The death of the physical book
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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 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”.

Robert Harington

Robert Harington

Robert Harington is Chief Publishing Officer at the American Mathematical Society (AMS). Robert has the overall responsibility for publishing at the AMS, including books, journals and electronic products.


13 Thoughts on "Bringing eBooks to Book"

Robert a good analysis of why should one delve into releasing an EBook. It seems to me one can take various courses of action such as releasing the print book and then after say 6 months the e book. Or one can reverse the aforesaid model. Again one can release both at the same time and let the reader choose which format is wanted.

In S&T publishing, I think the great advantage to eBooks can be the enhancement of material such as is being done by IOPP.

What intrigues me is the question of why, “… a very high proportion of mathematicians highly value both print and electronic versions of their books.”
Is this simply a perception of print + digital having greater total reach or is there something more? Surely it’s not a nostalgic attachment to the smell of decaying paper as we hear from some patrons of the trade press.

A good question. I suspect that it is not just mathematicians, but of course have no evidence of this. As an observation, it is intriguing. It is so tempting to rush headlong into the e-world, but print may still have qualities to offer over the long term – perhaps there are sensory issues at play, in addition to an understanding that different formats allow for differing ways to grapple with content. One thing I am sure of that this is not nostalgia speaking, given the large number and range of type of mathematician responding to the survey question.

I don’t work with a lot of mathematicians, but among the scientists I do work with, there’s still a very persistent preference for the print version of things, at least among a significant portion of the researchers. From what I’m anecdotally told, many feel they concentrate deeper and read with better comprehension on the print version of an article rather than one on a screen. This may be due to the isolated nature of the piece of paper, free from email and other distractions. Some may also come from the higher resolution offered by ink on paper than the 72 dpi of most screens. And perhaps most importantly is the easy annotation. One can scribble notes in the margins or mark things with post-it notes. The tools for annotating an eBook, a website or a PDF file remain somewhat clumsy at best.

One former colleague told me that he can tell, with 100% certainty, when one of his students has done an edit on a draft article on a screen versus printing it out. The difference, he says, is in the attention to detail.

I think it’s worth clarifying that most screens (not eink) that people read ebooks on are well above 72dpi (to be precise it’s ppi. dpi is an old print term often misused), from 226 to 440 and beyond. The source image will dictate the ppi and within a PDF resolution can vary from image to image.

It’s actually far more complicated than the above, but my point being, it’s not accurate to say that print has a higher resolution. There’s many determining factors.

And the accuracy of color reproduction, with both print and electronic throwing up unique and complex issues. One minor benefit of electronic being that the colors don’t fade over time.

The problem for publishers, economically, is remaining in the legacy business of print while forging ahead with new models for e-publishing. As print sales decline, the legacy business becomes more costly to sustain, eating into possible profits realizable from e-only publishing. At what point do publishers decide when to abandon print (or outsource it) and stake their future just on e-publishing? Experiments like the Gutenberg-e project show that the kind of innovative e-publishing that IOPP is now doing is not cheap, however. Will it generate enough revenues to be self-sustaining?

This is a great discussion. Books have met a wide range of needs. Some of these have gone away, some are going, but others remain. It is likely that the ebook as we know it will continue as a companion to the printed book for some content, but there is more to this digital lark than the digital copy of an extended, coherent and organised collection we call a book right now.

But here is the thing: digital technology offers such flexibility and power that it will replace books in many (but not all) areas, not title by title or genre by genre, but use case by use case.

Here are some of the extinct, or soon to be extinct, types of printed book: atlases for the general public to get from A to B by car such as the AA handbook (satnav, increasingly free with smartphones, do that); directories such as the Laser Compendium of Higher Education (knocked on the head by the web); phone books (I know their number, and if I don’t I will probably email them instead); Who’s Who (LinkedIn or imdb seem to do the trick); Encyclopedia Britannica (online of course at with a new proposition).

Here are some book types with no obvious ebook replacement use yet, or at least still active print lives: poetry, illustrated children’s titles, hymn books, and (despite lots of effort) core student textbooks.

Here’s one book I’d like to see gone: I long to see the back of the printed (or pdf) user manual for technology. I am typing on my beloved Dell laptop, but even these pioneers have yet to take the next step and truly personalise our relationship based on my single purchase through providing information with true richness. The replacement of the manual by an online tailored advice and troubleshooting service, based on what Dell know about my machine and me, could make me a customer for life. They could offer an integrated guarantee, upgrades, offers, help manuals, sheets of shortcut tips, and tutorials. Coffee machine makers could do the same – the replacement for print needn’t be a pdf and can be better than the old manuals.

Textbooks may be preferred in print for a number of reasons, and here are a few I thought of:
* You can get your head round a printed book – I know the shape of its content intuitively at a glance and no ebook yet has a good way of sharing that “shape”;
* You know where a printed book is – where you left it – whereas I have already lost a few ebooks in the ether in digital moments of madness, BSOD disasters or just plain poor digital filing;
* You can share a book and people are grateful;
* Nobody gave me an ebook for my birthday yet, I wouldn’t be as thrilled somehow;
* For students it is comforting to know they have the same version as everyone else and as their teachers, and it won’t be updated without their knowledge (nor will pagination vary);
* I rely a lot on visual memory, and a printed page always looks the same so can be memorised; for revision that beats a reflowable text;
* How great it is to know, if studying a well defined course, that everything you need is between two covers, whereas the ebook still feels like it has fuzzy edges; I prefer to know how many pages I’ve got to go, and when I;m finished I am done;
The old printed edition still has life in it I feel. The replacement won’t be an ebook but elearning (and even then I still need that fixed-page revision guide).

The last half decade I spent working on BNF, the medical reference, and it persists in printed form because the health professionals know their way around it so much better than digital versions – it is the “shape” thing. But in time various use cases will be replaced. Already the web edition at is preferred for learning and offline research. Machine readable BNF content will, in due course, drive algorithms to improve decisions at the point of care.

Use case by use case, printed book technology will be abandoned in favour of new digital forms, but some cases will endure. Paper is really handy sometimes!

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