E-Books on Steroids

When I saw on the program that the first sessions of each day started at 7 AM, I figured that only a few hardy souls would come to any of them.  Imagine my surprise when I arrived this morning to hear about “E-Books on Steroids” and found a room full of e-book devotees!  And it was well worth the effort to come that early in the morning.  Four representatives of companies offering e-book services responded to a series of questions that had been pre-submitted.  The program was packed with quality information, and I’m sure that lots of people were highly satisfied with it.

It’s a funny thing about e-books.  They generated intense interest when they started, and then it seemed like the market had collapsed.  Many of the initial companies went out of business, and even some larger ones like netLibrary fell victim to the changes in the industry and was rescued by OCLC.  (Does this sound like the dot-com collapse of the 1990s?)  But now, there has been a resurgence of interest in e-books.  As one speaker commented, “This has been the explosion year for e-books.”  Indeed, e-books seem to be on steroids, and many large companies have entered the e-book market.

Panelists for this morning’s “steroids” session were (L-R) Cynthia Cleto, Springer; Chris Warnock, eBrary; Todd Fagen, ProQuest, and Chris Forbes, Knovel.  The questions they were asked to address were on pricing, digital rights management, usability, and how “steroids” have impacted their products to make them bigger, better, and faster.


Knovel’s product is sold on a subscription basis, with tiered pricing based on the size of the institution.  It is a very open system; all downloading or printing is unlimited.  Forbes feels that a product succeeds or fails depending on how much usage it gets.  (In fact, he has a dashboard on his computer that shows him the latest usage statistics, and that is the first thing he looks at every day.)

Knovel is taking an innovative approach to DRM by adding a digital watermark to all their content.  They are also completely rebuilding their backend system to make sure that everyone using it is authorized.

Knovel’s steroids include making engineers more productive and classroom experiences more compelling.  Because the Knovel system deals with data, specialized tools are incorporated into it, and the search feature is optimized for engineering.  Content decisions are driven by subject matter experts and user requests, and in what I would call an enlightened approach, subject matter experts are used for customer service.

ProQuest (representing Safari Books)

The pricing model is a subscription based on FTE plus the number of simultaneous users.  Customers can choose to subscribe to the entire file or a two year rolling file, and they can choose which books to add to their collection as well as swap books in and out of the collection at any time.  Printing and downloading at the chapter level are unlimited.  Video content will soon become available, and the QuickTime player will be required for that.

ProQuest’s steroids include searching across thousands of books seamlessly.  The system has lots of functionality to allow users to pinpoint precise informatgion. 


Warnock feels that there is no easy way yet to acquire e-books.  eBrary has built a database of books for subscription.  Libraries can buy parts of the database or all of it, or even individual titles.  If they choose to pay 1½ times the retail price of a book, they get unlimited simultaneous access to it.

DRM is a blessing and a curse, and eBrary has a simple model of it.  Warnock said that the notion of a public utility within copyright must be preserved, or else you will lose customers (which happened to eBrary).  On average, most of eBrary’s customers print no more than 16 pages per session, so they limit printing to 20 pages per session and have not received any complaints.

eBrary is one of the few e-book vendors that requires a reader plug-in, but the advantage is that the plug-in lets users do things not supported by HTML or browsers, such as delivering citations with prints.  Even so, not many people like the idea of a plug-in so they are developing a Java application.

eBrary’s steroids:   they developed their own reader, which makes their system a very integrated research environment that allows libraries to integrate other databases or resources from other vendors into the system and customize it to meet their needs.


Springer’s pricing is by FTE and type of institution.  Customers receive perpetual access, upon payment of a one-time fee or tiered pricing.  Since access is perpetual, there are no restrictions on printing or copying.

Springer’s system is on steroids because of the sheer volume of books available (they have 17,000 books online, all categorized by subject, and growing by 3200 per year). 

I came away with the distinct feeling that e-books are in a new resurgence, and we will continue to hear plenty about them in the future.

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today

3 Responses to “E-Books on Steroids”

  1. Sara T. June 9, 2007 at 10:45 pm #

    Thanks for the detailed report, Don!
    Sara T., PAM Division, panel moderator

  2. Chris Forbes June 9, 2007 at 10:13 am #

    I was very appreciative of all the folks that braved a very early morning session. Librarians are an extraordinary community that are 110% dedicated to serving thier clients/community. You facilitate the dicussion with users and help us to gather the data on which steroids we should inject to improve our offering so that engineers can do better jobs.

    I would like to clarify how we view steroid use and what it means to users. We believe that online technical reference material (could include ebooks) must be optimized to boost the productivity of users (in Knovel’s case – front-line engineers). This means deep content coverage in target disciplines; search capabilities that hone in on relevant content faster and more precisely; and have extensive and well designed interactive tools that get users verfied (high quality) answers fast in a form that is immediately useful. The purpose being to serve users in organizations that need to rapidly innovate to maintain or grow their competitive advantage.


  1. info NeoGnostic: e-Books: the rise and fall (and fall)... - June 7, 2007

    […] recent postings here, and also by one of the many postings from the SLA Conference in Denver: E-Books on Steroids. A resurgence of US interest in e-books was demonstrated by a packed room (‚ÄúThis has been the […]