Pros and Cons of Ebooks
by Chris Wasshuber
If you came this far you probably have already an interest in ebooks. But you might not be absolutely convinced of their benefits or you might have doubts and worries about some of their shortcomings; many of which I would characterize as ‘alleged shortcomings’. Allow me to give you the pros and cons as I see them.
Being able to do a full text search in a single book or a whole library of books is clearly the number one advantage of ebooks. Regular books have nothing like this to offer. You might say: “What about table-of-contents and index?” Yes, they provide a very crude way of finding things in one book, but have nothing to offer if you would like to search in a collection or library of books. Indices are often incomplete, incorrect, and provide only a single key word look up. If you want to do advanced searches of phrases or words in proximity, boolean searches or similar, a paper book cannot give you any help. Searchability was for me the reason to get involved with ebooks. I research a lot and there is no comparison between researching ebooks or doing it the old traditional way of trying to find something useful in paper books. Searchability is the killer application for ebooks.
Have you ever tried to take your library with you on your next trip? Maybe this is possible if you own only a few books. For the majority of us this is obviously not possible. Even moving a library from one house or apartment to another is a nightmare. With ebooks it is possible that you have your complete library with you all the time, no matter where you go. Already today it is possible that you carry hundreds if not thousands of ebooks in little flash memory cards or sticks. Most smart phones have enough storage that one could have thousands of ebooks on it. Thousands! I am sure most of you do not have that many books at home. Regardless of where you go or stay, you can always have a library of knowledge with you. This is a dream come true for me. I can go up into the mountains where I can enjoy nature and find inspiration. A little hand held computer gives me access to the accumulated knowledge of my subject area of interest. My thoughts can flow and my research will be accurate, based on a vast reference library.
Ebooks are typically cheaper than their paper cousins. This mainly reflects the reduced production and distribution costs. Usually one can see 10% to 30% price reductions for the ebook version. Some of the ebooks at Lybrary.com are a factor 10 lower than the paper version. If you consider airmail shipping cost which can be $30 and more for hard cover books, you could even print and bind the ebook version and still pay less. And this doesn’t even take potential custom charges, delays and other problems of world wide shipping into account. The lower price point of ebooks also compensates the often mentioned con of an expensive reading device. Reading devices can be had for around $100 with prices continuing to drop. This means the purchase of a few ebooks rather than paper books will soon pay for the reading device.
Text to Speech
Ebooks are also instant audio books. Computers can, through the technique of speech synthesis, read ebooks to you. This is not just interesting for the visual impaired person but can also become quite handy for studying or listening while driving. You can pretty easily let the computer read an ebook and record the whole thing as an MP3. In this way you can produce a very cheap audio book for your own purposes. You can find speech synthesis software freely available on the internet, and Adobe Acrobat has a built in text-to-speech feature. Instead of reading a book you sit back and listen, for example while driving a car. Speech synthesis is also a great remedy for the often stated con of small screens or long hours at the computer when reading an ebook. With speech synthesis there is no eye strain anymore. Close your eyes and listen.
Combination of Text, Image, Audio and Video. Ebooks allow the intimate combination of text, image, audio and video. Paper books cannot do that, and video on tape or DVD cannot do that either. Thus ebooks provide a true improvement in content presentation quality and capability. Lybrary.com has pioneered the inclusion of video clips into ebooks, and we are continuing to make good use of the latest advances in technology.
Updated VersionsWith ebooks it is economical to frequently publish updated and corrected versions. For a precision and quality loving guy like myself it always hurts to see errors in books. Most of them never get corrected since the cost of correction is too high. With ebooks this goes away. If you send me a typo correction of one of our ebooks today it will be corrected for the copy the next one buys tomorrow. So over time with the right kind of reader participation ebooks will become better and better until they will be near flawless - at least from a syntactical point of view. Certain types of books, such as bibliographies, or other collections of information are outdated the moment they are available for purchase. An ebook can be kept up to date and updates can be produced and distributed with a reasonable amount of work and cost. Think about Bart Whaley’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of Magic, which has already seen a number of updates in its electronic version.
Amount of Contents
Since it is much cheaper to produce and distribute ebooks than bulky paper books, it is economical to publish large amounts of contents such as a compiled multi-year run of a magazine, which would not be possible in a regular print publication. A case in point is our Digital Sphinx ebook, which compiles almost 17,000 pages.
Ebooks can be disaster safe if properly managed. Think about what happens to your library if you have a water damage, fire, hurricane, earthquake or a flood. Most likely your books will be destroyed. Not necessarily so with ebooks. Since your whole library fits on a single flash drive you can put a backup copy in a fire and water proof safe or store one off site in a lock box. Then come any misfortune, you will still have your ebook library. This is quite an advantage to consider, particularly if your library has a value in the thousands of dollars.
To be frank, in my opinion there are not many cons for ebooks. There are some temporary ones which will go away in the future. One con is that currently not all content is available in electronic form. However pretty much all publishers are working on offering their contents in some digital form. Other things people complain about are almost too stupid to mention here. Like paper books can be used to keep you warm in winter (by burning them) and they can double as a monitor stand or you can hit someone over the head without destroying the book or you can use them on the toilet, sheet by sheet. Well, you get the idea. I have to admit ebooks cannot be used for these kind of purposes. Others will say that the smell and touch of a regular book is what they love so much. And the resolution is so much better. And no batteries are needed. Some of these arguments have merit. But most of them will go away in the near future or will almost go away. Battery life will improve and with e-ink based devices it already has. One can read dozens of books on a single battery charge. Screen resolution will further improve. Even flexible screens may become a reality. Ebook readers which are today rigid small screen computers will be tomorrow large screen high resolution flexible reading devices. They most likely will never replicate the exact look and feel of a book, but will come pretty close.
Data Security and Copyright
This is the only true con to which I do not see a really good solution anytime soon. But personally I believe in the honesty of the great majority of people. I think the vast majority of you will pay a fair price for an ebook and will not illegally copy it even if you could do so easily. The problem with all security measures is that if they impose a reasonable hurdle for illegal activity they also impose a sever user discomfort. Take for example the solution to encrypt all ebooks with a reading device specific serial number. You can then read a particular copy of an ebook on only one specific computer. No copying possible unless you break the encryption which is not impossible but unlikely. Well, codes have been broken in the past and will be broken in the future. No security measure is therefore 100%. But even if we assume for a moment that the encryption would be safe, the penalty the user has to pay is that he can only read his ebook on one particular computer. What if the computer breaks down? What if you want to read it with some other computer for example a hand held one? What if you want to legally sell your ebook on the second hand market? In the best case you would need to download all your ebooks anew this time encrypted with your new serial number. Maybe you need to re-buy them because the company from whom you purchased has lost the record of your sale. I can see this as pretty devastating. For us at Lybrary.com this is unacceptable user discomfort. I therefore ask you to be an honest and fair gal and guy and buy the ebooks you want. Further I would like to encourage you to report any irregularities or illegal activities you might suspect. Maybe a dealer is selling knock-off ebooks. Or you find a copy-cat on ebay. Report it. Send us an email. It is your own possession you are defending. If illegal copying is rampant we and other ePublishers coming after us will go out of business and you will not have all the benefits I mentioned above. In the least, ebook prices will go up which likewise is something you shouldn't be too happy about.