Thursday, May 5, 2011

Blog LXXVIII (78): E-books: Just Say No

I am no modern day Luddite afraid of technological change, but e-books are a bad idea that the publishing industry seems more than ever determined to embrace even though it is bad for them and the scholars that they produce.

In January Oxford University Press announced that it is creating Oxford Scholarship Online, which will publish book-length studies in electronic format. JSTOR already has a similar project under way. Project MUSE has plans with New York University Press to create the University Press eBook Consortium, which will apparently have more than 60 university presses as members.

What are we to make of these developments? Joseph Esposito, an independent consultant who advises scholarly publishers, told Inside Higher Ed that they are attempting to challenge Google. “These publications are now trying to take control of these markets, find revenue streams there, and trying to keep Google from being the vendor of choice,” Esposito explained.

This development might seem like a good one at first glance. “Preservation is essential in the academic community and an important distinction between what we are doing and Google Books,” Heidi McGregor of JSTOR told Inside Higher Ed. “Working with publishers and libraries, we will ensure the long-term archiving of these works for use by future students and scholars.”

Not really. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Electronics are no substitute for the printed page. Consider the fate of the music industry. Until the 1980s, music was recorded on analog tapes that were easy to retrieve. When the industry moved to the digital medium things changed. In only a half dozen years the formats of the machines changed dramatically. Modern computers are often not compatible with older formats. “Say you have a Word file on an old Mac OS and you want to retrieve it,” says Paul West, a former archivist at Universal Music. “Look at the hoops you have to go through for that. Multiply that by an incredible factor to try to retrieve music.”

Here is one example. The band Smash Mouth had to rerecord chunks of their song “All Star” for a television ad. Why? Well, the digital master was missing tracks. Keep in mind that the song is not that old; it was recorded in 1999. That was a mere 12 years ago. Sound engineers at the EMI music label discovered that drums and percussion effects on many songs from the 1980s are missing. “You open a session even from 10 years ago, and it might have a plug-in that's not supported, so you don't have that effect anymore,” Greg Parkin, the vice president of archives at EMI, explained.

The Library of Congress issued a recent report noting that digital formats are “not inherently safe harbors of preservation.” Sam Brylawski, a former Library of Congress archivist, explained, “There's a paradox. We can record so easily now with digital recorders. But at the same time, the stuff is at greater risk than it used to be.” The Grammy and Oscar winning music producer T Bone Burnett, agreed: “Digital is a feeble storage medium.”

But books, publishers tell us, will be “different.” And if you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I would like to sell to you.

There are several problems in going to the electronic format. First, is the ever changing nature of the electronic media. Let me give you an example for my own career. I wrote my first scholarly paper in 1989 and stored it on a floppy disk—a real floppy disk. I still own the disk. It is sitting on a book shelf in my office, but I have no way of accessing the file. I wrote my doctoral dissertation/first book on an Apple Macintosh in 1996. I still own the computer, but it the printer died years ago and the computer screen no longer works.

I am not the only person facing this problem. “The first files I produced on a computer, in the 1970s, were stored on Radio Shack audiotape cassettes,” James Fallows of The Atlantic observed several years ago. “After that, I used a computer with eight-inch floppy disks. The book I wrote twenty-five years ago using that computer still looks fine—but the interview notes for it, which I “saved” on those big old disks, I might just as well have burned. For all practical purposes, there is no way for me to get at them anymore—nor at other information that over the years I’ve lodged on 5.25-inch disks, small archival high-density tapes, some varieties of Zip drives, and other media that my current computers can’t handle.” Fortunately, for me my research is all on paper.

Printed books might be old school media, but they do last for decades. That is something worth considering. Do you really want to spend seven years on a book length project and have it published electronically, only to see it disappear in eleven years? Probably not.

Second, there is a real question about the long-term durability of electronic publishing. Even if formats survive and remain accessible, the question is how long will the machinery remain operational. In 1859, English astronomer Richard Carrington observed a solar storm that produced huge flares and massive amounts of radiation. Eighteen hours later, the “Carrington event” shut down telegraph systems, and produced power surges that started fires at a number of telegraph stations. The event brought global communication to a halt for days. When telegraphs began operating again, there was so much electromagnetic energy in the air, that there was no need for the cables to be plugged into their power sources. The event also incapacitated international travel and trade. With all that radiation in the air, compasses pointed everywhere but north. For a brief period, sailors at sea returned to celestial navigation. That was the limit, though. Power grids, satellites, computers, the internet, television, radio, and microprocessors had not been developed, so many other parts of society never felt the impact of this storm.

The thing to note is that solar weather is cyclical. Over the course of the next century, there is no question that there will be another storm along the lines of the Carrington event. In 2003 the “Halloween Space Weather Storms,” a series of storms that equaled only twenty percent of the Carrington event, caused power surges and blackouts in northern Europe, shut down global positioning satellites, forced the rerouting of commercial air traffic, and blocked radio communication. The real issue is what will stronger storms due to electronic information storage systems. I do not know, but it will be probably be bad. What I can say with a lot more assurance is that it will do little to a printed book.

Even if I am wrong about the environmental challenge, there is still the problem about the format itself. Despite what people think digital information fades. The data is stored with tiny magnetic charges, and sooner or later those charges weaken and corrupt which eliminates the data stored on discs and hard drives.

