Connecticut Bill Would Limit Prices of Library eBooks

Good e-Reader is reporting a bill has been introduced in the Connecticut General Assembly that would require publishers to sell eBooks to public and academic libraries at the same rate of the general public. Proposed H.B. No 5614 states:

AN ACT CONCERNING "E-BOOKS" AND LIBRARIES.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives in General Assembly convened:

That the general statutes be amended to require publishers of electronic books to offer such books for sale to public and academic libraries at the same rates as offered to the general public.

Statement of Purpose:

To require publishers of electronic books to offer e-books for sale to public and academic libraries at the same rates as offered to the general public.

At first glance, I was impressed. If libraries can’t get publishers to play fair by directly approaching them, then perhaps some legislative options are in order. But as I thought about it, some problems have emerged for me.

First, there is no mention of school libraries. I would hope this is a simple omission or perhaps an expansive definition of what ‘academic’ libraries means (a legal one, not our professional one). School libraries are in the eBook game so they have some skin in this particular venture. It would also be interesting to see how this affects colleges and universities of vastly different endowments (Capital Community College vs. Yale). As it is another tax payer funded institution in general, it should not be left off the list.

Second, there is no mention of terms and usage. Specifically, the practice of limited circulations before licenses expiration (such as Harper Collins 26 checkout limitation) is not addressed. If this bill was to pass, a publisher would be compelled to lower their prices but could tack on circulation expirations. A library may not pay 300% more for a Random House title, but they could be looking at limited circulation licensing arrangements. If there was some meaningful language about usage terms, then this legislation could have some teeth to it.

Third, and possibly most importantly, I am feeling hesitance towards this bill because I believe that the market still has the capability of providing corrections to the library eBook economy. I don’t feel that the pricing schemes are finalized in the slightest. While there is pressure on libraries to provide eBooks, there are also competing pressures to provide other new services to the public. The justification for a $40 to $150 eBooks melts away when that funding can be put into materials and services that will see higher benefit and usage. Combined with lack of ownership as well as incomplete author offerings along with a slowing eReader market, to me it feels like eBooks is settling in as just another thing we have to offer at the library for the people who have the interest and the technology to use it. There is a market correction coming here in the future and it won’t need a legislative act to foster it.

“Perfect is the enemy of good”, as they say, so I still think this bill has potential with some additional input from Connecticut librarians. It wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to think that some of the New York publishing executives make their homes in the Nutmeg State so this is certainly on their radar. I’m guessing they’ll be some lobbyists and money dispatched to nip this bill in the bud before it gets out of committee. It’s my hope that Connecticut librarians will mobilize to provide their input on this bill as well as get some of their patrons (read: voting constituents) involved in the process. This is an opportunity that should not be lost.

After this bill was introduced by Representative Brian Sear (47th district), it was referred to the Joint Committee of General Law. Here’s the list of legislators on that committee:

  • Senator Doyle (chair), 9th district.
  • Senator Fonfara (vice chair), 1st.
  • Senator Coleman, 2nd.
  • Senator Witkos, (ranking member), 8th.
  • Senator Kissel, 7th.
  • Representative Baram (chair), 15th.
  • Representative Kiner (vice chair), 59th.
  • Representative Altobello, 82nd.
  • Representative Arconti, 109th.
  • Representative Nafis, 27th.
  • Representative Nicastro, 79th.
  • Representative Orange, 48th.
  • Representative Rovero, 51st.
  • Representative Carter (ranking member), 2nd.
  • Representative Aman, 14th.
  • Representative D’Amelio, 71st.
  • Representative Rutigliano, 123rd.

Their clerk is Angel Morales. Room 3500, LOB (860)240-0470.

Are Libraries Licensing eBooks That They Should Be Owning?

Apparently, there is a story going around that Random House says libraries own their eBooks. This notion is not new, however, as it apparently came up a few times in recent months as early as March. Library Journal reports:

For those who have been paying close attention, this is not news. It came up at the Massachusetts Library Association conference in May, it was bruited about at the American Library Association (ALA) annual meeting in Anaheim in June, and it was mentioned in a “corner office” interview  I had with Skip Dye, Random House’s vice president of library and academic marketing and sales, during LJ’s virtual ebook summit on Wednesday. But the potential implications of Random House’s stance are not receiving enough attention and consideration.

