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An E-book Primer

By Sarah Ormes, UKOLN, on behalf of EARL, the Library Association and UKOLN

An issue paper from the Networked Services Policy Taskgroup
Series Editor: Sarah Ormes, UKOLN


In early 2000 Stephen King published a novella called Riding the Bullet [1] in electronic format. Readers could access the book only via the Internet and had to read it using either their computer, handheld computer or dedicated e-book reader. The novella was sold for $2 and over 500,000 people tried to download it within the first week of its availability.

The publication of Riding the Bullet presented libraries with a problem. Here was a book for which there was great public demand and yet how could libraries add it to their collections and circulate it to their readers? Libraries are organised around the acquisition and management of physical items and Riding the Bullet did not fit into this model.

 Integrating e-books into library services looks like being one of the biggest challenges libraries have to face in the next few years.

What is an e-book?

E-book is a vague term which is used to describe a text or monograph which is available in an electronic form. An e-book could be a novel published on a Web site, a short story available to be downloaded as a word processing file or even a diary in a very long e-mail! Increasingly though the term e-book is used specifically to describe a text which requires the use of e-book software or hardware to be read. This software or hardware reproduces the text in a high-quality, easy-to-read digital format which aims to replicate the text quality available in a paper-based book.

The term e-book is also used to describe the dedicated electronic reading equipment which can be used to read e-books. To avoid confusion these devices are referred to as ‘e-book readers’ in this paper.

E-book Availability

Who's publishing them?

E-books are being published by a wide range of organisations. Established publishers like Simon & Schuster are making available e-book versions of some of their new mainstream publications [2]. Small e-book publishers are also becoming common. These organisations specialise in publishing new or emerging authors electronically only [3]. Authors, ranging from famous authors like Stephen King to previously unpublished wannabes, are also publishing their own work themselves

How much do they cost?

At present an e-book version of a current bestseller is only slightly (a few pounds) cheaper than its hardback equivalent. Books available in e-book format only range from being free, to a few pounds, to the equivalent of a print book.

Who's selling them?

E-books can be bought from major online booksellers like Amazon [4] and Barnes & Noble [5] and specialised e-book sellers like Ebookcity [6] and Ibooks [7].

What is an e-book reader?

E-book readers are the electronic devices used to read e-books. There are currently three types available:

  • Handheld
  • Dedicated
  • Desktop.

Handheld readers

Some handheld computers, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and palmtops can be used to read e-books e.g. Palm Pilots [8], Pocket PCs [9] and Handsprings [10]. These devices are very small, lightweight computers which fit into a shirt pocket. They are mainly used as diaries, e-mail readers and note takers.

Penetration of such handheld devices into the UK is still relatively low but they are extremely popular elsewhere in the world. Palm Pilot is the market leader and is currently selling one million units every 11 weeks. It is highly probable that this success will soon be repeated in the UK.

For a handheld device to be able to read e-books special software is required. This software may be already installed or can be downloaded from the Internet for free.

Peanutpress [11] and Mobipocket [12] are two companies which sell e-books over the Internet for use on such devices. The books are purchased via the company’s Web site and then downloaded to the hard drive of a PC or to a virtual bookshelf facilitated by the bookseller. When a user wishes to read an e-book they then download a copy of it to the handheld device via a PC. When the user has finished reading the e-book it can be deleted from the handheld device in order to make space for another text. A copy of the book is retained on the PC’s hard drive or the virtual online bookshelf.

Using a handheld computer as an e-book reader has a number of advantages. It makes use of technology/equipment that people may already have and carry around with them. Handheld computers are lightweight, allow the user to make fonts larger and smaller as they wish and can provide keyword searching. However, handheld computers have a small screen (making reading large amounts of text difficult) and can only store a very limited number of e-books at any one time (due to small memory space).

Dedicated readers

Dedicated e-book readers have been designed solely for reading e-books. They do not have the range of functionality available in handheld devices. They have larger screens than handhelds (around the size of a page of a paperback book), typically have more memory and are more intuitive to use. The leading brand in the dedicated reader market is Gemstar [13] which produces the REB 1100 and the REB 1200 (previously known as the Rocket eBook and the Softbook).  Typically the dedicated readers are light (the REB 1100 is 21 ounces), allow the user to alter the font size, change the back-lighting, underline passages, perform keyword searches and make annotations. They can store up to 10 full-length novels at any one time and have battery lives of up to 40 hours. The REB 1100 has a greyscale screen whereas the REB 1200 has a full colour display. 

