Blessay: Some thoughts on the e-book

Since May of this year, I have read dozens of articles about e-books in academic libraries as a graduate assistant to a professor working on a project about this topic. These have largely been case studies from various US and international universities (most of the international studies were from the UK, but Canada, India, and Hong Kong were also represented, and there were also a few international research reviews), which studied various aspects of a library’s e-books collections, generally in the categories of usage, acquisitions, management, and usability. This work has continued into the Fall semester in my Research Methods class, as the same professor is teaching it and incorporating the class into her project; lately, in addition to reading the occasional new study, or reviewing the literature reviews done by my classmates, I have been co-writing a survey instrument on usage to be given to students in a few institutes of higher education around New York. So I have had quite a while now to think a bit on e-books, and I’ve come to some observations.*

E-books are not print books.

This seems obvious, but it feels like the obvious has gotten a bit lost in the paradigm shift the book/literacy world (in which I include libraries and librarians along with publishers, writers, and readers) is undergoing. When faced with a new and somewhat unprecedented technology, it is natural to try to understand the new technology in the vocabulary and expectations of the old. In 2011, Andy Burkhardt of Information Tyrannosaur quoted this from Kevin Kelly:

“We make prediction more difficult because our immediate tendency is to imagine the new thing doing an old job better. That’s why the first cars were called ‘horseless carriages.’ The first movies were simply straightforward documentary films of theatrical plays. It took a while to realize the full dimensions of cinema photography as its own new medium that could achieve new things, reveal new perspectives, do new jobs. We are stuck in the same blindness. We imagine e-books today as being regular books that appear on electronic paper instead of radically powerful threads of text woven into one shared universal library” (Kelly 2010, Chapter 12, I can’t find an exact page number).

[Mechanical Engineering]Image source: Pratt Institute Archive (undated)

This proved to be a very popular quote, also cited here, here, here, and elsewhere. Automobiles were initially called “horseless carriages” because the default language for conveyances prior to the invention of the internal combustion engine had been based on horses (or steam, but steam-powered cars didn’t really make it in the automobile business). We call e-books “books” because that’s what we think of when we think of long texts divided into parts or chapters. It is perhaps the best analogy I can think of, the parallel between “horse” and “book” as the known quantities, “-less” and “e-” as the variables. But calling a car a horseless carriage or calling a digital text an e-book creates difficulties when the lack of similarities to horse-drawn carriages or print books becomes clear. Horseless carriages do not need to be fed or watered, but they do need gas; you don’t have to worry about giving the car a good night’s rest but you do have to beware of unforeseen engine problems. Print books will last for a long time if treated well but they can’t be in two places at once; e-books need to be read via specific programs that must be updated as operating systems and hardware evolve but one copy of an e-book can theoretically be viewed by multiple people at the same time. Print books are made of paper and can do what paper can do, while e-books are digital and can do other cool but very different things.

Kelly mentions another possible equivalent in film; however, in the case of film, I would point not to plays but to photography as the medium in transition. Films were first called “moving pictures:”

then “talking pictures” with the addition of sound:

and it was not by accident that the term “pictures” was the base upon which the new versions could do different things. In addition, the legal definition of film, as initially promoted by Thomas Edison for reasons of copyright, established film as the new photography, so that copyright could be claimed on a movie under similar circumstances as that of a photograph rather than as an entirely new technology (Decherney 2007). This did not last precisely because film was not photography and could not be treated as such. In both cases, cars and movies, the point in question is whether the technological advance can be used similarly to the old norm, and while the basic idea was the same, the possibilities for different and unprecedented activities had to be understood in their own time; the same is true for books and e-books.

So what is an e-book, then?

Image source: Forbes
Image source: Bloomberg

Look at the two images above. It is interesting what results you get when you do a Google search for “image e*book;” first of all, there are 9.5 billion results, which is remarkable, but what’s really intriguing is that most pictures of an “e-book” are in fact of the medium through which the e-book is read. The picture of the hand coming out of the computer with a print book seems particularly apropos when discussing the impression of e-books as old wine in new bottles. What is an e-book, really? A bunch of code and text in a computer readable format, meaningless to most people unless viewed through a machine capable of understanding that format. This is so utterly unlike a print book it is sort of surprising that people expect there to be any similarities at all. Print books can play with paper, and the possibilities are vast for artistic exploration; Artists’ Books come in a variety of printing types, formats, and concepts. If it can be done with paper, an artist will try to do it (and Pratt will acquire it and make it available to students!). But e-books have a very different set of tools to work with – video, music, graphics, image examination (you can’t zoom in on a book without a magnifying glass). Neither set of possibilities is better or worse than the other, and the central characteristic, after all, is the text. Given the presence of a device through which to read them, born-digital e-books are a different use of the same basic idea as the print book.

