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By Margaret Adolphus


An e-book is a digital version of a printed book, often accessed directly through the Internet. In some cases it is an exact replica of the print version, but with some added functionality, such as the ability to search and annotate. In others, it is enhanced with multimedia features, such as audio, video and games.

E-books have evolved dramatically since they first came on the market. There is now a wide availability of platforms which make reading e-books a more user-friendly experience. E-book readers (such as Sony's e-book reader, and the Amazon Kindle) are light and slim, and use electronic ink, which offers a reading experience similar to print. The print remains stable, and there is no backlight.

Tablet PCs (most notably the iPad, launched in the early part of 2010), offer another platform, with advantages and disadvantages over e-readers. They use LED-lit LCD displays, which makes them less readable in certain conditions, but on the other hand they are better for colour and can also carry multimedia.

E-books can also be read on laptops and some mobile phones.

E-books are published in a variety of formats, the most common being ePUB and PDF. ePUB is an open e-book standard that renders e-book content into a format that can be easily read on a mobile device. Its big advantage is that it allows the user to control the type size, an obvious benefit to someone who is visually impaired. However, this means that the page numbers are not fixed, which is a drawback when it comes to providing a precise citation.

PDF, on the other hand, will show the page exactly as it has been designed, complete with illustrations.

What do e-books offer over print?

The big advantage of e-books are scaleability, portability and ubiquity. A great number of books can be held on one device, thus saving on shelf space, particularly useful for books that you might want to read only once and not again. It also means that you can carry your library with you, which is convenient when travelling, commuting, etc.

For the librarian, the ubiquity of e-books means that they can be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – a great advantage when a large number of people need to access the same book. This can revolutionize the bane of the academic librarian's life, the short loan, when demand vastly exceeds the supply. With e-books, any student can access a key text, any time, anywhere.

Jill Taylor-Roe of Newcastle University Library (see "An interview with Jill Taylor-Roe"), had this to say in 2007:

"E-books have enormous potential for the academic marketplace, particularly at a time when we've got more and more students, both on and off campus, and there are more modular programmes, perhaps with 350 students on a module. A library will never have enough print textbooks to meet that demand, not least because of the way they are used, often a chapter at a time rather than the entire book."

The other advantages of e-books lie in their additional functionality, such as:

  • Their searchability – both within the book and across wider collections. This is particularly valuable with scholarly books, which offer rapid and precise searching through keywords.
  • The facility to bookmark, hyperlink and cross-refer, as well as to annotate.
  • The inclusion of multimedia or interactive objects, such as video, audio and animated graphics.
  • The ability to incorporate feedback (from the user) and make revisions without having to go to a new edition.
  • Disaggregation of content: some purchasers of scholarly books (such as Springer) allow purchase by chapter.

E-books are thus in theory more fluid, and flexible, than their print counterparts. They can contain a wider variety of media, and they can be more easily updated and refined, an advantage in rapidly moving disciplines. They no longer represent a one-dimensional contribution to knowledge which is static until another edition is brought out.

Publisher's note

This article was revised and updated in March 2011.

The e-books market


E-books are gradually gaining a footing in the publishing market. According to Steve Haber, president of Sony’s digital reading business division, e-book sales will overtake print sales within five years (Richmond, 2010),

Moreover, Amazon recently announced that in the US its Kindle e-book sales are now higher than its paperback book sales (they were already higher than hardcover books) (McCarthy, 2011).

The professional services firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) published a report on e-books, based on an online survey of 1,000 consumers in the UK, USA, Germany and The Netherlands, and interviews with 40 representatives of the sector (Ballhaus et al., 2011). They reported that the US e-book market was further advanced than that in Europe because publishers there had a greater understanding of pricing structure, accepting that e-books had lower costs and therefore greater margins. In the European market, they found that there is still a lot of hesitation, with publishers acting slowly for fear of losing print sales.

Another reason is that the industry leaders – Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple – allow clients to read their books on a variety of devices. In Europe, on the other hand, formats are generally tied to a particular device.

The consumer market has been stimulated by the availability of fairly inexpensive e-readers, while reading habits were already changing due to the Internet and people being open to new technological trends.