E-books for dedicated readers are purchased online and downloaded to the reader. This can be done via a PC or through the e-book reader itself. If using a PC, books are bought via the Internet and are stored long term on the PC which acts as a bookshelf. Books which the user then wishes to read must be downloaded to the reader, a process which takes a few seconds. These books can be deleted from the reader to make room for other books when necessary. A copy of the book is retained on the PC. Each purchased book can only be read on the reading device it has been registered for. This prevents the user from buying one copy of a book and then copying it to many different readers.

Alternatively the reader plugs directly into a telephone line and the purchase of the e-book is mediated by the reader itself. Purchased books are stored online by the e-book company in a personalised virtual bookshelf. All purchased books remain in this virtual bookshelf but can be added and deleted from the reader as and when required.

At the time of writing dedicated e-book readers were not available for direct sale in the UK. Previously the Rocket eBooks had been possible to purchase online through an American Web site [14] however, since the launch of the REB 1100 and REB 1200 this service has been withdrawn. It is now expected that e-book readers will be available for sale in the UK late in 2001.

Dedicated readers range in cost – the REB 1100 is, at the time of writing, available for £160 and the REB 1200 for £400. These costs are expected to decrease as market penetration increases. Microsoft predicts that e-book readers will cost £100 by 2003 [15].

Desktop readers

A desktop reader is software which has been installed on a standard PC or laptop. This software converts the PC or laptop into an e-book reader. The software uses special fonts to make text easier on the eye and encrypts the book so it can’t be copied or printed. The two market leaders currently are Glassbook [16] and Microsoft Reader [17].

Glassbook is based on Adobe Acrobat (a popular Web browser plug-in for reading documents) [18] and requires a minimum of Internet Explorer 4 to be installed on a computer before it will work. Glassbook presents e-books in colour, allows the user to zoom in and out, highlight text and view images. Currently it cannot be used on dedicated e-book readers or handheld computers.

Microsoft Reader is very similar but uses ClearType font. ClearType has been developed by Microsoft and promoted as bringing the look and feel of high-resolution printing to on-screen reading. Microsoft Reader presents e-books in colour and provides the option to zoom in and out, increase the sharpness of the text, highlight the text, add notes, add diagrams and change the font size. Microsoft Reader is also available on the PocketPC, the Microsoft version of a handheld computer.

The advantages of desktop e-book readers are that they do not require the purchase of additional equipment (presuming the user already has a PC or laptop) and have comparatively large screens. However, PCs and laptops are heavier and far less portable than handheld and dedicated readers. They do not provide back-lighting and are less comfortable to use over long periods of time.


It is important to note that currently each of the different types of e-book readers use different technical standards. Consequently e-books are now being published in a number of different formats. These different formats mean that a copy of an e-book bought for use on a Palm Pilot will not be accessible on a REB 1100. The Open e-Book Forum [19] is addressing this issue and attempting to develop a universal e-book standard.

Visions of the Future: One

Maria works shifts and has just got home at 2am. She's not yet tired and wants to read a book. She logs onto the library's Web site and searches the OPAC for something to read. She's pleased to see that it has got the latest Louis De Bernieres book in and available in e-book form too! She clicks on borrow me and downloads the book to her PC. A message on the screen reminds her that the book's loan period is two weeks and unless she renews it after that time the book will be automatically deleted from her reader. She also wants to borrow the e-book version of Nick Hornby's new book, but all the library's electronic copies are already on loan.

Integrating e-books into libraries

The challenge for libraries is how to integrate this new format of texts into the traditional library service model. E-books are not physical items and so do not fit into existing acquisition or circulation models. However, judging from the millions being spent on the development of the e-book market by mainstream publishers like Simon & Schuster, Random House and Time Warner, e-books are a challenge that libraries cannot afford to ignore.

Circulating e-book readers

The initial response to providing library users with access to e-books has been to circulate e-book readers. The e-book readers are loaded with a number of texts, for example Riding the Bullet. These texts are catalogued as usual and included in the OPAC. If a library user wishes to read Riding the Bullet the catalogue record will direct the user to the enquiry desk where an e-book reader will be issued. The e-book reader will have a loan period like any other item borrowed from the library and the library user must return the e-book reader at the end of the period. The library user cannot personally download books to the e-book reader or read the library’s e-books on his or her own reader. Algonquin Area Public Library, USA is an example of a public library already providing this service. A useful FAQ about how it manages this service is available on its Web site [20].

