Pitfalls of eBooks and Why They Don’t Matter


Apple Ipad that also serves as an ebook reader

With the release of Apple Inc.’s iPad, another chapter is being written in the history of digitized media.  Specifically, the iPad continues the work done by products such as the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook, in furthering the development  of the eBook market.

By definition, eBooks, also known as digital books, are e-texts that form the digital media equivalent of a conventional printed book, analogous to the mp3 in the digital music realm.  First developed in 1971 by Michael S. Hart’s “Project Gutenberg”, eBooks have recently recaptured the attention of consumers and technological gurus alike, with the huge retail success of the Kindle in particular.  However, the technology has received an equal magnitude of attention from critics and publishers, who fear the same events that threatened to cripple the music industry as a result of digitized media will occur once more, this time at the expense of the physical book industry.  However, after a quick review of how the mp3 and downloadable music has changed the music industry forever, it seems quite apparent that putting eBooks into the mainstream stands to improve revenue from books, rather than to cripple the industry.

The relationship between the Recording Industry Association of America and the concept of digitized music certainly got off to a rocky start—I don’t think anyone will argue with that.  With the birth of Napster in 1999, music was able to be traded among individuals without any restrictions for the first time, with “consumers” able to collect arbitrarily large volumes of music and other digitized media without having to pay for it.  While the RIAA employed successful litigation to shut the service down, the concept that was the core of the service was carried on in the form of decentralized peer-to-peer file sharing programs—in a nutshell, services which allowed trading and communication between any two computers within the service.  The music and movie online piracy that emerged as a result of these programs sent the RIAA into an uproar, and commenced a campaign against the technology that has lasted for nearly a decade.  However, while the ability to transfer mp3s between computers started as a black market sinkhole for the industry, it led to arguably one of the most successful online purchasing models yet created: The Apple iTunes Store.

Opened on April 28, 2003, the iTunes store would eventually become the single largest vendor of music in the United States.  By incorporating both a pricing model that gave royalties to artists for their downloaded content, as well as built in Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology, the Store successfully bridged the gap between mass digitalization of media and legal means of distribution and downloading.  While the issue of piracy still remains, the monumental success of the service created an opportunity for artists and producers alike to market themselves and distribute their music in an entirely new fashion, as well as developing a new source of revenue.

The value in reviewing the successes and failures of digitized music lies in the fact that with some careful study, those who have their hands in the physical book industry can reach an equilibrium between digitized media and legal avenues for its distribution more quickly and less painfully.  As it turns out, certain niches of the industry have already begun to embrace the concept.

With the current generation of students fully equipped to thrive in a digital age, the relationship between student and academia has become increasingly more digital and liberal.  Services such as JSTOR, which license massive archives of academic literature and content to universities and libraries, including Cornell, allow students to have unprecedented access to academic journals and the valuable research that they contain.  Additionally, online education technology, such as those developed by Aplia and other like services, have begun to change the way students interact with course material, with online tests and problem sets being readily integrated into a student’s coursework.  Both examples demonstrate the potential of digitized literature to change the way information is acquired and shared.

Currently, overly restrictive DRM has been holding the eBook industry back, as a lack of technology standardization and limitations on distribution have created a stall in the mainstreaming of the technology.  Publishers, with good reason, are hesitant to let in digitized literature technology, as it certainly threatens to send an earthquake through the industry, just as digitized music did the same for the RIAA and the rest of the music industry.  However, I remain a firm believer that technological progress is an inevitable phenomenon. eBooks and the eReaders used to view them will continue to grow in their influence on the ways we interact with books.  If the industry’s constituents have any foresight whatsoever, they will eventually see the immense potential of the technology, to create new revenue streams for publishers and authors alike as well as increase the availability of and ease of access to academic and commercial literature to an increasingly tech-savvy consumer.  Only time will tell how soon and how rapidly that realization occurs, but I believe (and hope) that it is soon.