Rick Anderson’s recent Scholarly Kitchen post Online Information, EBooks, and Moral Panic offered a strong reminder that the rush to publish and read online has also spurred an inevitable “road rage” effect, a denial of the utility of the digital version that lauds the values of print. How well do these regularly visible, extreme positions reflect the reality of what readers want?
The American Mathematical Society (AMS), and DeltaThink, recently performed a survey of 7,000 AMS members looking at usage and perceptions of epublications. From some 1,400 responses, we discovered that among all age groups, a very high proportion of mathematicians highly value both print and electronic versions of their books. In the rush to put book content online, publishers should take a deep breath and ask themselves hard questions before leaving print behind. Where is the value in the ebook? Is the ebook merely an electronic version of the print? Do you understand your market population well enough to know who among them will read print, electronic, or possibly both?
Perhaps the most interesting question to ask is why you are considering publishing an ebook. You could be reimagining a classic work, or perhaps enlivening an existing text with new input from the authors, or perhaps truly reinventing the genre, going born-digital. In addition to questions about how to envisage the content, there is a range of ways of one can reach the end user. Should you outsource to the ever increasing number of innovative start-ups that provide platforms and business models for publishing ebooks? Should you develop you own ereader? Should the book be app driven?
A number of interesting projects are out there, and I will list a few below. On the whole though, the ebook remains a fairly straightforward electronic version of the printed work, which while convenient is hardly what one would call a disruptor.
Some interesting examples to consider:
- The Institute of Physics Publishing (IOPP) has announced the launch of a born-digital book program. Having left the book publishing business back in 2005, selling their books business to Taylor & Francis, IOPP is back with a program offering newly conceived digital volumes in their own platform, where books and journals are integrated, rapidly published in a few months, with no digital rights management (DRM), published in HTML, PDF and EPUB formats, including embedded multimedia, interactive charting and MathML. All in all this looks to be a high quality and fascinating venture, emphasizing that diversification for a society publisher has come full circle with the reinvention of the book.
- For the more technically oriented folk among us, it is worth looking at how iPython can be used to turn an ebook with a fairly flat profile into an interactive adventure. See Cameron Davidson-Pilon’s ebook, Probabilistic Programming & Bayesian Methods for Hackers as an example.
- When it comes to business models, there are interesting ventures emerging, like Snapplify.com. Snapplify allows a publisher to upload their econtent, distributing and selling it through a personalized branded web store across iOS, Android and Web, creating an interactive environment for purchasing ebooks.
- It is also worth mentioning the activity of the Association of American Publishers (AAP), who this summer has convened an EPUB 3 implementation working group, across a wide range of stakeholders. The project aims to accelerate the across-the-board adoption of the EPUB 3 format for ebooks. The emphasis will be on features, user experience, accessibility for those with disabilities, and rapid implementation.
In summary, circling back to the AMS survey mentioned above, I would suggest that we have an opportunity to create ebooks that are more than replicas of what we know in print. These new digital paths offer tremendous value but they don’t necessarily lead to an end to print. It seems likely that print will remain a vital force, providing a different value to readers than the purely digital. Perhaps the ultimate answer to the question of “book or ebook” is, “both”.