Circulating pre-loaded e-book readers may just be a short-term solution to the issue of how to integrate e-books into the library. By circulating the e-book readers the libraries are providing both text and the equipment to read it. This would be equivalent to a library circulating both a video cassette and a video player. However, as the penetration of e-book readers into the market is still very low the circulation of readers is still required.

Circulating e-books

In the longer term libraries will simply circulate e-books for users to read on their own e-book readers. As e-books are electronic files, library users will be able to download them directly from the library’s catalogue. They may choose to do this in the library itself or most probably via the library’s Web site. This will mean that the library user will no longer have to physically visit a service point to borrow or return library books.

Each e-book borrowed will be automatically issued with an encrypted certificate. As well as including information about how long the book is available for loan, the certificate will also prevent it from being copied to another reader. At the end of the loan period this certificate will become invalid and the e-book will automatically delete itself from the library user’s e-book reader. The library catalogue will then automatically make a copy of this e-book available for loan again. No overdue notices need to be sent out, no fines need to be collected and the library does not need to be visited.

The integration of e-books into circulation systems is likely to be managed in one of two ways:

  1. Existing systems suppliers will develop new modules for current library management systems which allow the integration of e-books into the acquisition and circulation process. In this model traditional book suppliers will expand their services to include e-books.
  2. New organisations which specialise in supplying e-books to libraries will manage the administration of the e-books on the library’s behalf. These suppliers will manage the acquisition and record management for the texts. They will provide MARC records for insertion into the library’s traditional OPAC and support the integration of the library’s current acquisition system into their service. Authentication procedures will be put in place to enable the library’s users to access this online library either from within the library or through its Web site. The actual e-books files will be managed and maintained on this organisation's server and so freeing the library was most of the technical development of the service. NetLibrary [21] is an example of a company already offering this service. Currently its e-books can only be read via a PC or laptop but dedicated reader and handheld versions are due soon.

Publisher Restrictions

The developing model e-book publishers are creating for libraries is that each individual copy of an e-book bought can only be issued to one reader at any one time. One purchase, one loan. The e-book can be reissued many times but only one reader can borrow it at any one time. If a library wishes to issue two copies in parallel, then they must pay for two copies of the same book. This service model is still in development.

Stock selection models

The e-book gives the library the potential to provide its readers with any book within minutes. At present library users can only immediately borrow what is physically held in the library. If the library doesn’t hold the required book the user will have to wait for it either to be sent from another library in that authority or request it via Inter Library Loan. In an e-book environment if a user requests a book the library does not hold, the library can purchase it immediately and provide the reader with it within minutes. The librarian will simply need to log on to its book supplier’s site, purchase the relevant e-book, download it straight to the library’s catalogue and then issue it to the library user. This process is likely to take only a few minutes.

The instant access of e-books therefore  has strong implications for the traditional collection development model. Public libraries tend to buy most books using the just-in-case model. Books are bought in expectation of demand. The librarians choose what they think their public wants to or even should be reading. Developing an e-book collection could mean moving to a just-in-time model – with the readers’ demands being met within minutes of their requests. This would mean that the library more accurately buys books which its users want but not necessarily which librarians think they should have!

The development of workable e-book acquisition policies may be a time-consuming issue. Possibly, libraries may still pre-select a large percentage of their e-book collection for their users (based on traditional selection criteria) with a smaller percentage of the stock selected as a direct result of reader requests.

Visions of the Future: Two

David works in a small branch library which only stocks 15,000 books. The library authority has recently started purchasing e-books in addition to traditional print books. A library user comes into the library and asks if the library has the latest travel guide to Prague. David checks the catalogue and finds that his branch doesn't stock it and the only print version is out on loan in another library. He checks the authority's e-book acquisition policy and budget. The Prague guide is an acceptable purchase according to the policy and there is plenty of money in the e-book travel budget. He logs onto the library's e-book supplier's Web site and purchases the Prague guide in e-book form. The supplier downloads it straight into the library's catalogue along with a catalogue record. David then issues it to the library user and downloads it onto the library user’s handheld computer. The whole interaction, from asking for the book to downloading it to the user's e-book reader, takes less than seven minutes

E-book benefits for libraries


E-books offer libraries the potential to make considerable savings. Currently e-book bestsellers cost only slightly less than their paper equivalents. This is expected to change as the savings for publishers in distribution and material costs increase. Microsoft predicts that the cost of e-books will be substantially less than current books [22].