What is striking is the prediction of growth, in both the UK and the USA. By 2015, it is expected that e-books will constitute 14.2 per cent of the UK market, and be worth $534 million. In the USA, the e-book market is expected to grow to $5.6 billion, or 22.5 per cent of the overall market (Ballhaus et al., 2011).

One of the biggest worries of the publishing industry is digital piracy, as happened in the music industry. To avoid that, the PwC report suggests, publishers need to become content providers, not just suppliers of physical books, and consider partnering with software companies to provide new applications such as audio, video and games. They also need to consider new approaches to pricing strategy, the formats in which they produce books, and the supply chain.

The academic and professional sector

E-books are well established in the specialist and academic sector, which in Britain alone generated about €130 million in 2010 in electronic content (Ballhaus et al., 2011) and all the major academic publishers have significant e-book collections, many across the entire disciplinary spectrum.

As with mass market books, the e-textbook market is more mature in the USA, probably because of greater uniformity (and prescriptiveness) in what is studied across institutions. Another reason is greater collaboration between textbook providers and higher education institutions.

One example of this is CourseSmart, an e-textbook aggregator which distributes textbooks on behalf of major textbook providers. It offers the advantages of a large selection of resources (90 per cent of the e-textbooks in North America), all available from a single provider.

For more information about Course Smart, see

Other large deals include Northwest Missouri State University's deal with McGraw-Hill to gain digital access to its resources (Redden, 2009).

Springer, one of the main providers of e-books, believes that there are a number of different segments of the academic and professional market, depicted diagrammatically in Figure 1 below. Core users are researchers, who are authors as well as readers, but there is a large secondary market of undergraduate students, and the core user group is larger for e-books than for journals (van der Velde and Ernst, 2009).

Image: Figure 1. Pyramid of user groups for academic information.

Figure 1. Pyramid of user groups for academic information

E-books can be purchased separately, but they often come as part of collections from a particular publisher or aggregator. There are several subject-specific collections, such as Knovel (engineering), Safari Books Online, a collection of technical books, and PORTIAAL, an e-book bundle of around 200 French scientific and technical e-books related to the food and agricultural industry.

The advantage of such book bundles is that they provide a large selection of resources on the same subject on one platform, and hence the convenience of browsing and searching. Henri Stiller, chief executive officer of the information provider Histen Riller, maintains that such collections offer a better search environment: because the topic is contained, the relevance of results and accuracy of keywords is increased (Stiller, 2008).

Most publishers use aggregators for their e-titles – intermediaries who act both as distributors, getting the product to market, and hosts, offering a platform for e-content. Examples include dawsonera, Ebook Library, ebrary, MyiLibrary and NetLibrary. Aggregators also offer functionality to the end user, for example search, bookmarking, copying and pasting, as well as multi-user access and MARC records.

Geographical variations

The USA, as reported above, clearly leads the market for e-books, and attitudes and behaviour differ widely in different countries.

The German respondents in the PwC survey reported that they preferred reading to using the Internet, and, along with the Dutch respondents, were concerned with the "look and feel" of the book as a physical object (Bellhaus et al., 2011).

Vasileiou et al. (2009) report that while the English language dominates the e-books market, there has been significant growth of e-books in Asia, with the Chinese market capacity estimated as being US$28.6 million, and the Xinhua News Agency reporting that China had 660,000 e-books in 2007.

In Japan, the mobile telephone has become a popular reading device, with novels actually being written for that medium. Books are also read on mobile devices in India, but the world's third largest book market still retains a fondness for the printed book.

What do we know about how e-book are used?

The market for e-books may still be developing, but the subject has been well researched.

JISC and ebrary studies

The Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) e-books observatory project was a large-scale UK research project, the aim of which was to observe how e-textbooks were used by students, as well as assess the impact of free at the point of use e-books on publishers, aggregators and libraries.

A collection of 36 e-textbooks in popular subjects (business studies, engineering, media studies and medicine) were licensed across 127 universities in the UK. Probably the largest ever library study in terms of size and representativeness, the survey obtained a response from more than 20,000 academic staff and students in 2008 and 2009, via surveys, detailed case studies and deep log analysis.

A 2008 global student e-book survey sponsored by the e-books provider, ebrary (ebrary, 2008), conducted surveys with over 150 college and university librarians worldwide, working with a total of 6,492 students from 400 institutions from 75 countries. Thus, although the survey was smaller in size than that of the observatory project, its significance lies partly in its international scope.


