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eBooks and Talking Books

eBooks have been available for some time, but have not become popular, although they offer some interesting features.It has, of course, been possible to read large documents on computer screens in the...


February 1, 2002
By Pulp & Paper Canada

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eBooks have been available for some time, but have not become popular, although they offer some interesting features.

It has, of course, been possible to read large documents on computer screens in the form of word processing files for years. As increasing numbers of people have high quality screens, there is no doubt that more material is read on screen without printing it than was normal in the past, but most people still prefer to read on paper. Adobe’s PDF files (discussed in past issues) can be a major improvement for technical reports, particularly if the author makes good use of the “live” table of contents that Adobe can create in the left margin of the screen.

Electronic books (“eBooks”) provide an alternative improvement in on-screen readability. They are effectively word processing documents with formatting, designed for optimal reading on computer screens. The books are complete and intended to be read in electronic form, and are available from the major booksellers, principally on-line. It is somewhat easier to read a document on screen in eBook format than in a word processor, because the software uses some clever technology to improve clarity of type, but a good quality screen is still essential for comfortable reading.

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A key feature is that the eBook system gives publishers a practical way to distribute novels and technical reports electronically without widespread copies being made. Security features vary, but most eBooks can be read only on the computer that downloads them, or on a restricted group of a few other computers. The books may be distributed on CD-ROM or by downloading. Since a normal novel requires only about a megabyte of data, it is hard to visualize mail and FedEx competing with Internet distribution in the long haul.

You need either Adobe eBook Reader, or Microsoft’s Reader software to read most of the eBooks available. Both programs can be downloaded from the Internet without charge, and will run on almost any current PC. Adobe also has a MAC version. Some titles are available in your choice of format.

A few devices have been marketed which provide a more comfortable physical format for reading than a computer, but sales have been low. These devices are essentially laptop screens with a built in CD-ROM reader and a few buttons to navigate around the book, turn “pages” etc. It is easier to read with them in a bus or sitting in bed, than with a laptop, but they cost almost as much as a laptop.

Thousands of eBook titles are available, but this is still only a tiny fraction of all the books in print. eFollet.com lists 820 fictional title, about 40 engineering texts, many travel guides and books on a variety of other subjects. Amazon and the other on-line book vendors also sell eBooks, but they are not particularly easy to find on their sites.

Some of the books available are specialized technical reports, which would have far too small a circulation to permit printing in the normal way. I looked for a travel book on Romania, and found none, but did run across a report on the market for edible animal offal in Romania. I do not know who would read it, or pay the $340 asked.

When reading an eBook, it is possible to make margin notes, add sketches etc, as you can with a paper book. The eBook also allows searching for such notes, and organizing them in various ways.

One of the major vendors has a useful overview of the advantages of eBooks http://ebooks.efollett.com/eBookFAQ.asp While they have thousands of eBooks available, eFollett has not provided an effective searching tool, so the site is quite frustrating to use, and hardly a recommendation for their technology.

COSTS

For books available in both eBook and paper format, there is no consistent ratio between prices. In checking a dozen fiction and non-fiction titles, I was surprised to find that the eBook was normally the more expensive, by up to about 50%. Since there are no printing costs, and no freight (unless you pay for your Internet connection by the hour), and the distributor avoids costs of inventory, shoplifting etc, I would have expected eBooks to be cheaper than paper.

In a minority of cases, the eBook version is cheaper than the paper version, but up to about 50%

TALKING BOOKS

Microsoft Reader includes text-to-speech capabilities, so that your computer can read the book to you, if it has a sound card and speakers. I found the speed of reading rather slow, and the only circumstance where I would consider using it would be to listen while driving, instead of listening to the radio.

Surprisingly, many of the eBooks on the market disable the speech feature. I can not see a reason for this, and believe that the producers are missing a key potential, since the lose the market for people who drive a lot and would like to listen to a book instead of the radio.

If you make your own eBooks, then text-to-speech software works well, so that you can convert a WORD file to a format that your computer can read to you while driving.

AUDIO BOOKS

Audio books are effectively a person reading a book and recording the speech on a CD or cassette for sale. They have been available for years, but have a tiny market compared to traditional paper books.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is priced at $35US plus shipping as an audio CD, while the paperback book sells for only $7US.

WILL eBOOKS REPLACE PAPER?

I do not see a serious threat to paper in the near future. If eBook publishers make aggressive use of the lower manufacturing costs, and a more physically convenient reading device is marketed, then perhaps eBooks will take some of the paper market. However after ten years or so of development, the eBook industry is still far from competitive with paper for most purposes.