The Format and Availability of Electronic Books

Update: a lot has changed in the world of digital books, since I wrote this post in 2005.

Tablet computer devices have changed the way we read digital books, and have fanned the fire for the debate about their format(s). Web applications, like Google Books, have introduced a new way to store and retrieve digital books, which keeps users from ever having an actual copy of the book on their devices, and thus prevents the transmission of those files. Books are made and consumed digitally, but they aren’t as accessible as digital music.

The original post follows.

Beatrice has recently discussed The New York Public Library’s addition of downloadable audiobooks to its online holdings. I noticed a complaint that I also have about my college’s online library.

Both types of files expire after three weeks, after which you can always check them out again if you weren’t finished yet, although I’ll admit I find this bit confusing: “If the desired eBook is not available, you may place a hold on the title.” Isn’t the whole point of making books downloadable that through the miracle of mechanical reproduction they’re always available

I’ve got a few thoughts about this sort of thing, about the format and availability of electronic books.


First of all, I really don’t think we’re going to be able to fully reap the benefits of that “miracle of mechanical reproduction”, where electronic books are concerned, because all of it so confusing. There are so many different file formats! There are too many of these formats. When we read an electronic text, we might read it as a web page, as a .pdf file, as a .txt file, or as one of the innumerable, proprietary “ebook” formats. Microsoft makes one, Adobe holds the reigns to the .pdf files. I don’t think that the average user wants or needs to be savvy enough to deal with all these different formats. It isn’t practical to have so many.

All of this contrasts sharply with the digitization of another medium: music. While there is also a variety of formats to find your music in, somehow things have settled down for now so that nearly everyone uses the .mp3. All the different software, on all the different kinds of computers, and thus all the different people can use this single, ubiquitous format. So far as I know, nobody is holding the reigns on the .mp3. I can make an .mp3 file, you can make one, even my graddad can make one. Its simple and easy.

Ironically, there has been a ubiquitous file format for text (.txt) for years longer than there has been one for music, yet for one literature class I needed five different pieces of software to read the variously formatted electronic formats for the course’s books. I was the only one of the fifteen students who had the patience for all of this. My peers would prefer to spend all that money on the paper books, rather than stress over the electronic versions, even though I found them all for free.

I can’t wait for the day that I have a “media player” for my book library. Something that collects and displays my books the way iTunes or Winamp collects and displays my music. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were something as ridiculously easy to use as an iPod, something to read books on? I’ve looked at those electronic book readers out there. They don’t seem very good to me. Too expensive, too complicated…

Maybe its just that these things do not exist due to a lack of demand. Video games and music are more marketable than electronic books?


It makes absolutely no sense to me that a library would ask for you to “return” an electronic book. The only reason to return a paper book to a library would be so that somebody else could borrow that object. Can’t the library send me a duplicate copy? Of course, there are issues with royalties and copyright. Google has caught a bit of guff with regard to those issues. Google plans to digitize hundreds of books, in a searchable way. This is a wonderful thing, but it isn’t making any money for the authors and publishers of those books, is it?

Again, there is a parallel in the electronic music scene. The compromise seems to be that, for a dollar a song, you can “check out” any song you like from the various services out there, and in return for that dollar, you get to own the song. People seem to be willing to do this, even though it is generally preferable to get the files for free.

With books, its just as easy to get the files for free, provided that those books have entered the public domain. (I suppose I wouldn’t balk at the idea of large scale book piracy, like we’ve already seen with music, but I don’t think we’ll ever see it.) If a book isn’t in the public domain, it isn’t likely to be available online. Surely the publishers have electronic copies of their books, before they ever go to press. Don’t they want to sell those? Wouldn’t it be easier?

Perhaps this entire post is nothing more than an expression of my ignorance about electronic publishing, but I hope I’ve been able to express my hopes for where it might go: that it might become easier, more fun to collect electronic books the way so many people do with their music.