But, of course, they share some expected functionalities. We are conditioned with print books to read academically in whatever way works for us – highlighting, annotating, dog-earing. As with e-books and horseless carriages, we call the equivalent actions by their print term, but find that highlighting in an e-book isn’t the same as highlighting in a print book. And that’s because it isn’t, really. You use a finger or the mouse, not the marker and your arm. The text is brighter, by pixels if not ink, but the muscle memory and physical results are different, and your brain has to take in the important information in a different way. For me, part of absorbing something from a reading is remembering where on the page and where in the book it was located, so that when recalling it I’d think not just of the fact but of its placement (or I would until it, like so many bits of information that came before, passed silently and amiably out of my brain again). I think that while a lot of discussion about user dissatisfaction with e-book functionalities in the studies I read is based on usability problems. This is also part of the translation period we are currently undergoing, when we stop thinking of highlighting (for example) in print terms and start adjusting to e-book realities. We’ll probably continue to think of it as “highlighting,” to maintain the guessability aspect, but we’ll stop expecting the exact same outcome when highlighting e as opposed to print.


There are still, and will likely continue to be, people who prefer print to e, for various reasons (cost, increased prestige, permanence, or e-books’ lack of soul) but I am surprised when I hear some print-preferrers disparage e as less-than.

Part of that opinion is rooted in traditionalism, part of it is that we’re still in the early stages of e-books and assorted paraphernalia so it is true that they can be clunkier to use than the older, better known printed book. Part of it seems to be an us vs. them feeling; we don’t need no stinkin’ e-books. I wonder how long this will last. For librarians, I can understand some of the anti-e-book feeling as being related to the still-unsettled rules about licenses and ownership. There is no consensus among publishers or between publishers and librarians about how or whether e-books can be owned and lent the same way as print books, which again goes to the issue of using old terminology for new ideas. Many studies on usage noted that statistics on print and e-book usage are not just calculated differently but use very different metrics. Circulation statistics for print books are straightforward: a patron checks out a book, it is unavailable while it is gone, and when it is returned and put back on the shelf, it is available for the next patron. However much it was used in the cloudy period while it was out of the library is never to be known. E-books, however, as they are more often used via a vendor platform rather than the traditional checking-out model, create statistics that not only vary depending on the vendor, but measure each time a patron looks at some aspect of the book. Some vendors measure each page as one “access,” Safari’s term for it (Slater 2009), some use a quantity of pages as a single viewing. Kraus (2009) found that some vendors only provided usage statistics for collection usage rather than specific books within that collection (Knovel and Morgan & Claypool) while others, including Safari and ebrary, did allow statistics for individual e-books (179). When there is no single common measure of usage among e-book vendors, discussion of e-book usage, even without regard to comparison with print, must be fragmented and confusing. A similar issue is that of consortial purchasing agreements, which have the potential to save money for tight budgets, but what happens to the e-books that are paid for but unused, either individually or in collections (Fischer et al, 2012; Safley, 2008; Slater, 2009)? E-book pricing to academic libraries is an issue that has yet to settle, and it appears that publishers are taking advantage of the unsettled state of things to charge as much as they can for e-books individually and in packages, which can give librarians who are already leery of the use of e-books more reason to maintain a wait-and-see approach.

E-books and scholarly communications, getting somewhere but where?

In terms of scholarly communications, e-books as a format are causing ripples in two main genres: textbooks and monographs, both types of books that are adjusting to the new publishing world.

