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There’s a lot of buzz around the University about e-books. Sydney Ideas hosted a lecture by Bill Rankin in conjunction with Apple Computers (if you missed the event, you can still listen to the audio or watch the video), ICT are investigating a University-wide architecture for e-books, the Library and eLearning and SUP have been interested in them for ages, and now lots of areas are looking at how they can get involved with this “new” technology, including us in Marketing and Communications.

e-books have been around a long time (since Project Gutenberg started digitising in 1971) and we all regularly use e-books without even realising that that’s what they are – in the form of PDFs or websites.

A traditional book is a very fine thing: it doesn’t require power so there’s no worry that its batteries will run out. You can read it in direct sunlight. It’s (relatively) cheap to produce and to buy. You can curl up in bed with it. It’s (usually) light and easy to hold. You can lend it (or borrow it). You can sell it to a second-hand bookshop when you’re done with it, hell you can even buy it from a second-hand bookshop in the first place. It feels good. It smells good.

Let’s be honest: most of us are a little bit in love with our books.

e-books, on the other hand, require powered hardware in order to access them. Most of us use our desktops or laptops to access e-books and this does not usually make for a pleasant, relaxing reading experience. I’m sure I’m not the only person who usually elects to print PDFs and other e-books to read them.

So what’s got us all buzzing? Until now there’s been nothing to rival the reading experience you get with a book. Specialised e-book readers have been expensive and hard to use, and relatively few books were available in e-book format.

Two devices look set to change all that. Amazon’s Kindle is now available for sale to Australia and Apple will soon release the iPad. Both are designed to serve as e-book readers, and both are significant advances in usability, though they have very important differences and features. We now have a couple of (potentially) really useful possible alternatives to the traditional book, and probably more to follow.
Amazon has almost half a million e-book titles available for purchase from their store, and there are many other sites that sell or distribute e-books. “Millions” of Kindles have been sold according to Amazon (which would seem to mean at least two million). A more interesting claim is that for titles available in both print and digital formats, Amazon sells six Kindle e-books for every 10 actual books.

One device like the Kindle can contain around 1500 books. Imagine how much better that would be for the health of the students who have to lug numerous heavy books around. Added to that are the possibilities that come with digitised multimedia-capable e-books. For example, it’s possible to annotate and markup e-books (digital rights management allowing), so assignments could be delivered to, answered in and returned from an e-book reader.

If market penetration of these devices in Australia is sufficiently deep then, what value could they add to the marketing and communications products of the University?

This is the question that a working party from DPM and Internal Communications is addressing. We’re looking at existing University products published by our teams and considering what e-book format and devices they might be most suitable for. Using the software we already have for publishing, creating e-books is a small(ish) step akin to creating a PDF. Some of our publications would be very useful to carry around as reference materials (for example, handbooks or map guides).

Distribution of e-books could be done from our website and from other distribution channels established for this purpose by the University. Being promotional items, we don’t have to consider issues of digital rights management or price structure – we want to get our messages out to as many of our stakeholders as possible.

Much more exciting though are the possibilities that arise when we consider how we could deliver our marketing and communications messages using the extra functionalities available to e-books. This requires a lot of effort in the planning stage and investment in creating audio and video content, but this content could readily be repurposed for use in our other channels (most importantly on the website).

Neither the Kindle nor the iPad currently meet all of the requirements for an e-book reader that will allow them to replace printed books. The time for e-books overtaking their printed kin is still in the future. But that future is getting closer.