The e-book does not need to be bought in both paperback and hardback format; it will not wear out; it won't need to be replaced; and it will not require a large print version to be bought in addition. In the long term there may be additional savings in the reduction of processing costs and acquisition staff time and, of course, no shelving costs!

These savings will of course be dependent upon how the library provides access to the e-books. If the library is required to purchase e-book readers then there will be no savings in the short term. There will be additional costs in the management of the e-book readers, staff training costs, reader training costs and the integration of the new format into the library catalogue

Instant delivery to readers

E-books allow public libraries to provide distant users with instant access to their stock. Library catalogues will no longer simply tell readers what is available in the library but will also allow them to instantly download the e-books they wish to borrow. This would mean that readers could borrow and return books from anywhere with Internet access and at any time of the day or night. This kind of service would have a huge impact on housebound and mobile library services.

Expanding the collection

The development of an e-book collection also means that the library can expand its collection with little impact on the shelving space it requires. The purchase of 10,000 e-books takes up computer storage space only and does not require the purchase or use of any additional physical space.

E-book disadvantages for libraries

Technical and management problems

The integration of e-books into services will be a time-consuming and resource-intensive procedure. Developing new acquisition and circulation models will be complex and probably expensive. All staff will require additional training and new resource management models will need to be developed.

Developing model

E-books are still very much a new service for libraries and publishers. Although agreements about the Public Lending Right have been in place for print-based books for years, e-book lending models are still to be finalised. When Riding the Bullet was first published publishers and e-book vendors told libraries that either they couldn’t circulate it or they had to buy a new copy each time it was borrowed. After much complaint from librarians, the publishers and e-book vendors retreated to the one purchase, one loan at any one time model. However, this model is based on goodwill alone and, though it is unlikely to be changed, there are no guarantees it will be maintained.


If e-books are successful the library may find that increasingly its users are no longer visiting service points or interacting with staff. A large percentage of borrowing services may become automated and take place through the catalogue only. Like banks, libraries may find that such automation brings rationalisation, and staffing cuts may result.

Resistance to change

The idea of the print-based book being replaced by an electronic version is one which many people find very threatening. Print-based books are a familiar part of our society and something people are comfortable with. A library may find that there is resistance from some staff and library users to the introduction of e-books. This resistance may become a particular problem when an ever increasing percentage of the book fund is spent on e-books instead of print-based books.

Other issues for consideration

Other media

The next generation of e-book readers are likely to support both sound and video. As film and audio move to digital formats (DVD and MPG) the library will be able to loan items from its audio/visual collection digitally too. Again users won’t need to visit the library to borrow the latest album or video, they can just access them through the library’s online catalogue.

To charge or not to charge

As with all new services libraries may wish to explore whether e-books can be developed as an income generation service. Library authorities will need to decide whether e-books are a value added service or simply the same service in a new format. It is worth considering that, if e-books do prove to be the success that some technologists are predicting, it would be dangerous for libraries to set a precedent now for charging for e-book services. As e-books become an ever more important part of library services and the number of books only available in e-book format increases, the free public library will depend on e-books also being available for free. What may seem a valued added service now may soon be the library’s core service. Whether that core service remains free may depend on decisions libraries make now.


[1] Riding the Bullet

[2] Book Industry Adapts to Digital Revolution (CNN)

[3] Mighty Words

[4] Microsoft/Amazon E-book Partnership Store

[5] Barnes & Noble

[6] Ebookcity

[7] Ibooks

[8] Palm Pilots

[9] Pocket PCs

[10] Handsprings

[11] Peanutpress

[12] Mobipocket

[13] Gemstar

[14] Powells - Rocket eBook Seller

[15] E-book Future

[16] Glassbook

[17] Microsoft Reader

[18] Adobe Acrobat

[19] Open e-Book Forum

[20] Algonquin Area Public Library E-book FAQ

[21] NetLibrary

[22] E-book Future


This is one of a series of issue papers being produced by the Networked Services Policy Taskgroup. UKOLN, the Library Association and EARL member libraries participate in the taskgroup. Queries about the issue papers series should be addressed to Penny Garrod, the project manager for the initiative:

Penny Garrod
The University of Bath
Bath BA2 7AY

Telephone: 01225 826711

UKOLN is funded by the Resource: The Council for  Museums, Archives and Libraries, the Joint Information Systems Committee of the Higher and Further Education Funding Councils, as well as by project funding from the JISC and the European Union. UKOLN also receives support from the University of Bath where it is based.

EARL: The Consortium for Public Library Networking The Library Association UKOLN