The e-monograph (as it were) does not yet seem to offer the same rescue to ailing scholarly presses that trade e-books do to trade publishers, and it also remains to be seen if e-monographs will count as much as print versions of scholarly texts in the tenure process, which, as with digital work in general, is a topic still in progress and of much discussion. In October 2012, an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education suggested that instead of the long-form monograph, tenure committees should consider the value of short-form digital “singles” or “briefs,” to get the work of scholars out into the world faster and hopefully to more people. Academic “briefs,” as the Chronicle suggests, would be longer than a journal article but shorter than a book, quicker to publish in e. If nothing else, the brief is one more format available for scholars to get their work out, and is really just the naming of a format that has long existed but has not yet had a catchy name or the possibility of trendiness. This is a trend currently gaining momentum with publishing initiatives such as Amazon’s Kindle Singles, which are doing extremely well. The short-form work, both fiction and non-fiction, fits well in an e-reader, probably especially for commuters. Though academic publishers have long been a separate beast from trade publishers (and Amazon’s combination of publisher as well as device and e-book retailer appears to be a new beast entirely), it would be interesting to see if a shorter academic work could catch on with the Kindle Single reader. Is this desirable? One commenter to the Chronicle story is from Princeton University Press, and notes how Princeton has been experimenting with short-form works for some years now. On Bullsh*t, by Harry Frankfurt, published in 2005 (e-book published 2008) was first a 1986 article, and became a very successful book, translated into many languages (including Chinese, Norwegian, and Hebrew).

Image source: New Life’s Resolution

On Bullsh*t had a few things going for it when it was first published in 2005: an extremely catchy name, a size fit for Christmas stockings (or at least those of older teenagers and adults, I would assume), and a topic of interest to people at a time of great political polarization. Even if academic “singles” were not always to be as popular as a philosophical essay on the art of bullsh*tting, perhaps the result of an increasingly democratic means of access to scholarly writing would be a different conception of academic works as less imposing and ivory-towerish, which is supposedly one of the goals of the university press.

It is also worth mentioning  e-textbooks, though they too are in the same revolutionary period as all e-books and where the dust will settle remains to be seen, plus are a rather enormous topic with a great deal of press over the last few years. Though e-textbooks are only about 6% of textbook sales, this is already two times what it was last year, and there are some very prominent proponents of the e-textbook wave. As print textbook prices appear to become further and further detached from reality, the appeal of e-textbooks, if only as a potentially cheaper alternative, will continue to increase. E-textbooks can only grow as a product and as a phenomenon, it will be interesting to see what results.

The e-conclusion.

As I have said before, we are in the middle of a tectonic shift with e-books in the academic world, and where the continents will end up, metaphorically speaking, is still somewhat unclear. What is obvious is that e-books are causing an interesting and permanent turn in the discussion of books, forcing us to look at the terms we used and try to figure out what we meant by them, and whether they can also apply to e-books. I suspect perhaps we’ll see the coinage of new words and concepts, not just the “e-” version of old terms, to describe this new world.


Decherney, P. (2007). Copyright dupes: Piracy and new media in Edison v. Lubin (1903). Film History 19(2), 109-124.

Fischer, K.S.; Wright, M.; Clatanoff, K.; Barton, H.; Shreeves, E. (2012). Give ‘em what they want: A one-year study of unmediated patron-driven acquision of e-books. College & Research Libraries (pre-publication).

Kelly, K. (2010). What technology wants. Viking: New York.

Kraus, J. (2009, November 6). Comparing bananas with grapes: Ebook use data from a bunch of vendors. In: Ury, C.J., Baudino, F., & Park, S.G. (eds.) Brick & Click Libraries: An academic library symposium (178-188). Maryville, MI. Retrieved 1 November 2012 from

Lorimer, R. (2012). Digital developments in libraries, journals, and monograph publishing: Emerging pitfalls, practices, and possibilities. Scholarly and Research Communication 4(1), 18pp.

Mahajan, P., & Chakravarty, R. (2007). E-books as a tool for scholarly communication: Emerging trends and technologies. In: Proceedings from 5th International CALIBER, Panjab University, Chandigarh, 08-10 February, 2007 (pp. 554-569). Retrieved 2 November 2012 from

Safley, E. (2008). Demand for e-books in an academic library. Journal of Library Administration 45(3/4), 445-57.

Slater, R. (2009). E-books or print books, “big deals” or local selections – What gets more use? Library Collections, Acquisitions, and Technical Services 33(1), 31-41.

*Note: This essay is based on an earlier, less structured blog post that was previously in this spot, and was rewritten as an assignment for Academic Libraries and Scholarly Communications.

One response to “Blessay: Some thoughts on the e-book

  1. That’s a great post, Victoria. I especially like your look at the persistence of obsolete terms as a kind of placeholder for what can’t yet be named. The whole study of skeuomorphic ( design and linguistics is weird and interesting, how even the most forward-thinking minds are still basically very stubborn.

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