Fallows interviewed Librarian of Congress James Billington on this topic and asked if there was a historical precedent for this type of loss. “Of course!” Billington replied. “The library at Alexandria.” He is referring to the burning of the Royal Library in Alexandria, Egypt, sometime after the Roman conquest of Egypt. The library operated under the patronage of the Ptolemaic dynasty, the Greek royal family that ruled Egypt for roughly 300 years, and turned the library into the major source of knowledge in the ancient Mediterranean world. The librarian added: “I’ll be frank, that is a major haunting thing for me about our library.” Sarantakes worries as well. So should you.

A third reason to stay away from e-books as a primary medium for publication is criminal activity. Right now it looks like iPads, Nooks, Kindles, etcetera are the next major “in thing” in electronic media. The criminal element has found ways to manipulate other electronic media such as the internet and e-mail. They use worms, Trojan horses, and botnets (a zombie army of computers controlled by others without their owners’ knowledge). With free downloadable applications for smart phones and public wi-fi hotspots it is only a matter of time before inventive criminals take advantage of these devices. While these attacks are going to be a problem for individual users, they will eventually infect databases. I have every expectation that users with these new electronic devices will put pressure on the database operators to make their products available to iPads, Nooks, and/or Kindles users and that will eventually lead to the infection of these electronic archives with some type of malware or virus. What kind of damage could hackers do our record of information, if they manage to degrade accessibility to electronically published books. Think I am exaggerating; think no one would attack something as benign as a depository of electronic books. Well, I am sure Sony thought that way until a week ago before its computer game network got attacked. The fact that people will be charged something to download electronic information makes these databases useful targets, and I am sure the criminal element can find other usages for them, even if I cannot.

If electronic publishing is so bad, why are people moving in this direction? The answer: short term thinking. Electronic publishing has been good for academic journals. It has made it possible for readers to buy copies of individual articles and smaller journals are more accessible as part of database bundles. Librarians for all the rhetoric we hear about having the coursework and training on budgeting issues make some fairly predictable decisions. They try to stretch their money and acquire as much as possible even if it is not what they need. For example, there is a journal that focuses on math history. I taught at school where the library subscribed to the journal as part of a package even though no one at the school in either the history or math departments worked in that field. Electronic publishing is cheaper than print since there is no need for ink or paper, and the price makes electronic books more attractive to librarians than traditional ones on paper.

Don’t get me wrong, electronic publishing is a great supplement to traditional print, but not as a replacement. For all the talk of going to a paperless society, electrons seem to be producing more paper rather than less. A perfect example is that there is more paper in the Reagan Presidential Library for 1988 than there is for 1981. The reason: computers were more available in 1988 than they were in 1981, making it easier for the White House staff to generate written records. All they had to do was hit the print button.

So, what is a scholar to do? The easiest thing to do is to refuse to publish in the electronic format. That, though, is easier said than done. I have four books in print and three are available electronically. I made mistakes in signing publishing contracts, but the book that has sold the best is the one that is not available in electronic format. I am currently looking to place three more manuscripts and am going to hold fast on the electronic issue. Go figure. At this point in my career, I am in a position where I can walk away from a situation. That is easy to say, but difficult to do. Scholars trying to publish their first book, might feel more pressure to compromise, but it is incumbent on you to take these stands. It is in your long term interests.


  1. Until the 1980s, music was recorded on analog tapes that were easy to retrieve

    I have some eight-track tapes to sell you.

  2. The analog tapes I mentioned were the masters that were stored in the archives. The comment about eight-tracks only underscores the argument about the danger of storing data on an electronic medium that can and usually do change in less than a decade. I have data on cassette tapes--not impossible to find a player, but difficult.

  3. You are quite right about format degradation and even bit-rot, but, seriously, this is not just about the weakness of data. This is about not ever having just one copy of something, be it virtual or physical. These problems can be foreseen, managed and avoided, and one of the ways to do so is to make sure you have backups. (And yes, maybe one of them should be a print-out, just in case. OCR technology gets better and better so the paper version is actually a reasonable way to keep a last-ditch source for an electronic version.)

  4. Yes, you should really always have a paper copy, which does raise questions about claims that we are going paperless. The real issue, though, is not about having one copy. It is about publishing format. If your publisher goes the e-book route and something bad happens with the format, what good does it do you if you have a paper copy of the manuscript in your files. What kind of readership/influence do you have? If your publisher goes the e-book route, but also sells hard copies at $100 a copy and only 26 libraries buy a copy, and something bad happens with the format what kind of readership/influence do you have? Not much. Published is published is not always true.

  5. The main weakness of e-books is that they are dependent on some electronic storage technology that will change over time, and perhaps even disappear entirely, witness the huge amount of "abandonware," discontinued and unsupported software, that has disappeared since the 1990s.
    I simply cannot imagine any of my books being unreadable because the technology used to produce them is no longer available. Can anyone?
    All my old original work remains, in handwritten notebooks or typed pages. No danger of losing it in a computer accident. I include much work created on a computer, but printed out for safekeeping.
    A visit to a library on the day it deaccessions copies is a visit to a wondrous place to play and buy. By the pound, in some cases. I've found some works worth having no matter their used or even ragged condition, simply because they are no longer in print and have some personal value. How would one have that stability in an e-book? I have a complete library of Thackeray that I bought for ten cents each, old but readable (most, never checked out). Can't imagine that happening with any of our current authors who publish electronically, as our rights to use and pass on our copies is tightly restricted.
    I have a very strong public library system in my hometown, but it's still in danger, as our city manager is busy cutting staff city-wide and is evidently bent on privatizing everything he can. We are not out of the woods yet.
    As much as I support authors and publishers, I know they lose money in books checked out by library patrons, but I also know that patrons who value the books often go on to buy their own personal copies.