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The promise of digital books or e-books or the universal library is that we can have all the books ever printed available on any device to read. While it’s an idea that sounds good in theory, many of you were skeptical that the good old book really needs to be reinvented, scanned and put onto an electronic device.

Perhaps this isn’t a case of either/or. Maybe there are books that are better read in print, while others might make more sense as downloadable texts with hyperlinks and constant updates. That’s the contention of Joe Wikert (pictured here), vice president and executive publisher in the professional/trade division at book publisher John Wiley & Sons (who also blogs). Wikert wouldn’t comment on the Google digitization project as Wiley is one of the publishers suing Google, but he had a lot to say about e-readers in an email to me:

As far as e-book devices are concerned, I think most publishers hope an exciting platform will be developed. As a publisher I frankly don’t care who builds one as long as it eventually happens. I’d like to think that it would simply become yet another channel for our products/content. I also think I’m one of the few who is holding out hope that this will happen in my lifetime. Every so often I post about my vision for e-books and I worry that some folks out there roll their eyes and say something like ‘there goes Joe on his e-book soapbox again!’

The key item I keep stressing is that we can’t simply do a port of the print book onto the electronic platform. PDFs of print books aren’t very exciting. It all comes down to how the content is layered, which was a point I’ve made several times. This layering requires authors and publishers to think differently about the print vs. electronic platforms. E-books become exciting when the content is layered in such a manner that (a) you can see/read what you need as ‘the essentials’ but (b) they include a rich linkage system which lets the reader drill deeper on any item you might be interested in. In an earlier post, I talked about how [baseball site] MLB.com has taken the static box score and added some great layering to make it a very rich interface; this is the sort of thing that needs to happen on the book side to create an engaging platform.

While Wikert didn’t get into the specifics of the technology that might catch on to make e-books popular, many of you described your own thoughts on what a good e-book should be. Blogger Dolor Ipsum thought it might be a good idea to have physical e-book cartridges.

“An e-book reader should be about the size and weight of a trade paperback book, have a bright clear display, and have controls which allow you to navigate through the e-book in a manner similar to navigating through a physical book,” Ipsum wrote. “Instead of having e-books in the form of downloadable files, they should be in the form of small cartridges which you can plug into the reader (perhaps the reader could be designed to hold several cartridges.) Having the e-books in a solid form allows the user to easily re-sell the used cartridges without the publisher having to worry about illegal duplication.”

That sounds like a solution that would benefit the publishers more than the end-users, who probably would prefer to just upload files to devices. Joe Murphy, an academic reference librarian who blogs at Hip Deep in Pie (love the name), knocks blogger/pundit Jeff Jarvis’s thoughts about the print book being dead.

“Books are excellent technology, and the idea that ‘the book’ needs to be reinvented is about as logical as assuming that the hammer, saw, or wheel needs to be reinvented,” Murphy wrote. “However, that doesn’t make the paper book the best technology for every purpose, and there certainly are things currently published as books which shouldn’t be…I’ll say that almost every true reference book I’ve seen could be as good or better with a well designed digital surrogate. The same can be said (for library purposes) of journals, magazines, and newspapers, where searchability and storage are major issues.”

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As for e-books, Murphy thinks they will complement print books the same way that audio books have — without replacing them. He doesn’t believe specialized e-book devices, like the new Sony Reader pictured here, will catch on, and would bet on e-book readers built into mobile devices such as smart phones or iPods.

Blogger Ged Carroll says his gut instinct is to say that books don’t need reinvention, and he lists some problems with digitizing books.

“[One problem is] the fact that we’re substituting an established analog technology for one that is at best only as good as the one it replaces,” Carroll wrote. “What happens when the battery dies on your e-book reader or the software becomes corrupt? [Those aren’t] concerns that the analog technology has.”

Diane Ensey, who writes the A-List Review roundup of top bloggers, takes a global, no-nonsense approach to new technology encroaching on old.

“Unless electronic versions can be used in the bathtub, places with no electricity and can be used by people without access to a computer or special reader — NO!” Ensey wrote. “If books become the sole domain of those with technology, what will happen to those people in the world without access to the technology?”

But like it or not, digital books are already making inroads in academic settings. Milt Martin, who runs the citizen journalism site, PrattNews.com, in Kansas, reports on a home-grown digital initiative.

“Educational institutions have already answered this question at least about school textbooks,” Martin wrote. “In Pratt, Kansas, the school board approved the Apple laptop initiative which includes replacing hard copy textbooks with digital equivalents.”

And there have been reports of many college classes using digital audio podcasts or downloads instead of texts. So maybe we’re in for a long period where books go hybrid, with digital books, e-readers, iPod audio and text, and those old dusty, musty, dead-tree print books.

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I’ll be taking off Monday for the Memorial Day holiday, so look out for more MediaShift goodness on Tuesday. Hope you all enjoy the break!

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