5 things to like about e-books

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For this week’s Friday Five (our 30th!) I wanted to revisit a post I wrote two years ago about electronic books in PDF format. As luck would have it, I noted five things I particularly liked about the format. Since then electronic reading devices like Amazon’s Kindle have hit the mainstream, and if some of the pundits are to be believed, Apple’s forthcoming iPad will do even more to make electronic editions of books just as common as their print counterparts.

When I wrote the original article I was focused on PDF books. This time I’ll generalize to all, or at least most, e-book formats and devices. Here is the 2010 edition of neat things about e-books:

1. E-books give you instant access to content

If you’re like me, you’ve got things you don’t need to know until you need to know them–and when you do need to know, you need to know right now. Even though the web in general has lots of good information, sometimes the best examples are still in books. In our instant gratification society, it’s nice to be able to go to Amazon or some other e-book retailer, purchase a book, and be able to begin learning from it in minutes or less.

2. E-books are lightweight and portable

It’s not uncommon for the computer books I use as references to check in around 300 pages or more. Try carrying a couple of those along with a laptop and whatever other gadgets you’ve got in your bag, and you’re just asking for back problems. And I’m not in school anymore, but I remember days in high school and college that required toting a few thousand pages’ worth of textbooks back and forth on the bus. E-books to the rescue–I now have a full reference desk in a folder on my computer, weighing in at exactly zero pounds, zero ounces.

3. E-books provide better browsing and searching

Tables of contents and back-of-the-book indices as we’ve known them in print books are great, but e-books one-up them by providing web-like linking to specific spots in the book, without the potential for paper cuts. Add the ability to search your book for specific keywords and your access to the book’s contents grows even more–especially for technical/reference titles and textbooks.

4. E-books are (theoretically) updatable

This is one of my favorite things about PDF books–as errata are addressed by the authors, updates are available via download. One publisher I buy from frequently, Pragmatic Programmers, takes advantage of this ability to release “beta books.” These titles still need some revision, but readers can get early access to materials and ideally contribute to the refinement process. I haven’t seen a book update like this available through Amazon’s Kindle store, nor do I know how Apple plans to handle this concept, but I hope they do.

5. E-books are (usually) a few bucks cheaper

At present, an electronic version of a book won’t be as expensive as a new copy in print. (On the downside, you can’t really sell an old copy of an electronic book.) Now that consumer interest in e-books is on the rise, though, it will be interesting to see how they are priced. In fact, how electronic books should be priced is still open for debate, as publishers disagree on how these books should be priced. The general consensus is that electronic book prices will rise, though my guess is consumers will ultimately set the fair price of electronic versus print, not the publishers or resellers. While that issue is being resolved, though, don’t forget there are plenty of free books out there via Project Gutenberg and Google Books. These books are either out of print or non-copyrighted classics.

Happy e-reading!

Photo: Sifter on Flickr

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Aaron Sumner

Aaron Sumner is the Director of Technology for Research and Development at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning. He has worked in web development and instructional technology since 1994.