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    Location: Aberystwyth, Wales, United Kingdom

    I am the owner and managing director of Information Automation Limited (IAL), a company that specialises in research, consultancy and training for the information profession. We are particularly interested in all forms of electronic information resources (e-journals, e-books, etc) and I teach a course in electronic publishing at the Department of Information Studies in Aberystwyth. Drilling down still further(!), my interests centre on the quality and evaluation of electronic information, and in the thinking that underpins activities in library and information science.


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    Friday, July 27, 2007

    What is it about e-books...

    Despite some ten years' availability, e-books in the scholarly domain seem stubornly reluctant to 'take off'... or at least to take off in the same way that e-journals have. Novels - and the kind of books bought by individuals for leisure reading - seem to be doing fairly well, and many university libraries have small collections of e-books - mostly furnished by one or other aggregator - which are used to some (as yet unknown) extent.

    e-Journals are a bit further down the road, more established, than e-books but the take-up was and is much stronger. Some further light may be shed on this by the SuperBook project (and here) and the up-coming e-Book Observatory project of UCL's Centre for Publishing, but - meanwhile - others are also wondering. Richard Charkin responding to Adam Hodgkin's Exact Editions blog, suggests:
    1. Scientists are by their nature early adopters of technology and thus have had no problems moving from communicating in print to communicating digitally.

    2. Scientific publishing has been intrinsically more profitable than trade book publishing. This allowed the major publishers and societies to invest the significant sums needed to create electronic delivery and storage platforms for scientific information. These platforms are a cornerstone for the creation of a new business and communication model.

    3. Budgets for the acquisition of scientific information already existed and coud be readily transferred from print to digital acquisitions. These budgets were and are controlled by a professional cadre of librarians whose job is to ensure the best and most economic retrieval of information. They are the key partners to ensure highest standards.

    4. The people who work in scientific publishing are by and large fascinated by the challenges of delivering often obscure information to a global audience and have embraced digital technology.

    Trade book publishing has very different characteristics.

    1. The general public has adopted some new technologies very quickly but to most people a book is a book - sheets of paper between covers, usable without batteries and readily portable.

    2. Trade book publishing is usually a low-margin business and any spare cash has tended to be spent on investing in new authors and new marketing campaigns rather than long-term technological platforms. This is changing now with the emergence of solutions such as BookStore but this late movement hasn't helped a business model to develop.

    3. Apart from the less-than-healthy public library market, there are no institutional budgets for the purchase of trade books and so no easy way of pump-priming the market.

    4. The people who work in trade publishing are driven by the desire to find a great new author, to mix in the world of literature, to win literary prizes. Delivery mechanisms and complex technology are simply not high on their agendas. This is also changing but it will take time.

    And I suppose the final reason why trade books will find it harder to establish a digital model than scientific journals is that not all books are purchased simply to be read. They are purchased as gifts, as furniture, as status symbol, as insurance against boredom. None of these reasons is adequately solved by a digital version. A scientific paper is only purchased for its content.

    His final thought aligns with my own findings - and hopefully in due course with those of SuperBook! - the gap is narrowing, and more scholarly monographs are being published eletronically. Although an economist at MIT thinks that there is an "increasing tendency of high-profile scholars to bypass the traditional peer-review system" (at least in economics) - so, perhaps the entire scholarly publishing model is about to implode, sucking most traditional forms of writing into an open access black hole!

    Added a couple of hours later: At the time of writing the original entry, I had not read Walt Crawford's latest Cites & Insights (v7, i9). He begins:
    I believe that gray literature—blogs, this ejournal, a few similar publications and some lists—represents the most compelling and worthwhile literature in the library field today
    and goes on to quote Eric Schnell comments in a May 31, 2006 post at The medium is the message (ericschnell.blogspot.com), “Is blogging scholarly communication?”

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