tethered to a campus desktop that itself would profoundly have affected behaviour which may not have been at all typical if the ebook was delivered on a portable device; a much more natural experience but one not so easily amenable to such a deep log analysis methodology – indeed there would be many ethical questions to resolve before doing so. Despite such apparent technical and ethical difficulties associated with monitoring portable ebook readers, however, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has published a Buyer’s Guide to E-Book Privacy which offers some illuminating insights into how now even portable e-reading devices can be used to track user behaviour.

But back to the CIBER study. The CIBER study was certainly interesting its behavioural findings are grounded in the context of those tethered interactions that were feeding the logs that were providing the data that was used for the analyses. Indeed an interesting point of reflection is whether the grazing behaviour detected in all categories of users (staff and students) and highlighted below was actually influenced by the tethered nature of the interaction.

Nevertheless, given those caveats some interesting key findings emerged, e.g:

“Behavioural evidence from the Observatory project strongly suggests that course text e-books are currently used for quick fact extraction and brief viewing rather than for continuous reading, which may conflict with the assumptions about their use by publishers (and authors). They are being used as though there are encyclopedias or dictionaries rather than continuous text.” (JISC eBooks Observatory Project Final Report, page 6, November 2009). Respondents, however, indicated that screen fatigue played a part (page 18); an aspect that echoes my point that the behaviour studied and illuminated by the deep log analysis could be a reflection of the specific concept of ebooks applied and thus the impact of the reading devices employed.

Furthermore the study also highlight that 60% of reading was directly from the screen rather than from print-outs but speed, pragmatism and digital rights management inhibiting printing may have played a part in shaping this behaviour (page 18). The study also highlights that an increasing number of academics are recommending e-books to their students (page 23) but at the same time offers a profile of an e-book “super-user” (page 24), i.e. a “non-geek” but highly focused older individual who consumes whole e-books rather than browses content.

But perhaps the bigger question is whether ebooks and e-readers have anything to offer as learning enhancement technologies? For example I came across this posting which takes a particular stance, offers some concrete criteria, and draws some pretty grounded comparisons with the affordances realised just by using plain old paper. Even the title Will the Apple Tablet Support or Hinder Users’ Cognitive Fitness? raises questions about whether such devices are a force for good or ill including the assertion that such devices should be nothing less than “integrated learning environments”. I look forward to the promised evaluation of the Apple iPad against the criteria stipulated in the posting.

So while I think we should be grateful for the contribution that the CIBER work brings in illuminating what has been a relatively dark corner I think it’s those troublesome portable ebook readers which offer the greatest affordances and yet also offer the greatest disruptive potential if higher education doesn’t rapidly adapt to their presence. We perhaps need to recognise that mobile devices are now more important reading devices than laptop or desktops. The recent online article Teens prefer reading news online to Twitter (Guardian, 4 February 2010) provides a good synopsis of the findings of the US focused Pew Internet study Social Media and Young Adults (4 February 2010).

While the likes of Sony and Amazon have made some inroads into promoting uptake of portable ebook reader devices they are now being joined by second generation more robust technologies from the likes of PlasticLogic with their QUE device which is capable of much more than displaying ebooks, e.g. CES 2010: The ebook revolution (Guardian, 8 January 2010). PlasticLogic now also faces competiton from competitors with their own robust technologies e.g. the Skiff Reader. But even these second generation ebook readers which are based on grayscale only E-Ink technology are now facing serious competition from other colour-capable devices. The full colour Apple iPhone/iTouch and the Apple iPad, Google’s Nexus One, or the forthcoming Asus DR-570/DR-590 may already have stolen their thunder. E-Ink technology may well spare battery life but E-Ink devices are going to have to compete with full colour multifunction devices and smartphones like the iPhone or Google’s Nexus One that users are beginning to find are acceptable e-readers in their own right (see below). I think that the majority of users will trade a more limited battery life for the benefits offered by such multifunction devices in comparison to the more limited functions offered by the current generation of E-Ink reader. As long a they can get a day’s use out of their device then the majority will go with the media richer and more flexible options.

With all this portable ereader activity it’s good to see, therefore, that there have been some attempts at assessing and evaluating the impact of such devices on learning.

