e-Books, content and openness

I’ve just been reading a book by Stephen King (Everything’s Eventual) – actually it’s a collection of short stories and that, says Stephen in his introduction, makes a big difference. He points out that short story writing almost died in its original format and then in early 2000 there was great interest in an Arthur C Clark short story which was published only in cyberspace. This prompted Stephen King to do the same, not for business reasons but to try another marketplace. The story “Bullet” sold hugely and for embarrassingly large sums even for the audio rights. He went to add that he didn’t know how many people actually read the book or simply tried the download because they liked the novelty of the ‘electronic package’. King believes it would likely be disappointingly low. We’re now in 2010 (no reference here to Arthur C Clark but prediction is wonderful in hindsight) and I think that e-Publishing is now settling down and becoming a very interesting way to get things out there and micropayments seem to becoming well established (as Apple will tell you with their iPhone store apps downloads) and lucrative.

I’m rambling here but to bring it back to local context, The VC of the OU extolled the virtues of iTunesU and the fact that the OU had passed 13m downloads through iTunesU and reached 10m visitors to OpenLearn (something of which I’m very proud having been responsible for the original specification…and by the way there’s still plenty of that spec left to complete!). These are both free services but through them there has been an increase in student numbers, an estimated 14,000 students began their learning experience through consuming this free content and going on to study. There’s an article from November 2009 about this when iTunesU downloads passed the 10 million mark. It’s an emerging marketplace for learning and for publishing high quality content.

So I do believe  that consumers care about quality in the electronic marketplace. I do believe that these are potentially extremely huge markets for those that care to explore them and I do believe they open up a world previously the preserve of the ‘officiandos’ to a wider audience.

I haven’t mentioned iPad yet and I don’t want to until I get to try it but my wife* remarked (*she’s the person who keeps me grounded) “If I were to try one of those eBook reader things then it probably would be the iPad”. (N.B. I’ve tried to get her interested in the Sony eBook reader, iliad pad and Bebook without success). I realise there’s more to iPad than eBook reader but that’s for another blog.

To crack the eBook reader market fully I think the following needs to be done :-

1. To find a way of displaying stuff so that it looks good outdoors in bright sunshine from any position, indoors in poorish lighting and generally in any environment where people read. The same issues apply to laptops too and still aren’t solved ‘to my satisfaction!’ (matt screens and improvements in eInk?)

2. To avoid any flickering or adverce wear and tear to the eyes from the ‘electronic experience’ over a book.

3. To find methods for tapping into the ambient environment for power and networking to avoid any cables or recharging. No-one wants a flat battery half way through a book. (…sitting on a beach with an iPad getting it solar fix is all fine but I live in England and it ain’t sunny a lot of the time).

4. Easy to use micropayment transactions for content without lock in (Apple take note!) – i.e. keep the content open and unbounded in order to give exposure to the maximum audience and keep the marketplace open for the benefit of all.

5. Add value over books including referencing to web sites for additional content (text and media), auto-updating and added value tools. You name it, you got it.

Anyhow time to stop and read my book for a while.

About willwoods
I'm Head of Learning and Teaching Technologies in the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University.

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