Sounds straightforward, right? Enter the noggin scratcher:

“This is our business model: we sell copies of our ebooks to an approved list of library wholesalers, and those wholesalers are supposed to resell them to libraries. In our view, this purchase constitutes ownership of the book by the library. It is not a license.”

I would hope that people would be reaching for their eBook vendor contracts now so as to see if they affirm such a belief. Because, if for example some large company that constitutes the majority of the library eBooks market has been buying these eBooks and then in turn licensing them to libraries, this poses a problem. What kind of problem? A Big One.

The hue and the outcry that was the Random House 300% library eBook price increase might have been mitigated by the fact that it is a purchase, not a license. There would be a greater quid pro quo to the transaction; sure, it costs more, but libraries own the file at the end of the day. It turns a bad deal into a, well, mediocre deal.

What it doesn’t resolve is whether this ownership would come with lending restrictions on it as a condition of the sale. If libraries own the actual eBook file, could they offer greater simultaneous lending options? This would be a radical departure from the rest of the Big Six publishing stance on library eBooks. However, I still have some doubts that Random House would be this ‘hands off’ in the retail chain process as such lending practices are perceived as a dire threat to the entire industry.

Back to the middleman question: so what have been library eBook vendors been doing with Random House books? Are they purchasing these Random House eBooks and then in turn licensing to libraries? It’s not a true infraction since people still sign these contracts knowing what they are getting into; it’s an omission of this knowledge that really speaks to the character of the companies.

The most polite term I can think of is “dickish”. I’ll let you be the judge, but now is the time to go read the fine print of eBook contracts.

Again.

That Whole Hachette eBook Price Increase Thing

The big news at the end of last week was Hachette, a publisher dipping its toe back in the library eBook market, announcing that it was going to raise prices on its current library eBook catalog by an average of 220%. Here’s a quote provided by Infodocket from an email that Overdrive sent out notifying their customers of the change.

Hachette will be raising its eBook prices on October 1, 2012 on their currently available eBook catalog (~3,500 eBook titles with release dates of April 2010 and earlier). On average prices will increase 220%.

Here’s a post from the Overdrive corporate blog regarding the price increase:

As announced yesterday, Hachette Digital is raising prices on its currently available library eBook catalog (roughly 3,500 titles with release dates of April 2010 and earlier) effective Oct. 1, 2012. Examples of the new pricing include: “Breaking Dawn” by Stephenie Meyer will increase from $22.99 to $34.99; “4th of July” by James Patterson will go from $13.99  to $20.99; and David Sedaris’ “Me Talk Pretty One Day” will go from $14.99 to $37.99.

[..]

We understand that any cost increase comes as unwelcome news at a time when library budgets are tight, but we’re encouraged that Hachette has opted to continue participating in library lending.

Let me pull out my nitpicker for this one. In the first paragraph, they picked out three popular authors to give for the price change example. They represent a price increase of 152%, 150%, and 253%, respectively. Since the average was 220%, there have to be at least price increases of 290% to balance out those 150%’s. Even then, that’s assuming that 150% is the low end of price increases. For every step below 150%, there would have to be a corresponding step above 290% to make it average out to 220%. This does not bode well for collection development librarians across the country.

In the second paragraph, it embodies an aspect of the librarian debate over eBooks that I really, really hate: people arguing that continued participation is some sort of magical mitigating factor for bad behavior. It’s not. The idea that librarians should be happy, nay, grateful that publishers are still allowing library eBook lending and that it should negate some really shitty actions and attitudes is absolute insanity. If you went to friend looking for relationship advice and their first response was that you should consider yourself lucky that someone is willing to date you, you’d kick that friend’s ass. It’s a worse argument than saying that libraries should provide to every member’s needs, costs and contracts be damned. And that’s saying a lot.