The Princeton University e-Reader Pilot Programme allocated USD 30,000 to investigate the potential sustainabilty of, and pedagogical benefits from, using an e-reader in comparison to paper media (in this case the Amazon Kindle DX. The Kindle DX is the larger format version of the original e-book oriented product intended to make it suitable for magazines, newspapers, or larger format textbooks. Official information on the experience of the 50 Princeton students allocated a Kindle DX was initially rather sparse but the student-run Princeton campus newspaper filled the temporary void by offering some user insights in the article Kindles yet to woo University users (The Daily Princetonian, 28 September 2009). One student appeared to perceive more constraints than affordances:

I hate to sound like a Luddite, but this technology is a poor excuse of an academic tool,” said Aaron Horvath ’10, a student in Civil Society and Public Policy. “It’s clunky, slow and a real pain to operate … Much of my learning comes from a physical interaction with the text: bookmarks, highlights, page-tearing, sticky notes and other marks representing the importance of certain passages — not to mention margin notes, where most of my paper ideas come from and interaction with the material occurs,” he explained. “All these things have been lost, and if not lost they’re too slow to keep up with my thinking, and the ‘features’ have been rendered useless.

N.B. In response to Princeton’s release of its report the following paragraph was added on 24 February 2010.
The Princeton University E-Reader Pilot Programme has now reported on its findings and this provides some interesting insights from administrative and student perspectives. Princeton has certainly invested in its ebook stocks. It offers an extensive collection of ebooks in Sony and Kindle format; but apparently not in the ‘open’ .epub format. Other US pilot studies on using mobile ebook devices with students are also being reported by the US press, e.g. Highlighting E-Readers (Inside Higher Education, 23 February 2010).

A number of concerns have been raised regarding the Amazon Kindle which suggest that while this first generation device undoubtedly has some traction it perhap shouldn’t be considered a reference model for what is actually required.

  • Kindle not good for vision impaired, e.g. Vision Groups Want Colleges To Stop Buying Kindle (NPR, Morning Edition, 22 January 2010)
  • It’s based on a walled garden model and proprietary format which locks the user to Amazon and places major constraints on sharing Kindle downloads.
  • It’s web browser is best described as a work-in-progress and in the UK the web and blog browsing facility isn’t even available. Why? The 3G technology that is the basis of its data feed and its easy payments business model may be an affordance for rapid and infrequent download of information, i.e. books, magazines, and newspapers but extensive web browsing by users isn’t really part of the current Amazon business model and will incur them 3G data charges. Of course if the Kindle range had standard WiFi technology and a mature web browser – which it doesn’t then that may have created a more atttractive device to users but one which obviously would make Amazon’s current business model less insecure. I suspect that when competition in the e-reader space heats up this year they may have to revisit their presumptions and business model.
  • Amazon has the ability to remotely delete content stored locally on the device. The said “Big Brother” function came to cost them consdierable reputational damage; and there was a certain irony in the title they chose to delete, e.g. see Amazon Erases Orwell Books From Kindle (New York Time, 17 July 2009).

The Amazon Kindle is of course not just a device for reading ebooks. Amazon also trumpets its device as vector for newspapers and magazines. At the time of writing I noted 21 newspapers and 12 magazines on offer from Amazon whereas by downloading the PressReader application for the iPhone I can literally access over a thousand of the world’s newspapers should I be so minded.

But it’s time to move on from our temporary Kindle focus/ I think that broader perspectives and perhaps insights can be gleaned from listening to (or reading the transcript) of the interview with Paul Saffo about the long-term future of e-reader devices and their impact upon our expectations and behaviour (The Paper Chase, On the Media, 8 May 2009). The follow-up listener comments add further value to this resource. Other useful personal insights are offered by another On the Media item For the Love of Reading in which the author Ann Kirschner reflects on and contrasts her experiences of using different “reading” devices (On the Media, 19 June 2009). Kirschner expresses her surprise about her perceptions of using the iPhone as a reading device:

The iPhone was the revelation to me. The screen is brighter, crisper. You can change pages instantaneously. But the most important thing is that the iPhone is always with you, or at least always with me … And, you know, the old Woody Allen line, 70 percent of success in life is just showing up? The iPhone showed up, and I didn’t have to make a conscious decision to take another unit with me, another set of plugs. That made all the difference in the world.

Now while I am no iPhone accolyte (or fanboy) I tend to agree with Kirschner but the chances are I would also be as happy with using an “open” Android-based smartphone as an ebook reading device. The iPhone is what I’m currently using as an an e-reader courtesy of Lexcycle’s free Stanza app available from the iTunes store. Android-based smartphone users could try the WordPlayer app for that platform. The portability and pure convenience of the iPhone outweighs any concerns I first had about its suitabilty as a serious reading device. The effect of being able to hold a small device in one hand without feeling as though I’m holding a lead brick, navigate ‘book’ pages with the same hand, instantly adjust font sizes, and bring the device within range of my ageing eyesight without spectacles, all whilst drinking a coffee or eating a sandwich, should not be underestimated.

