Ebooks, Digital Preservation and a Nice First Edition

Frequently when I mention to someone my intentions to open a bookstore I will get an askance look and “why would you do that?” When I explain my various reasons the main objection I get back will always be something along the lines of “that’s all well and good…but what about e-books?”
EBooks are a paradigm shift in the book industry. They have been around for years, but have always been decried as not a threat since “people don’t like to read on the computer” and “it’s hard to read things on the computer…it hurts your eyes.” No longer is either of those concepts true. Both can be conclusively proven as false due to the fact that earlier this week Amazon announced that sales of eBooks for the Kindle now are outpacing sales of hardcover books. EBooks are a new way of providing content to the consumer. No longer does someone have to visit the bookstore to buy a book, instead they just need an Internet connection and a compatible device. With the advent of devices like the kindle and the ibooks store for the iPad, the market share of eBooks is only going to increase. There are issues that surround eBooks that people need to be aware of.
When I was in library school Digital Preservation was something that I found extremely interesting. The issues behind digital preservation are of file types, computer hardware, software, and the compatibility of all these. In the past decades, since the advent of the personal computer, there have been innumerable changes in software, hardware, file types, and media. Each of these changes renders something that came before obsolete. With this obsolescence also go any files that were stored under the old standard. I have files on my computer currently, essays that I wrote in high school and my undergraduate university studies, that I can no longer open. NASA has lost the ability to read data that came back from several early probes. Floppy disks have been on the way out for sometime. In fact, the final company making floppy disks has decided to halt production. How long has it been since you’ve seen a new computer sold with a floppy drive? Even CDs are on their way out. Most physical media formats are going out of style for exclusively digital distribution.
I bring these issues of digital preservation up, especially when it deals with born-digital files (files that have only ever existed digitally) because they are going to affect the long-term viability of the eBook industry. All it takes is one format change for the next major eBook manufacturer to decide they don’t want to support the epub standard (or any of the other common eBook file types) and everyone’s eBook library is so many useless megabytes. It really would not surprise me if this happens, especially with the advent of new copyright legislation forbidding format shifting and digital lock breaking. Legislation like this exists in the US, the UK, and is currently being debated in Canada. It’s happened before, and is currently happening: VHS vs. Beta, VHS vs. DVD (just try buying a new VHS player these days), Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD (good luck finding an HD-DVD player). Do you really want to have to buy your favourite books again every time you move to a new eBook reader?
One thing that I think will allow the physical book industry to thrive is that eBooks have an entirely different tactile feeling than physical books. I have an eBook reader on my phone, I read articles on my computer, but I have a huge library of physical books. I love physical books. Especially when it comes to certain types of book: the coffee table books, nice leather-bound editions, hardcover first editions, graphic novels; the eBook can never permanently replace those. Everyone (or at least I hope I’m not the only one) has gone out and bought a special edition of a book that they truly love, a book they have borrowed from a friend and loved, or to replace a beloved book they’ve lost. I’ve bought $100 special editions of comic book series, and I’ve bought the same book three times (I keep loaning copies to friends and not getting them back…gotta stop doing that now that the book is out of print).
Whether there is a sea change in the eBooks industry destroying consumer confidence in the idea or the eBooks industry takes off, people will continue to buy books. At least, I hope that they will…otherwise I’ll be out of a job before I even get it.

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  • Matthew,

    You make some great points in a great posting. To back up what you say here is a piece dated Aug 2009 from an online site that is called “Books-on-line”. I had to get it from Google cache because the site is currently down. Whether permanently or not??? – (Just rechecked and it IS up and running…)

    ~~~~~Quote~~~~~
    We’re back
    Aug 19, 2009

    We finally have our server back up and running.

    For the past few months it seems that everything we did made our computer situation worse.

    First we had a motherboard failure. This turned out to be so expensive to fix that we just bought a new computer. Unfortunately it came with Windows Vista installed, and our web software won’t work with Vista. This means that we had to throw away Vista and load Windows XP on the server. Then it turned out that the XP operating system didn’t work with all the new fancier hardware used in the system. We had to spend days finding, down loading and then installing the new software packages.

    Then we had a power supply failure in the new system. It was under warranty, but all this took even more time.

    Now we think we are back to about where we were a couple of months ago.
    ~~~~~End Quote~~~~~

    The internet makes it possible for people to get digitized public domain books for free but for many this will only make them wish they had the “real thing”. Some will prefer a paperback while others will want a hard cover. Some will demand a first edition while others will want the less expensive second (or later) edition.

    I think there are plenty of book lovers still left in the world and always will be. Of course there are more unsalable books than there are book lovers but that is where a bookseller’s experience comes to play. Learning from other booksellers who share on this website (and a few others of course) adds to our ‘experience’ so we can cull a bit where needed, learn how to actually ‘sell’ as opposed to hoping for buyers to purchase our stock and keep our stock rotating so the lights can stay on (and the internet connected).

    I look at digital books and free online archives of public domain books as a plus because interest in owning a real book might be increased.

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  • This subject was actually next up on what I was going to write about!

    The other issue with all digital is even if you DO port things over you may have porting errors that may not be caught unless it’s proofread. Even some e-mail programs don’t play well together! How many times have you gotten an email where there’s random characters inserted into the text so it reads something like

    “Hey, Bob, are you coming to Michelle%&%&%’s party?///&”

    Ripping a whole book between programs just increases the odds of this happening. And each time it’s done without being proofread, it increases the odds of errors building up. Most people probably played some version of “Telephone” or “whispers” when young. Simple substitutional errors and a quick spell check can total transform the original meaning, particularly is a “change all” is used without proofreading.

    Big bad bugs bleed black blood
    Big bad bogs bleed black blood
    Bid bad bogs bleed block blood
    Big body bogs bleat block blood
    Big body bags bleat block loo

    With current pace of technological shift, five platform/format jumps could easily occur in the next twenty years. Or even the next ten. What I just did there is a pretty logical degradation of text. You may also get pure garbage. Each time it’s ported, it NEEDS to be proofread. That becomes a monumental task, just to keep things readable.
    Whereas if you left your original reference text in a hard copy, it’d still be readable twenty years from now and won’t have an editor pulling her hair out asking what the author really meant.

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  • The idea of opening a used book store has always appealed to my wife and me. I don’t think at least in the short term that ebooks will have too much of an impact on the small used book stores. There are also some controls around the selling or lending of ebooks. My local library “lends” out ebooks that are not permanently transferable.

    Thanks for the painful memories of making the wrong purchase “beta” 🙂

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