I do have to admit that I liked the ALA response if nothing more than setting the tone for future action. Pull quote:

After these tentative steps forward, we were stunned to learn that Hachette plans to more than double triple its prices starting October 1. Now we must ask, “With friends like these …’

“We are weary of faltering half steps and even more so of publishers that refuse to sell ebook titles to libraries at all. Today I have asked the ALA’s Digital Content and Libraries Working Group to develop more aggressive strategies and approaches for the nation’s library community to meet these challenges.

I’ll be interested to see what sort of follow-up comes out of it, but I am left hopeful. For a refresher of the previous ALA/Hachette meeting, here’s the ALA statement about meeting with Hachette back in May of this year:

We had a very promising meeting at Hachette. As you may know, Hachette discontinued offering their new ebook titles to libraries as of April 2010, though Hachette continues to sell its backlist (i.e., titles with publication dates prior to April 2010). Going in to this meeting, we were hoping to establish a relationship with Hachette and to persuade them to give serious consideration to providing libraries with access to its newer titles.

It quickly became obvious that Hachette Book Group executives and digital strategists have spent considerable time thinking about the library ebook market. Hachette sees libraries as strong partners because of our benefits as direct customers and marketers of their titles, and they recognize libraries’ place as an integral institution in communities that must be supported.

More specifically, we were pleased to learn that starting this spring, Hachette is conducting a pilot with two ebook distributors for libraries, which will bring a selection of HBG’s recent bestselling ebooks to 7 million library patrons. These pilot programs will help HBG learn more about library patrons’ interests, usage, and expectations, and help the publisher devise the best strategy to reach the widest audience of ebook readers in libraries.

My, how times flies.

The esteemed eBook guru and Douglas County, CO director Jamie Larue has the best take on the price increase I’ve seen so far. Money quote:

“When publishers shoot themselves in the foot, why do they keep looking for a bigger gun? Here’s the deal: the job of the library is to gather, organize, and make publicly available the intellectual content of our culture. By pricing themselves exorbitantly, a publisher will lose library sales, and lose the exposure their authors might otherwise have experienced. Nobody wins, everybody loses.”

He makes the same basic case that has been made before with the Random House 300% price increase and the HarperCollins limited checkout. Libraries are deep into the reader market. If it doesn’t reach our shelves (real or virtual), it won’t be something that can be passed onto the market share that comes to our locations. Libraries will still support authors and readers, but that support will be found elsewhere with the materials that can be reasonably purchased.

Game, set, match.

Jamie is a hard act to follow, so I won’t go on and repeat the same arguments for affordable eBook pricing and liberal eBook lending policies. I will add something else to the mix that I noticed.

I have yet to see anyone write or report about it, but the date that Hachette stopped selling eBooks to libraries (April 2010) really stuck out in my head. Then I found an article that made the connection:

On September 6, U.S. District Judge Denise Cote approved a $69 million settlement to be awarded to consumers who purchased agency-priced ebooks between April 2010 and May 2012, as part of a state antitrust suit filed against HarperCollins, Hachette SA, and Simon & Schuster. [Emphasis mine]

There couldn’t possibly be a coincidence between the date they stopped library eBook sales and the adoption of agency-model pricing, right? In taking away the library eBook option away from the consumer, they would have no other choice but to purchase the artificially inflated agency priced eBook. Considering how publishers get a higher royalty per eBook while authors lose out, it makes sense that the better royalty (eBook) be subject to more controls in regard to distribution and pricing. This could also explain why Hachette insists that authors who publish the same title in different markets with Tor Books (a ‘no DRM’ publisher) to have DRM reinstated on their Tor books. Finally, this library eBook price increase nicely dovetails with the multi-million dollar settlement they just signed. “With friends like these…”, indeed.

If this is how they plan on nurturing and growing the eBook market, then we (libraries, consumers, readers) are in for a bumpy and vastly uncomfortable ride. And if your library isn’t looking for alternatives to this arrangement, now is the time to do so.