Both projects revealed considerable enthusiasm for e-books, and the following advantages of e-books as perceived by users were noted in particular (Jamali et al., 2009; Rowlands et al., 2008; Soules, 2009):

  • searchability,
  • convenience – books can be accessed online any time, anywhere, thus avoiding a trip to the library, an especial advantage to part-time students,
  • portability and environmental friendliness – not having to carry around heavy books in one's rucksack,
  • ability to copy and paste,
  • concurrence of use – more than one user can access an e-book at a time.

However, the most significant finding was the difference in information seeking behaviour from print to digital versions of books. People use e-books for a quick raid on relevant facts; they dip in and out, reading from the screen rather than printing out. (This is in line with the JISC study's findings on virtual information behaviour: virtual scholars are described as "promiscuous", flicking and bouncing between resources.)

Printed books, on the other hand, are read in a linear fashion, as with a fictional narrative, or to follow the argument of a scholarly book.

For a comparison of reading habits of printed and digital books, see Joint (2009).

Because the information seeking experiences are essentially different, e-books and printed books are complementary, so the sales of the former do not detrimentally affect the sales of the latter. This is the conclusion of the JISC report, and it is also the experience of Springer (van der Velde and Ernst, 2009), who found that their print sales went up in countries where e-books are highly visible.

E-books and libraries

The JISC study found that 65 per cent of the students and faculty surveyed used e-books. Slightly more than half (51.9 per cent) found them from the catalogue or the library website compared with 38.4 per cent who got them from the open web. Libraries are thus key players in the e-books market.

Academic libraries

Academic librarians generally embrace e-books for a variety of reasons. They offer an effective solution to the perennial problems of insufficient copies of core texts, spikes in demand, etc. They are particularly useful for non-traditional students (i.e. distance learning and part time), and they also offer additional functionality in the form of search, cut and paste, etc. Finally, they cannot be stolen or vandalized.

On the other hand, the lack of standard business models and licensing agreements, with each contract needing to be negotiated separately can be difficult, with librarians (previously used to the relatively stable world of print) required to become skilful negotiators.

A related problem is that while some publishers offer a subscription, by which the publisher or aggregator is paid annually for access to a series or a collection, often based on a particular subject, others place limitations on the number of concurrent users. This merely replicates the short loan problem in another medium.

Discoverability is also an issue: many users find e-books through the library catalogue, but libraries also need to use various promotional methods (website, blogs, library inductions, etc.).

Catalogue entries need to be of high quality, which means that publishers need to provide high quality metadata.

Librarians and users are also concerned about the quality and presentation of some e-textbooks. They want to see more interactivity, but the interface often leaves a lot to be desired, with clumsy navigation and poor use of screen design (JISC Collections, 2009, p. 21).

Public libraries

In the consumer sector, forward-looking public libraries have also embraced e-books, and have been able to go beyond the "one book, one lend" model. The New York Public Library ( had 36,000 e-book checkouts in December (Kellogg, 2011), especially in the week after Christmas (presumably users were trying out their new Kindles).

A similar spike in numbers was seen in Plainfield Public Library in Illinois (, which had already seen a considerable increase in digital book borrowing (Rokoczy, 2011).

UK public libraries tend on the whole to be less forward looking, however, some do have e-books available for download, notably Tower Hamlets (, Edinburgh (, and Newcastle (


E-books are definitely here to stay. They offer important functionality and benefits – such as the ability to carry around a lot of books easily, and to read them anytime or anywhere without having to go into the library – which will make them an important part of the information landscape.

There remain, however, some important issues. In particular, publishers need to develop sustainable business models, and devote as much attention to format and design as they do to traditional, printed books.

In the consumer market, European publishers need to look to their US counterparts and provide cheaper books that are device independent.

In the academic and professional market, publishers need to offer business models which do not impose heavy restrictions on rights (e.g. not allowing users to print out copies, only so many concurrent users allowed to access the e-book, etc.). They need also to look at the design and interface of their e-books, to ensure that reading is a pleasant experience for the user.

Libraries too, dealing as they are with an ever more digitally aware generation, need to embrace all forms of digital technology if they are not to lose their students to the open Web.


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