NORTH LIBERTY– Although this newspaper has a website with recent articles archived, you’re probably reading this on paper. You’re probably still reading your books by turning physical pages made of paper, hardcover or paperback, bought or borrowed, fiction or non-fiction.
You’ll return these books to the library or loan them to a friend or family member, maybe keep them in your own library. You might annotate or highlight or underline passages, fold the corners down on favorite pages, press leaves between the pages of large books. Some people buy children’s books for the illustrations, others look for their favorite classics at used bookstores.
Not too long ago, when electronic books were introduced, many gripped their bindings and hollered that the end of literature was near and as digital reading device prices drop, more people are reading electronic ink.
Online retailer Amazon.com recently announced it now sells twice as many e-books as printed books.
Electronic versions make some sense; publishers often remainder half of their initial editions of books and how many copies of this year’s pulp fiction (paperbacks, not movies) do we need?
The book market, though, still belongs to paper copies, as a handful of major publishers churn out best-selling page-turners.
Books made of paper will likely never leave us. Their impact has left an indelible mark on us since the printing press was first used over 500 years ago. But the new way to read is starting to catch up with traditional print.
Since their introduction just a few years ago, e-readers, tablets, even devices like the Android have helped fuel the rise of virtual books.
Last year, electronic books accounted for about 20 percent of the entire book market, three times more than in 2010.
Amazon owns much of the e-book market after the debut of its Kindle devices in 2007. The e-readers initially ran around $400. Since then, a simple black and white e-reader has dropped below $100, and competes with Barnes and Nobles’ Nook and other e-reading devices. Amazon’s Kindle is also an app (short for computer application) that allows you to read on your home computer.
Amazon, you may have guessed, is the world’s largest e-tailer (online retailer), engaged in a global media competition with digital giants Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft. Each company has carved a unique slice of the digital media and advertising markets, with some also entering the e-book arena.
The battle is ongoing and earlier this year several of the biggest publishers, along with Apple, settled out of court after the Department of Justice accused them of price-fixing e-books. Two remaining publishers, Macmillan and Penguin, will stay on to fight the DOJ lawsuit.
The effect on consumers will likely mean lower prices for many e-books at Amazon while Apple’s iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, and others fight to keep pace with Amazon’s sharp discounts.
The three-book set of the best-selling trilogy “The Hunger Games,” offered through Amazon, is just under $30 in hardcover, about $27 for a collection of the paperback version and under $20 for the Kindle version, which you can download and start reading in under a minute, according to their website.
The Kindle device, among others, has a wireless function that enables users to find titles and instantly buy them. The company, based in Seattle, does about 60 percent of the e-book business through its Kindle device today.
They enjoyed a near-monopoly on e-books in 2010 when they were snapping up about 90 percent of the market by selling many electronic titles at a loss. The undercut pricing strategy is what prompted Apple and the publishers’ drastic actions to retain control over pricing.
Today Apple does about 10 percent of the e-book market and Barnes & Noble sells about 25 percent.
Two of the most common types of devices offered are the black and white e-readers, which most closely resemble the printed page, and the color tablets. Both come in many different sizes.
Laptops and smartphones can also be used to download and read digital books and magazines.
E-books are also available for free from your local library, but for popular titles like “The Hunger Games,” you might have to wait.
The public libraries in Solon and North Liberty pay a fee to a consortium called NEIBORS (North Eastern Iowa Bridge to Online Resource Sharing) for access to thousands of e-book titles and downloadable audio books. The consortium also lets patrons download audio books.
The annual fee for the service is a fraction of library’s annual book budgets.
At the North Liberty Community Library (NLCL), Director Dee Crowner said her library will likely go outside NEIBORS to purchase its own copies of e-books in the future. (An NLCL building expansion project, to be completed next year, may impact their book budget.)
Just like regular books, the library loans digitals for two weeks and the files can be downloaded from home.
Libraries prefer that patrons return the digital copies early instead of letting the time just run out.
Although making a digital copy costs about 20 percent less than traditional bound books, e-book publishing isn’t without its costs. All the media must be ready for customers from computer servers; each digital copy must be secured so they can’t be shared between users; and each book must be digitized and designed.
Most libraries only buy the rights for one version and patrons must wait their turn to download the file.
For school libraries, unlimited use licenses are used so every student in a grade can have the same text.
Solon schools’ district librarian Kathy Kaldenberg said that buying a book for every student in a grade can be cost prohibitive. She called the unlimited license for e-books a cost-effective way to distribute texts.
“The down side is that not all book titles are available (through multiple-user licensing),” she said.
In the Solon public schools, e-books are at each of the three buildings.
At the high school media center students can check out one of the three Nooks, purchased by the Solon Education Fund, that are loaded with titles. Kaldenberg said the e-readers were a big hit and more titles will be added to the devices next year.
At the Middle School, 50 e-books were made available as a pilot project at the end of the school year, and Lakeview Elementary has one Nook loaded with children’s classic titles and Iowa Children’s Choice Award titles.
Public libraries don’t have unlimited use licenses for books and that can make for some long waiting lists. Over 150 libraries are members of NEIBORS and the numbers are growing, pinching the resources offered, but often titles are available through NEIBORS that aren’t available locally.
Crowner said that using NEIBORS is much cheaper than sending inter-library loans between the state’s public libraries.
Jacque Deaton, who helped set up NEIBORS for Solon’s library, said that without the consortium service of the state library, Solon would not be able to afford something like it on their own. WILBUR (West/Central Iowa Libraries Building Online) is the other consortium in Iowa.
The Solon Public Library currently pays just $300 plus a per capita annually for its NEIBORS contract, a tiny fraction of their $26,000 budget for printed books for all ages: hardcover, paperback, and children’s books. The fee will increase next year.
Solon spends about $4,000 for audio books on compact disc each year.
Deaton said that in Solon, downloadable audio books, which many users install on mp3 players, have had fewer checkouts as more e-books have become available and more library users purchase tablets and other e-readers.
At the North Liberty Community Library, audio book titles were as popular as their print versions.
What’s the e-book impact on small publishers?
Local publisher Steve Semken, who runs Ice Cube Press from North Liberty, said he’s not certain about the future of e-books. He doesn’t like their design but does release his titles in digital form.
“I’m not sure if they are a fad or what,” he said.
Semken has written about e-books on his publisher’s blog where he’s even called the future of book publishing bright. But he doesn’t believe that the future of publishing is really even about digital books.
“At some point e-books may be real books,” he wrote, “but the future of publishing is really about telling stories and sharing information.“
He said he has yet to publish an audio book but, “more and more people ask me about them, so I’m sure I’ll adapt and try this out too.
“Who am I to determine how a person likes to read?” he asked.
Ice Cube Press books are available through Semken’s website at www.icecubepress.com;  the Solon library site is at www.solon.lib.ia.us  and North Liberty Community Library can be found at www.northlibertylibrary.org .