Libraries and eBook Publishers: Friend Zone Level 300

In returning from vacation last week, today’s social media catch featured a wonderful juxtaposition of library eBook oriented links: the ALA’s Digital Content & Libraries Working Group report, “EBook Business Models for Public Libraries”, along with Library Journal’s Francine Fialkoff’s editorial “Too Many Ebook Cooks: Ineffectual Committees Aren’t Fast Enough To Ensure Robust Access”. The report is an all too brief recounting of the current state of library eBook affairs, a showcase of current models as well as a handful of points to help ‘make our case’ to encourage publishers to allow library eBook lending. I can only presume there is a larger report to follow, but I’m not sure how one will be able to stretch the benefit of “Readers Advisory” into longer than three sentences. Francine’s lament editorial calls upon the ALA to stop forming committees, workgroups, taskforces, interest groups, battalions, and pep squads to talk about the eBook situation and, well, do something. Despite the fact that there will be no “one size fits all” eBook solution, she points to two gentlemen (Jamie LaRue and Patrick Losinski) who are doing something about the eBook issue in their respective communities (the former pioneered a library eBook ownership and lending model, the latter formed an ebook advocacy organization which I guess doesn’t count against Francine’s original ‘too many groups’ complaint.)

These two articles provide an excellent bookend to a brilliant blog post I read before I went on vacation, Sarah Houghton’s “I’m breaking up with eBooks (and you can too)” (Take a look at the link itself, folks!) Sarah’s post about eBooks paints them as a crappy boyfriend, but I think the relationship is more akin to being put into the friendzone, an term that could be broadly defined by one party looking for more in a relationship while the other is unwilling to consider a change in the status quo.

Consider the situation: unless the publishing industry has been living under a rock, it knows that public libraries have a keen interest in lending eBooks. Publishers certainly like libraries (and have sent out the rosy platitude laden press releases to prove their fond rapport) but balk at allowing them to lend eBooks. “Sorry, libraries,” they are saying, “We like you very much, but not in that way.” On top of that, libraries get to listen to publishers complain bitterly about their relationship with the retail giant Amazon about how they are getting a ‘bad deal’ in the eBook arena. Really?

Personally, my sympathy train doesn’t stop at the station anymore for the love-hate-love-hate-hate publisher-Amazon relationship dynamic. It’s a liaison that is so awful and so terrible that publishers were forced into collusion with each other and another eBook retailer (*coughApplecough*) in order to save their archaic business way of life. It must have been agonizing to conspire to artificially inflate eBook prices while cashing Amazon’s checks for their part of the sale in a market that has seen record sales increases over the past few years.

I’ve grown tired of the oft expressed line when it comes to the Big Six publishers and eBooks: “We just need to talk to them.” Uh huh. I guess sending a top ranked ALA delegation to meet with them in New York City, having a major library trade publication provide actual research into member borrowing/buying patterns, and countless news articles, blog posts, and social media utterances just hasn’t reach them yet. Like some wide eyed naïve Jerry Springer guest, librarians feel that publishers will change if only they could only listen to our hearts, hear the purity of our cause in the name of literacy, and let the love overcome their fears. Yeah right.

For the record, I will fess up to being one of these If-they-only-knew-us-they-would-love-us types desperate to make that connection, that breakthrough in which publishers suddenly see the light and start allowing reasonable library eBook lending. Thankfully, this is has given way to cynicism, bitterness, and that crazy little notion known as ‘reality’. I’m sure those big publishers hear us for vast and many reasons and rationales, they just simply don’t care or don’t want to change the relationship. Case closed.

Quite frankly, I’ve heard enough about a demand for leadership to rise up and lead the Pickett-like charge for library eBook lending. I want to see leadership for the “walk the fuck away” camp, an ideology centered around not wasting time, energy, and resources on deals that don’t serve the library as an institution, the community as a dependable and enduring resource, and our stakeholders as a wise investment. There are other publishing entities out there that are worthy of our attention and our budget lines. Let’s find them and build ourselves a better relationship.

It’s time to get out of the eBook friendzone.

The Latest on the DOJ eBook Anti-Trust Suit

Today, the Department of Justice filed a response to the public comments on its settlement with three of the publishers in the case U.S. v Apple Inc., et al (also known as the price collusion case). They also established a webpage that has the response and all eight hundred and sixty comments submitted during the public comment period. I spent a little time today reading some of those comments (ok, skimming the legalese ones since they put handy summaries in the headings and at the end) and checking out the highlights of the government response. It’s a lot to take in, perhaps too much, and it paints radically different pictures of the eBook market future.

