June 21, 2018

What’s Required for eBooks to Carry the Day

In my last post I wondered what qualities make a book a book, in the face of new kinds of book publishing that often ignore past conventions. So I was interested to see this post about one person’s perspective on “the innovation we need to see before eBooks can completely replace pBooks.” His criteria?

  • Make it easier to show off my library
  • Make it easier to share books
  • Make it possible for authors to digitally sign books

On the first point he recounts how someone came to his house and noticed that many of the same books were in his own collection. They immediately felt an affinity that would have been lacking otherwise. Therefore, he pines for a way to achieve the same result with a collection of digital books, perhaps through a public listing of them via iCloud or a similar service.

As librarians on the front lines of the copyright wars, we know his second item is doomed to failure for at least the next decade. But that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t hope for it, or work to achieve it.

It was his last point that took me by surprise. I guess because I had not thought of an ebook as having artifactual value like a print book does. I mean, let’s say an author signed your Rocket eBook reader copy of his book? Where would you be now?

What do you think are the necessary environmental factors and technological and/or societal characteristics to be in place before the print book goes the way of the horse and carriage? Still around, that is, but only as curiosities. Personally, I’m not sure print books will ever be that marginalized, but everyone knows I’ve been wrong before. Let me know what you think.

Roy Tennant About Roy Tennant

Roy Tennant is a Senior Program Officer for OCLC Research. He is the owner of the Web4Lib and XML4Lib electronic discussions, and the creator and editor of Current Cites, a current awareness newsletter published every month since 1990. His books include "Technology in Libraries: Essays in Honor of Anne Grodzins Lipow" (2008), "Managing the Digital Library" (2004), "XML in Libraries" (2002), "Practical HTML: A Self-Paced Tutorial" (1996), and "Crossing the Internet Threshold: An Instructional Handbook" (1993). Roy wrote a monthly column on digital libraries for Library Journal for a decade and has written numerous articles in other professional journals. In 2003, he received the American Library Association's LITA/Library Hi Tech Award for Excellence in Communication for Continuing Education. Follow him on Twitter @rtennant.


  1. Funny on the third point – during an ALA session years ago, I had Larry Lessig sign a digital copy of his book on one of the (then) new-fangled tablet PCs. The book was viewed on Microsoft Reader, and Dr. Lessig had never “signed” a digital copy, which was neat for both of us. Unfortunately, when I changed tablets, I lost all of the annotation information, including his signature. This was likely my fault, for not copying files correctly, but it does reflect the third point and the challenges for curating digital content.

  2. J.N. Duncan says:

    Oh, prognostication time! I also don’t think paper will end up that marginalized, though I do believe certain categories of books may end up that way. With mass market pb taking the biggest hit with digital, I can easily see how this book type may go bye-bye. A lot of genre fiction may end up predominantly digital, like in the 90% range if I were to guess. We could see most of the sf/f markets in a hardback/digital only split. You make it big, you get both, otherwise you’re relegated to digital only. Same with romance and mystery/thriller. I think some types of books will, particularly ones with a lot of images, always have a paper format. Even though more and more people will read stories on readers, there will always be those who don’t. As for signing ebooks, as an author, I’d love to do this, and I imagine the tech will be there soon enough to make it an easy process. I can see lots of promo opportunity around authors having signing sessions online, which could drive sales of people who buy just so they can get a signed copy from an author they like.

  3. Simple! It works the same way you sign an email: checksum the book’s contents, author encrypts the checksum with his private key, hands you a copy of the result. Anyone with access to his public key can verify that you have a blob of bits which could only result from combining his private key and the book.

    Unfortunately, the one thing needed to make such a signature your unique posession is for publishers to serial-number the books. Privacy apocalyptics will not like this.

    Meanwhile, I would have said that the thing ebooks still lack is the many *centuries* of usability engineering that has gone into pbooks. And it shows.