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Ebooks are not really books in many ways

by BB

This is Part 1 in a series on e-book distribution to schools.

Digital books are triggering tectonic shifts in education. One of the most fundamental, yet seemingly invisible, shifts is happening in the back rooms of district offices—not in the classrooms, not among teachers and students, and definitely not in the board rooms of most big-name publishers and textbook companies.

If ebooks are not actually books, what are they? School purchasing departments know.
This profound, significant change is happening first in school district business offices, IT departments, and cubicles among staff members who work behind the scenes to acquire materials for today’s students.

What exactly is this shift? It’s a shift in awareness. A very subtle, yet primary, change in perception.

It’s the revelation of the idea that  ebooks  are not books at all.

That’s right, ebooks are not books.

If ebooks are not books, what are they?

Ebooks are actually software. School acquisition professionals are realizing this before most other people in education. In fact, it seems like they’re realizing this before it’s dawning on most book publishers. (Read about one publisher that already understands this, and has built a distribution model around this model in Part Two of this article—Streaming Ebooks: A New Distribution Model For Schools.)

Here’s the view of the situation from the district back room.

Books are objects

Books are objects. They are limited by their physicality. Only one person can sit comfortably and read a book. So when a classroom or a school or a whole district wants their students to read a book, school district purchasing departments have no choice but to purchase one of them for each student. Granted, teachers can use the same books year after year until they wear out (and many districts frugally use them well beyond their intended lifecycle) but what districts are paying for when they by a book is both the content and the “thing” that is a book.

Ebooks are software

Ebooks, however, have practically no physical limitations. Once the “master” is finalized, all that’s needed to replicate it onto hundreds, thousands, even millions or billions of devices. This master doesn’t need to be located at the school, or outside the publisher’s own walls, or even in the same continent as the school that’s downloading it.

The replication of this master is not limited by time (an ebook can be downloaded today, tomorrow, or next year). Nor is it limited by space (an ebook that’s sitting on a server in Sidney, Australia can just as easily be downloaded in a classroom in Bombay, India as in Omaha, Nebraska.)

Ebooks can be accessed by thousand devices simultaneously without ever being “permanently” transferred to an individual device, as is the case when titles are distributed via the cloud or a website.

So an ebook differs from a book in that it is content only, not content-plus-object, as in the case of a paper book.

Even ebook content is not the same as book content

But let’s think for a moment a bit more about content.  Even when we look at content, an ebook can be very different from as a paper book.  Even though the only property an ebook shares with a regular book is the content—that element is changing. The ebook versions of many textbooks are being enhanced with audio, interactivity, and multimedia.

Once all of their attributes are listed this way, it’s pretty clear that ebooks are software, not books. So why, then, are publishers still trying to sell ebooks the same way they sell paper books?

Ebooks should be sold the way software is sold

It’s the conundrum that schools are facing today. Ebooks are not books at all—they are software and they should be sold the way software is sold.

Why do some publishers and distributors require schools to pay for a separate version of every ebook they want every child to see? Why can’t the ebooks be distributed in bundles, with user agreements and tiered pricing levels that change based on the number of “seats” served?

Why aren’t more ebooks being served up in cloud-based computers, with password-protected access based on subscription payment models? Why are ebooks still being sold individually, as if their “thingness” was their primary attribute, when they are not, in fact “things” at all?

To be fair, some publishers are looking at ebooks this way. Certainly publishers that have incorporated in recent years are doing so. In part two of this article—you can read about a publisher that’s focusing on the school market and distributing ebooks in innovative ways.

Ebooks don’t have any of the physical attributes of paper books—and they shouldn’t have paper books’ pricing and distribution models, either.

This article first appeared in Digital Book World.

Posted by BB on May 6, 2013 in E-book Publishing Tips