If you believe Apple, Barnes & Noble, and the Authors Guild, the lack of agency pricing would give Amazon an absolute and undisputed monopoly over the eBook market. This would be bad for consumers since Amazon has a low anti-competitive pricing structure and would be the source of eBooks for the market (attached to a proprietary platform but I didn’t see anyone make this particular point). It also imperils brick-and-mortar booksellers who could not compete with the loss-leader practices of Amazon, thus forcing them out of business and making the book playing field even smaller. Sure, the consumer would pay less now for eBooks, but there is less competitors to choose from.

(I thought it was strange, but I didn’t see anyone threaten to not sell their books through Amazon. If you really think it’s that unfair or unreasonable, find other ways to sell your books. I know this sounds a bit naïve, but these publishers have to be addicted to the ease at which Amazon moves their product and the money it generates despite all of these horrible conditions they proclaim.)

If you believe the government, Consumer Federation of America, Stephen Windwalker of the Kindle Nation Daily, and David Gaughran and the gaggle of writers who cosigned his letter, the agency pricing arrangement does immediate harm to the consumer by raising prices on eBooks. While it fends off the Amazon monopoly by preventing them from lowering prices as a loss leader for the rest of their business, this is not in the best interest of the consumer, but the retailers and publishers. It defies some of the basic concepts of a free market (that the market will determine the value of a product, for one) and hinders innovation by keeping old business practices and models on life support through artificial pricing schemes. The competition to construct and sell a better widget does not happen when the current widget is propped up as the ‘best standard’ for the field. In a sense, the consumers are harmed twice: first by the price raise, second by the lack of motivation to innovate.

This whole mess goes before a federal judge who is free to accept or reject this settlement; even then, there is the trial to follow for the non-settling parties. I’m going to be cheering for The Man on this one; while the eBook market may be nascent, it’s not right to stifle its direction or growth in order to preserve a status quo that trades normal market inequalities for artificial ones. It’s going to be a long bumpy road on this one, though by the time it ends, the findings might be moot in the face a completely different market landscape. This case is one to follow, but it’s in the long run.

In Soviet Russia, eBook Reads You

Last week an article in the Wall Street Journal about eBooks tracking the habits and actions of reader got passed around the usual social media outlets. There didn’t seem like there was much of a reaction; I think the article merely reconfirmed a belief that the eReader companies have been amassing data on their users. The article stands out since it mentions some specifics observations that have been found with the data; people read non-fiction in starts and stops, series like The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades are read back-to-back-to-back, and the average reading time it takes people to finish books in the Game of Thrones series. These are insights that the publishing industry has not been able to reliably track (if at all, as the article suggests) and represents a new tool that can analyze a reader base for additional extrapolated information.

However, in this rush to collect data on readers in order to better market or write books for them, there are a couple of things that don’t sit right with me. It leaves me wondering how comparable is the eReader reading experience to the print reading experience. Is picking up a book the same as picking up a Kindle? There doesn’t appear to be any baseline to act as a basis of comparison. The presumption here is that the reading experience is the same between the two mediums when it has yet to be shown. In trying to design a ‘better’ reading experience, they are doing on the data of one medium which may or may not translate to the other.

As eReader use is still in the minority in the United States, what kind of demographics are being measured? It’s grabbing data from the digitally invested even as the book markets still has a strong paper element to it. While it can’t be ignored that a rough usage rate of 1 in 5 people has pushed the eBook market to equal and/or surpass aspects of the print book market, it remains to be seen as to how this aligns with the overall reader population. Are these people a good sample?

In approaching the content side, the article talks about publishers and authors could create books that avoid some of the ‘stopped reading’ pitfalls. This seems like an attempt to thwart Nancy Pearl’s Rule of 50. (Give a book 50 pages. When you get to the bottom of Page 50, ask yourself if you’re really liking the book. If you are, of course, then great, keep on reading. But if you’re not, then put it down and look for another.) I’m wondering why this is a good idea in an activity that is highly subjective and personal. The data might tell you when people stop reading a book, but it doesn’t scratch the surface as to why. Most people might stop reading a book at page 75, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. The defect in the story or the failure to grab the reader attention could have happened on any page prior to it; that’s just when they gave up on it. It’s a data point that lacks the necessary context to make it truly valuable.