So suitably motivated I’ve been dipping my toes in the ebook authoring process as well as reflecting on what it has been like to be a reader of books on such a small device. I must say I quite like both although the authoring side requires more effort than just generating the content. The latter can mean either grappling directly with manifests, metadata, templates and XHTML generation or trying to locate a tool that will accelerate the process without breaking the bank.

But in the remainder of this posting I want to focus on the ebook reading experience. I’ll focus on my authoring experience at a later date.

There are now many sources of ebooks for mobile devices both free and variably costed. I settled on the ‘open’ .epub format standard because it’s fast becoming the MP3 of ebooks and because the Stanza iPhone app copes with it admirably. There are several desktop/laptop readers for .epub ebooks available as well. One of the quality sources for ebooks free of Digital Rights Management (DRM) overlays is the technical publisher O’Reilly which has a growing portfolio of such ebooks; some free. Although registration with the O’Reilly site and use of their shopping cart system even for free downloads is required I think in this case it’s worth it.

My first ebook download for the iPhone was, ironically, about digital publishing. The O’Reilly site offers a free Best of TOC ebook. TOC’s acronmyn stands for Tools of Change and focuses on publishing innovation. The Best of TOC ebook aggregates some interesting work from thought leaders and alpha bloggers in the publishing innovation space and I think there is some real good food for thought contained in all the many variably lengthed “chapters”. There’s a key point for reflection here in that some quality thinking and writing had been taking place on the blogosphere and elsewhere and due to the efforts of a motivated editor these assets had been aggregated and repurposed thus adding yet further value and audience reach. There’s a lesson there for all existing authors, editors and publishers and perhaps new opportunities for those who don’t view themselves as authors, editors and publishers. Indeed, reading the chapters of the Best of TOC ebook should certainly influence all our thinking about current roles and the status quo. Auricle readers should not that O’Reilly has also made many (but not all) of the Best of TOC chapters available via links on the web page for those without an ebook reader.

All of the chapters in the Best of TOC ebook are worth a read; but a couple in particular stand out. First, the chapter by Mac Slocum titled Ergonomic and Ebook Success aligns with my own initial thoughts that perhaps very serviceable ebook devices don’t need to look like books at all.

Second, was certainly the longest chapter in the Best of TOC ebook. Sara Lloyd’s A Book Publisher’s Manifesto for the 21st Century (it can also be downloaded from her Digitalist site as a PDF). Personally, I found reading Sara’s manifesto using the iPhone’s Stanza reader much preferable to the PDF version mainly because I could digest a bit at a time and then return to the next part of her developing argument later.

Some of the key concepts in her argument are: thinking beyond the book as a single clearly delimited ‘product’; the book as a ‘networked’ entity; the nature of what a ‘book’ is and what we consider to be ‘reading’ is changing;

What is absolutely clear is that publishers need to become enablers for reading and its associated processes (discussion; research; note-taking; writing; reference following) to take place across a multitude of platforms and throughout all the varying modes of a readers’ activities and lifestyle.”

And on the Amazon Kindle Lloyd both praises and criticises.

As digital reading devices go, Amazon’s Kindle is probably the first to at least recognise the importance of the “connectivity” between our differing modes of reading, the fact that readers might like to follow up references within the text or to conduct a related search. The addition of wireless connectivity to the device and the capacity (although frustratingly limited) to connect to blogs, online newspapers and other Web-based content goes some way towards recognising this as well as to acknowledging the fragmented, “always on” nature of most people’s reading habits today, allowing readers to move seamlessly from reading a few pages of a novel, say, to snacking on some news, before picking up a couple of blog feeds. This is absolutely not to say that the Kindle has tied up the future of digital reading and defined what the experience should be; far from it. It signals a step change in that it connects downloadable digital units of reading matter (“ebooks”) with the more exploratory-style online reading and researching, and it is the first device to be intrinsically connected to a commercially viable ebook platform. However, the Kindle is merely one device with one very specific agenda and, as such, it only provides one small, rather flawed element of the picture that is emerging of a future for digital reading.”

And on reading she says:

Reading is not an activity that can be defined simply and it is all too often described as a solitary, immersive experience, as in the experience of reading a novel for hours at a time. This is only one type of reading, and it is important to recognise that narrative fiction makes up less than 25% of the entire book market. In any case, even if a reader spends some solitary time reading, readers have always traditionally liked to swap views and ideas about the content of books, to turn over the corners of pages in which favourite passages appear to which they want to refer again, and to write notes in the margins. Reading is a much less passive activity than it at first appears, and it is connected with many and diverse related activities. The Internet has not created a more active or proactive approach to reading but it has enhanced it, enabled it to happen across more disparate networks and allowed it to be recorded, aggregated and interlinked in exciting new ways. The way in which books might begin to “live” on the Internet will perhaps be the most palpable incarnation of Roland Barthes’ theories in Death of the Author, in which the author is no longer the focus of creative influence but merely a scriptor, and every work is “eternally written here and now,” with each re-reading, because the “origin” of meaning lies exclusively in “language itself” and its impressions on the reader.

