Since returning from holiday I've been involved with probably a dozen conversations about ebooks - about the hardware, Digital Rights Management, suppliers and technology partners, e-ink, about whether the era of the ebook is finally dawning. We've been publishing a small line of ebooks since 2001, but press speculation, fueled by the blogosphere, is that Amazon will join Sony in releasing an ebook reader in the near future, with digitised texts also viewable via Google Booksearch and perhaps on the iPhone and iPod Touch also.
I've long been a big believer in onscreen reading - in the approaching age of always on broadband connectivity the idea that all the world's texts can be accessible, searchable and portable is, I believe, a very compelling scenario. While the book as an object will not become redundant technology for a while, I cannot see why the book industry should be immune from the disruptive changes transforming the music, film, newspaper and TV business, where everyday more and more people access content online.
But repeatedly perusing these images of some of the world's most beautiful libraries has given me a little pause for thought (do check out the whole set of images here - and tell us why Portugal has such a collection of amazing libraries!). The experience of reading in one of these is surely in a different league from booting up an ereading device and waiting for the page to refresh, even if the etexts are fully searchable. Is convenience enough to cause a massive shift in reading habits and perhaps encourage greater use of traditional book content? Do the extra things that ebooks could and should do (annotation, bookmarking, search, customization, integrated multimedia) make up for the fact that the aesthetic experience is different from (and less than?) that of cracking open the spine of a new book.
In his provocative article, Scan This Book, Kevin Kelly says
Yet the common vision of the library's future (even the e-book future) assumes that books will remain isolated items, independent from one another, just as they are on shelves in your public library. There, each book is pretty much unaware of the ones next to it. When an author completes a work, it is fixed and finished. Its only movement comes when a reader picks it up to animate it with his or her imagination. In this vision, the main advantage of the coming digital library is portability — the nifty translation of a book's full text into bits, which permits it to be read on a screen anywhere. But this vision misses the chief revolution birthed by scanning books: in the universal library, no book will be an island.
Kelly imagines a future where texts are 'liquid' - taggable, mashable, hyperlinked and above all searchable and findable. This 'universal library' he posits, will once again make books central to the culture (as they were when most of the libraries here were built) and provide value for readers, writers and the publishers who get it.
I think that Kelly's idea of 'Books: The Liquid Version' is beyond the imagination of most publishers at this point in time (though there are those actively exploring the possibilities). We're still working out how to make ebooks work, how much content should be available online for free and who the players are in this brave new world. So happily, despite the buzz around electronic books it seems that the printed book, the ebook and the beautiful temples to reading shown in the photographs will coexist for some time yet.
Jeremy Ettinghausen, Digital Publisher