Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Hey, vendors, your (non-fiction) eBooks aren't meeting my needs

For the record: I love FICTION eBooks. We circulate Kindles in my library (check out our program here, here and here) -- it's a popular offering that plays an integral role in meeting our students' reading needs.

My beef is with non-fiction eBooks that provide simultaneous access to titles. In the next few hundred words, when I say "eBooks" I'm talking about this type of non-fiction. These are books provided by traditional database vendors or in collections directly from the publisher designed for research (not high interest texts that kids read "for fun").

Because my school library system is in the process of developing a regional collection of eBooks, I've been thinking a lot about the subject. In the past few days I've tried out eBook options from more than eight different vendors, and out of the whole mix, only one company provides anything worth getting excited about.

My biggest complaint about the vast majority of non-fiction eBooks? It's an expensive option that doesn't significantly improve on things I'm already using. Here's why:
  • Most eBooks were originally written for paper. The publisher or database vendor just takes the printed copy and digitalizes it. They don't add anything extra. I'm reading a paper book on a computer screen. How is that exciting?
  • EVERY eBooks should give me the option to enlarge text and zoom in on pictures and diagrams, provide a linked, clickable table of contents, incorporate a built in glossary, include a read-aloud feature, and provide some avenue for a collaborative reading experience. This is the very MINIMUM I expect, but it's not necessarily enough to justify their purchase. Unfortunately, most eBooks don't even incorporate many of these "necessities."
  • Vendors like to brag about simultaneous access. I don't see the benefit. How often do 30 students need to access the same non-fiction text? When you're researching, at least at my grade level, most students have DIFFERENT topics, and therefore need access to DIFFERENT books.
  • Vendors also like to tell me that eBooks help meet Common Core standards. Right, they're nonfiction texts, but are you really going have a whole class read an entire book off a computer screen? That's not pleasant. How many schools have adequate computer labs, iPads, laptops, etc. to even facilitate this kind of deployment?
  • eBooks cost money, but don't fill a void. I'm already paying for databases (many of which already include reference books) that play a large role in meeting our research needs. Most eBooks, especially at the secondary level, look exactly like a database article. Why would I want to buy something additional that I'm already paying for something really similar?
  • Web sites do a better job than eBooks when it comes to providing an interactive, multimedia experience. I have yet to see an eBook offered by one of the big players that embeds animation or video into the text of the book. In contrast, many, many web sites successfully incorporate this into their informative, useful, educational and FREE offerings.
I'll start buying non-fiction eBooks from the big vendors when they start writing eBooks specifically for digital viewing, incorporating multi-media and interactivity.

If you want to check out an eBook that actually gets it right, request a trial of Rosen's Cyber Smarts or Spotlight on New York series. Here's a screen shot of one their eBook's on New York:
Do you notice the interactive timeline above the book? How about the clickable vocabulary highlighted on the left? Or the primary source spotlight underneath it? There's also an interactive map in the upper right hand corner - by clicking on different parts of the map, it will take you to different parts of the book. The Cyber Smarts series is even better, as it provides students with an opportunity to create a username with an avatar, and send emails and IMs to interact with peers. Thanks, Rosen, for setting a good example!

P.S. Hey, eBook vendors  - When you can't address my concerns about your product, don't say, "All the private schools are buying them" as a defense. This doesn't help your cause.


  1. Amen Lindsay! My thoughts exactly and my main complaints with the eBook nonfiction offerings. Tough to choose where way to go when the offerings are so mediocre at best.

    1. The Rosen titles I mentioned above really are great - but I haven't seen anything else that comes close.

      Have you run across anything that's worth it? I'll take any suggestions that meet the basic criteria.

  2. Great article. I too am not convinced of the value of nonfiction eBooks. And btw, publishers are not telling the truth; "all the private schools" are NOT buying them! :-)