Have we reached the tipping point? In her monthly blog post, contributor Cindy Orr discusses accelerating eBook adoption in the mainstream and what it means for libraries.
Experts are beginning the inevitable big debate that somehow we all knew was coming: Are we approaching the tipping point between print books and eBooks? Nicholas Negroponte, the first investor in Wired magazine and author of the bestselling book Being Digital, recently predicted that the physical book will be dead within five years. Publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin gives it 10 years. The print book won’t really go away, they say, but it will eventually cease to be the dominant format.
You could argue that this switch from print to eBook is already happening now. Amazon announced in July that for the first time it is now selling more eBooks than hardcovers. Lest we think this is because older titles are no longer easily available in print, Laura Lippman’s publisher released figures that showed her new bestseller I’d Know You Anywhere sold more copies in its digital version in the first week than it did in hardcover. Pete Hamill’s newest book was released in digital form only… not on paper at all, and he’s definitely not the only author to go in this direction.
This new phenomenon doesn’t mean that people have stopped using their library. Libraries are busier than ever, but the downturn in the economy has resulted in drastic cuts to library budgets—even some building closures, just when people need them more than ever. How will it all turn out? Newsweek recently ran an article called “Farewell, Libraries.” Surely this can’t be our future. Whatever happens, though, we need to begin thinking about how libraries can adjust to the changes.
Say the word “library” and people immediately think of books. So we’ll need to figure out how to absorb electronic books into the mainstream of our practices. There are many issues: How to better introduce the new format to confused patrons, how to improve the browsability of eBooks, how to keep up with the new devices and the questions of compatibility… and then there’s the topic of the scholarly needs of academic libraries in the digital book world, which adds to the complications.
It won’t be easy. Some librarians have complained that “using library eBooks is such a horrible pain.” Maybe that’s true at this point. We can’t expect publishers and authors to work for free, and digital rights management is what makes it possible for libraries to offer the books people really want in electronic format without violating copyright. But pain or not, we should be very glad that we have the capability of offering library customers digital downloads of eBooks and audiobooks.
If we hadn’t been out ahead of the leading edge of that wave seven years ago or so, libraries would now be stranded out at sea instead of surfing along with at least a chance to figure out how to survive the exhilarating ride.