I’m a bit concerned as to what the feedback will do to the writing process. If an author is told that a particular passage really resonated with readers, how will that change their ideas and approach to their stories and style? Will it take it in new directions? Will it encourage authors to write towards these safe and favorable areas rather than push the boundaries of their craft? Or could it move the reader and author into greater sync in terms of what people want and what the author can provide?

Finally, my last and greatest concern regards privacy. It runs the gamut from who is being followed and what is being collected to whether it will have a chilling effect on subject/title selection. In New Jersey, library record privacy is regulated by statute.

18A:73-43.1. "Library," "library record" defined
    For the purposes of this act:
   a.   "Library" means a library maintained by any State or local governmental agency, school, college, or industrial, commercial or other special group, association or agency, whether public or private.
   b.   "Library record" means any document or record, however maintained, the primary purpose of which is to provide for control of the circulation or other public use of library materials.

18A:73-43.2. Confidentiality; exceptions
    Library records which contain the names or other personally identifying details regarding the users of libraries are confidential and shall not be disclosed except in the following circumstances:
   a.   The records are necessary for the proper operation of the library;
   b.   Disclosure is requested by the user; or
   c.   Disclosure is required pursuant to a subpoena issued by a court or court order.
   L. 1985, c. 172, s. 2, eff. May 31, 1985.

(Retrieved July 1, 2012. Emphasis mine.)

I’ve wondered if the Overdrive-Amazon connection is in breech of this law. From my understanding, Overdrive has enough access to make certain that a library member is authorized to borrow a book; they get the library card number, our system tells them whether or not it is valid, and then the transaction goes forward. In downloading the book to a Kindle, Amazon takes on the role of the library by maintaining and enforcing the borrowing period. They also have personally identifying data that goes along with the Amazon account. In handing off the transaction from Overdrive to Amazon, how much information is exchanged? Is it just a nod or is there more?

Now, it might be argued that it constitutes a legal disclosure as it relates to the proper operation of the library. If that’s the case, then it becomes a question as to whether this is a good idea or not (or even possibly an ethical one). In any event, it is handing over readers for data mining without getting a share of that information snapshot or proper warnings to the library member as to they could be exposed to. (Yes, I know some libraries have warning screens when shifting from the library website to Amazon. Good on them and I can’t find a good link to it.)  In the rush to get eBooks on our virtuals shelves, we bought licenses which do not convey the benefits of ownership and handed over our library members to third parties who do not wholly share our library values and principles.

What do you think?

Calling Timeout on Library eBook Integration

Forgive me if I don’t applaud the announcement that Penguin has returned try out a library eBook lending program with the New York Public Library. I know I’m going to eat my own words since I’m someone who really wants publishers and libraries to experiment with different eBook lending models, but I can’t say that the starting point for this experiment is exactly what I had in mind. Six months embargo on new releases and titles that expire after a year? At least the price is projected close to retail for, well, I don’t know what. A Mission: Impossible style file that self destructs after it has fulfilled its purpose? I don’t see anything about the lending portion of it so I’m wondering if it is still the ‘one book one person’ model (which would be my guess) or something new and different. Granted, they are looking to monitor and modify the program every few months so things could change. But this is one of hell of a starting point to work from. To me, this deal still has the look and feel of second class citizenship for eBooks.

The timing of this announcement comes on the heels of Jamie LaRue’s piece on the Digital Shift, “All Hat, No Cattle: A Call for Libraries to Transform Before It’s Too Late”. It effectively lays out the case for libraries to take command of their eBook collections for their own sake and survival. It’s a great call to action and a blueprint for some steps that are within the control of every librarian and within the boundaries of any library budget. Jamie brings the needs of the library back to the forefront rather than as a footnote on the eBooks models we are currently engaged in. As the ones with the budgets and the money to spend, it is a reminder that we are in firmly in the driver’s seat.