Sara Lloyd’s manifesto started life as a blog posting in 2008 and as the above extracts illustrate is well argued; but there is one area in which she fails to convince me. She states:

Google and Apple, between them already have the solution for ebooks (and it’s not a download solution). Read and search on your iPhone and access via a Web browser, anything in print can be handled that way. More to the point: everything in print can be handled that way. Everything will be searched via the Web, everything will be accessed via the Web. Downloads are pretty much of an irrelevance. The question is: what do authors and publishers plan to do about that?

That ignores the reality that despite our concentrations of connectedness much of the world is not connected 24/7 and even such concentrations of connectedness can be compromised by business models based on relatively high tariff paywalls (either for content or connection). Readers of earlier Auricle articles will know I am an advocate of the “filling station” model. Anyone travelling extensively between zones of connectedness will still recognise the benfits of using available connection opportunities for either topping up battery levels or for downloading content for later offline viewing including books, journals, magazines, and newspapers. I recently undertook a train journey where the much vaunted 3G connection was so intermittent as to be unusable plus the galvanic cage that is the average train carriage is a superb distrupter of the critical radio signals that make all this stuff work in the first place. The “filling station” model is much more robust conceptually and technically and in reality is how many web services are behaving anyway, e.g. even the humble web page is a small grained download whereas an ebook or video download is larger grained one. Even the most common form of video streaming is a progressive smaller grained download happening slightly in advance of the actual viewing whereas downloading a whole movie is a larger grained one. Small grained downloads are fine for always on connection scenarios but there are still many many occasions when the norm is not be so connected. I know the concept of the “cloud” is much touted by those interested in selling cloud content and services but I can’t help feeling that a business model totally dependent on assumptions of “always connected” when it doesn’t always need to be, e.g. reading a book, magazine or newspaper or watching a movie clip is a flawed and vulnerable business model. There is just stuff where it makes more sense to have it stored locally with connection opportunities being used to either refresh the content or for value-added networking features not possible otherwise. Anything else is just another form of tethering equal to always having to be plugged into the mains in order for anything to work; something I thought we were trying to move away from. Our technologies may amplify our human abilities for good or ill but a tethered axe is less useful than an untethered one and a tethered electric car wouldn’t be very useful. And so tethering our devices to the “cloud” otherwise they won’t function … Hmmm? I know those who like to maintain control of what they perceive to be their intellectual assets will always want some form of tether realised either through the various variants of DRM, authentication, distribution control, streaming or platform lock in but contained in Lloyd’s manifesto there is a quote worth reflecting on:

The question really is no longer, “Will consumers read on screens in the future?” or “Will all content be found on the Internet?” The question is rather, “How will consumers read on screens in the future?” and “How will all content be found on the Internet?” And as publishers have been latecomers to the online party, the question lurking behind all of this is what, if any, role do publishers have in the digital future? It’s a future which is not too distant and in which texts are potentially increasingly inter-related, multiple information sources and media types are mashed, and a combination of search and social networks provides the gateway and the guide to content online.”

In conclusion I’ve found it really useful to be able to carry a number of texts (some illustrated) around with me and be provided with a pretty good reading experience. Subjectively, I find the small amount of text that can be displayed at one time, and a font size plus an LCD screen intensity than I can set have provided a better reading experience (my eyes have less territory to scan). It’s not a perfect experience but there again reading from paper media is far from perfect as well. More research work needs to be done in this area but as I indicated in my opening remarks and throughout this essay the concept of an ebook as any form of tethered entity doesn’t somehow fit with how they need to be construed, or to become.


Simon Jenkins’ polemic on e-readers Palms, Kindles, Nooks, iPads – none are as cool as Gutenberg’s gadget (Guardian, 29 January 2010) is well worth a read although I suspect he underestimates the impact of a generation whose experiences and expectations are somewhat different to our own.

As an antidote to Jenkins’ polemic the Open Culture ebook primer is also worth a read.

I realise that not everyone will have an ebook reading device so for an approximation of the reading experience you can download a desktop reader but my experience is that the ‘book’ invariably looks better when viewed in a device. We need to remember, however, that most of the e-readers devices allow for changes of not just font sizes but also the actual fonts and that can have a dramatic effect on the overall appearance.

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