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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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    Wednesday, November 28, 2007

    if:Book or if:e-book - arguments for and against e-book readers

    Whenever the debate turns to e-book readers – and especially, of late, the Kindle – people seem to divide sharply for or against, with few concessions. By way of clarification, as a library/information consultant I am largely ‘for’ e-book readers – I can see plenty of advantages and uses, but can also see some faults – or improvements that should be made.

    Siva Vaidhyanathan (according to Wikipedia) is a cultural historian and media scholar, and is currently an associate professor of Media Studies and Law at the University of Virginia. … and is a fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities and the Institute for the Future of the Book. Last Friday, ben vershbow posted Thoughtful comments from Siva Vaidhyanathan on the Kindle on if:Book, being the tail end of Siva's own posting on The Googlization of Everything: Amazon's new book reader destined to fail. Among other things, Siva says (referring to the Newsweek article he quotes):
    And, as Levy points out in the article, publishers are hardly playing this game smartly. They have refused to lower prices for electronic distribution.
    Why should they? They are still selling the same intellectual property. If the argument is that there is the high up-front cost of the e-book reader, which should mean that the content is reduced, I don’t follow the argument. I have just paid £300+ for some bookshelves… I don’t expect Waterstones to help me out! Nor have I ever seen Microsoft reduce their software prices because it has to run on an expensive computer!

    OK, so there are no “transportation, warehousing, taxes, returns, and shoplifting” costs to factor in, but there are other charges – digitization, IT, servers, network charges, and stuff like that. It is neither the publishers’ job to win people over to the readers, nor to steer sales to print-on-paper – a more-or-less neutral charging policy seems reasonable to me.
    All the highfallutin' talk about a new way of reading leading to a new way of writing ignores some basic hard problems: the companies involved in this effort do not share goals. And they do not respect readers or writers.
    I’m not sure what that has to do with e-book readers! Clearly they are not designed for writing. They do represent a new way of reading, but there is no suggestion that they will bring about a new way of writing – that is for if:Book and the Institute for the Future of the Book. I have blogged enthusiastically about that before.

    As to whether the companies involved respect readers and writers, I am not sure that is really relevant to the debate about the merits of an e-book reader either. The excerpt from the Siva post on the if:Book blog begins:
    As far as the dream of textual connectivity and annotations -- making books more "Webby" -- we don't need new devices to do that
    and ends:
    I say we route around them and use these here devices -- personal computers -- to forge better reading and writing processes.
    It's not a case of 'routing around' e-book readers; 'Webby' books and 'Webby' reading can still be done on the Web; and will include online discussions, shared note taking, social reading, and so on. Private reading can still be done privately using a reader or paper-book. You don't have to read socially. On his own blog he prefaces this - and we come to the nub of the problem - by:
    It appears that Amazon has forged its service with essential yet potentially frustrating links to Sprint for wireless connectivity and the major publishers for supplying digital text in the right formats. That means digital rights management. That means consumer frustration and massive failures.
    Apart from WiFi/network problems for UK residents who may want a Kindle, again, I don’t see the problem. Surely if Amazon and publishers are to respect writers, they do need to look after their rights – digital or real – in order that they may earn them their Royalties. And if they are to respect readers, isn’t it only fair that paper-based readers are not disadvantaged by having to pay more? I accept that DRM may – at present – prevent the giving, lending or swapping onto other family-member readers, and that this is a pain, but – despite the amount of time e-books have been around – publishers, readers, libraries, distributors, bookshops and bloggers are still coming to terms with them, and working to get the model right.

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