Set against this ALA endorsed Penguin/NYPL announcement, the deal seems to embrace the old mantra of getting eBooks into libraries by any means necessary. If you really wanted to view it as an experiment, it would appear that all the variables being tested are set by the publisher with none from the library side. The NYPL is effectively bankrolling Penguin to try out its hypotheses without taking on any risk or concession of its own to the needs of the library. I will be keen to see the kinds of corrections over time for this program, but my guess is that they will reflect a “publisher first” paradigm.

In the spirit of offering corrections of my own, I think I will modify my position when it comes to eBooks. And it sounds like this:

What’s the hurry?

As much as people breathlessly boast of an era of constant change and the need to stay current in libraries (I consider myself guilty of this as well), the enemy of objective decision making is a time pressure. Studies have shown that people tend to make worse decisions when placed under a time pressure. While these are not life-and-death split second decisions, our professional literature and commentary is rife with constant chants of “INNOVATE!”, the short attention span theater of technology updates and usage surveys, and the pearl clutching considerations of continued relevancy. It can’t help but prime our lovely primate brains to think that what we are currently doing is inadequate and in need of an IMMEDIATE response lest we fall behind, fall out of favor, and just plain fall.

Yes, eBooks are a growing market that has recently overtaken the hardcover sales numbers according to our ‘friends’ at the AAP. (Not a member of the AAP: Amazon. But they’ve already said their eBook sales have surpassed print book sales last year, even if they are referring to units sold and not revenue or providing actual numbers of this event. So who knows what the actual sales numbers look like when one of the world’s largest booksellers doesn’t give out stats.) Pew Internet back in April and Bowker back in March put eBook penetration around 20% of the United States population. (Or, to take some inspiration from Barbara Fister, around 80% of the population have not read an eBook. Other ways of saying this: 4 in 5 Americans have not read an eBook.)

Yes, these numbers are increasing each year. But I have yet to hear a serious complaint that the library should not be supported because they do not offer eBooks. It’s simply not a standard that the public library is being held to for usefulness by its communities. (I’ll concede to those people in affluent communities with higher rates of eReader ownership, but I still want to see the complaint.) One might try to counter by saying that the library cannot afford the public relations damage of looking antiquated, I would reply that the library cannot afford the larger public relations damage by looking fiscally irresponsible in a time of contested budgets by making dreadful purchases and investments.

First, buying eBooks at outrageous prices or under absurd conditions hurts the return on investment (ROI) argument that libraries have used for a long time to show their community value. Buying the $105 Game of Thrones eBook license (not even ownership, just access) is just a big fat target for budget hawks. Where is the financial responsibility in that?

Second, it is purchasing eBooks under lock-in conditions and onerous terms of service. When a vendor relationship turns sour, the library cannot simply take its investment and move it to a new eBook provider. It’s gone, baby, gone. As Jamie hinted in his writing, the conditions to allow eBook lending make it harder, not easier, for library members to access. It is a step back in a digital age that seeks to build and create faster and short connections.

So, the public library has taken taxpayer money, purchased a exorbitant license to an eBook that it cannot control nor transfer and is a pain in the ass to access for a (still) minority of the community population. This is a shiv to the respectable ROI argument that public libraries have made for years. Give us a dollar and we’ll give four back… unless we decide to buy an eBook for the library. In that case, we may need some more money. 

Getting back to center here, my new view of the library eBook landscape is that time is still on our side. Thoughtfulness of our community needs and tough analysis of financial and ownership (or lack thereof) implications should not be surrendered to the quick fix of current vendor/publisher models and offerings. We are not suffering from a lack of interest or action in looking to make this format addition to our collections, but there is a worn trail of knee jerk reactions under imaginary time pressures for the inflated need of a proven minority. Yes, eBooks are ascending  but libraries are not going out in the format shuffle. The hourglass is still mostly full, not nearly empty, when it comes integrating eBooks into our libraries. Let’s take a moment for a deep breath, gather ourselves once more, and reconsider this issue with an eye towards what it brings to our community in a sustainable manner. We owe it our own future as well as the communities that we serve.