30 June 2010

The Ebook Revolution in the Academy

I just attended the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) conference in Salt Lake City. I've seen the future. Print is declining and, at least in academic publishing, is about to fall off a cliff. University libraries are moving to e-books as quickly as possible, for two main reasons:

1. Ebooks never go out of print, so there is no reason to buy them purely against future need, as has been the case with print titles. Since about half of all library books are never used (really, zero usages, ever), that represents enormous cost savings. For the University of Arizona, for example, buying only titles that researchers actually used would mean saving about $20 million over ten years.

So U of A and most other schools are revamping their acquisitions to be patron driven. For example, in one system, if a library patron wants to use an ebook, they click on a link and it is rented to the library by a vendor. After three or four usages (rentals), the ebook is automatically purchased. Libraries are willing to pay higher than print cost for ebooks if they are actually used, and with the upside that they quit purchasing books that are unused.

But in fact, ebooks are generally much cheaper than print titles, since they are often purchased in large bundles for just 25 or even 10 cents on the dollar of print cost (and needing a fraction of the conservation and storage costs). And with library budgets being slashed, print books are seen increasingly as a nostalgic luxury.

2. Users now expect instant (= digital) access to information. The current generation of students, so-called “digital natives,” have ceased to regard libraries as repositories of information, and are as comfortable reading books digitally as in print. And since digital is more convenient, use of print materials is dropping. Print is therefore both more costly and less used.

Protests that paper books are preferable to ebooks are not borne out by usage rates. At Univ. of Chicago, they have tracked usage rates for titles held in the collection in both paper and digital formats. The print titles average .43 circulations per year, and 3.81 circulations over their lifetime in the collection. The very same titles in electronic format averaged 17 uses per title per year. That’s 34 times the usage rate for digital items over their identical paper counterparts.

Even when digital collections are purchased as large packages, usage of the entire package per year is consistently over 80% (i.e., only 20% of titles are not used at all per year). However, usage of print materials in collections is a fraction of that and falling. Circulation rates of printed books per student have fallen by half in the last 15 years, and are accelerating. Presently, 75% of all library print materials are used just 0-1 times per decade; 47% are never used at all. And again, these printed book usage rates are falling at an accelerating rate.

What many of us who are older utterly fail to appreciate is that the rising generation has no preference at all for print over electronic reading. In fact, just the opposite. We duffers who extol the tangible aesthetics of print over cold and soulless digital are like the ancient scribes who carped that scrolls were far preferable to those newfangled codices (i.e., books). Parchment better than paper. Elegant scribal handwriting over ugly movable type. Really.

As a press director from MIT said, “What is amazing is the generation gap between people who are 30 and people who are 23.” This is why print is dying; younger readers do not like it. The overwhelming and rising demand from students and scholars generally is for e-pubs that are supported on multiple platforms, DRM-free, and available off-line. Think iPads, iPhones and Kindles. If you snooze on this, you lose basically everyone under 30 as your readers. Again, academic ebook sales are growing 300% a year and rising, while print book sales are stagnant or falling.

This is not just terrible news for print book lovers, but much more so for publishers. They were stumbling out of conference sessions to the nearest bars. They, too, have seen the future.

29 June 2010

A More Correct Perspective

I was rereading a series of posts I wrote last July on compact digital cameras. I've just purchased two, in fact, one for my daughter and one for myself. For my daughter I bought a refurbished Panasonic DMC-ZS1, a compact superzoom that produces really fine images for its class and has a very wide 25mm (equiv.) Leica-designed lens. It's not perfect, but for $150 it's a wonder.

I've ordered a Panasonic DMC-FH1 for myself, but it's not here yet. It's very inexpensive, but has a fast 2.8 28-140mm equiv. lens (5x zoom), as well as optical image stabilization. The wide, fast, and quite long lens was important to me, and to get that in a $125 credit-card compact, less than an inch thick, is unexpected. And reviews say the picture quality is excellent. I've always owned Canons in the past, but Canon models with equivalent features start $50 higher. And I'm not sure they have anything on these Panasonics.

In the past, you just could not find a compact at any price with these fast, wide lenses. That they now can be had so inexpensively is real progress. I find long zooms not so useful, but a wide angle lens is indispensable. Not having that has been one of the biggest compromises in using a compact. Paired with a fast 2.8 aperture, which gathers lots of light, and the stabilized lens, you gain both wide angle and four f-stops over older compacts. They are just made for natural-light indoor photography, which I do a lot of when traveling.

Lens tech has advanced, certainly, but still: how can they do this? And at these price points? The problem traditionally is that it takes a lot of highly optically-corrected glass to build a fast, wide zoom lens that does not suffer from gross optical defects. That translates into bulky, expensive cameras. One of the big tricks that manufacturers have pulled off is the correction of optical defects in the camera's image processing software. A great article on this has appeared on dpreview. I expect this wizardry is used in my Panasonics. This permits much more flexibility in lens design, permitting smaller, cheaper (if optically less perfect) lenses.

Dpreview also addresses the question: Is this cheating? Traditionally, lens makers have expended extravagant resources to remove all possible optical defects, and photographers have correspondingly paid for it. But some purists think that is the correct order of things.

    Every time somebody does anything with a digital camera that couldn't be done in a film darkroom, people have called 'foul' and make accusations of cheating. However, 20 years after the appearance of Photoshop, it's safe to assume that a degree of post-shoot 'retouching' is the norm, rather than a sneaky exception (and remember that plenty of secrets could hide in the darkrooms of skilled practitioners). At which point, there's a chance that one person's cheating might turn out to be progress for the majority.

Yeah, I'll take that progress.

28 June 2010

I'm Back. More or Less.

When I closed up shop nine months ago, it was mostly out of sheer busyness. I'm not any less busy, but I'd like to meet anyone who is less busy now than they were last year. That's just not the nature of modern life. But I miss my blog, mostly 'cause I like reading what write. It's the only kind of journal I'll ever keep. Evidence of my existence.

I'll continue to mostly blog on my geeky leisure interests, since I am my own primary reader, and I like reading this stuff as well writing it. (Vanity?) I guess I could write political commentary, or haiku, or something Important or Serious, but I have no passion for Important or Serious things, except in occasional and small doses.

Anyway, perhaps the world needs more haiku, but definitely not more political commentary. Hmmm, haiku. Maybe camera haiku.