Barnes & Noble Enters the eBook Price Fixing Fray

In case you blinked and missed it, last week Barnes & Noble filed a document with the court regarding the Department of Justice lawsuits against Apple and several major publishers. Of note:

Barnes & Noble said in its letter that the adoption of agency pricing had lowered Amazon’s share of the e-book market to 60 percent from 90 percent. Barnes & Noble claims to have 27 percent.

The retailer, which operates nearly 700 bookstores, said that before the adoption of agency pricing, it was "losing substantial money in an effort to compete with Amazon’s pricing and was unable to gain significant market share."

As to the first paragraph, this shift in market share started happening around 2010. That year is significant in that it was a few months after the first Nook was introduced and during the time when the iPad came out. Personally, I think it was the introduction of additional devices to the marketplace that brought down Amazon’s market share, not agency pricing.

I don’t know if agency pricing will save the day for publishers, but it looks like they are doubling down on it. With half settling before the case and the other half fighting tooth and nail, this sends out an ambiguous message.

How Oprah Might Help Out Libraries When It Comes To eBooks (Maybe)

Back on June 1st, Oprah Winfrey announced the resumption of her book club as a video on her Facebook page. Like many of my fellow librarians that day, I watched the video with an eye out towards the possible impact on public libraries; specifically, what the first title would be and what Oprah would tell people on how to get the book. Partial transcript:

So here’s how to get Wild. Now, of course, I still believe in books. And you can go to any bookstore and you can buy the book like always. Or you can buy one of the special digital editions of Wild that have been created just for us. […] And best of all, you can buy one for any eReader: for Nook, for Kindle, for iPad.  Any reader you got. […]

So get Wild in whatever form makes your heart happy. I actually have the book and the eReader. The actual book or digital edition, whatever suits you, and let’s start talking about it.

The obvious omission to the librarian crowd is there is no mention of borrowing the book from the public library. If Oprah is going to list all the ways to get the book, why not just throw in a line about heading over to the library, right? Given the track record for libraries purchasing Oprah’s previous selections, I don’t think there is a public library in North America that doesn’t have a book with that seal on it. It is inevitable that with this new incarnation of the book club we will see demand for these titles go up; it’s fair to say that public libraries will have them regardless of whether or not Oprah mentions borrowing them.

To me, the lack of acknowledgement is an unfortunate oversight; it’s not like there is anyone who is unaware that libraries lend books. My faith lies with the belief that people will make this kind of connection in their head and then come on by without prompting.

In looking through the Book Club 2.0 website, I was browsing through the different sections when I came across a particular question in their FAQ. It’s what got me thinking:

Q: Where can I find Wild: Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 Digital Edition?
A: You can find the Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 special digital edition of Wild everywhere ebooks are available—whether you download from Amazon or Sony, your neighborhood bookseller, BN.com, the iBookstore, Kobo or even your local library. (Emphasis mine.)

As the physical edition of the book is not in dispute between libraries and publishers, I had been wondering about how the digital edition was going to be handled. It is certain that someone would ask for the special digital edition and it is nice to know that this is being made available to libraries. (I can only presume that this is true since I don’t have access to eBook vendor catalogs; I’ll leave it to others to tell me if this is correct or not.) I’m sure there be some light consternation about people getting the “regular” eBook versus the “special” eBook for both librarians and members alike, but that sounds like par for the course when it comes to titles with different editions.

I also wonder about the special edition eBook price and if there will be a difference between the “regular” and “special” versions. I looked up Wild’s publisher and saw that it was Random House Digital (the 300%-price-increase- to-library-eBooks people, not the limited-26-library-checkouts-then-buy-a-new-one people, for those just tuning in to the library eBook debacle). I certainly hope not but it remains to be seen whether the “added value” of Oprah’s notes will add on to the bottom line of the price.

However, it was the discovery of Wild’s publisher that brought up a much more pertinent question in this whole deal as it relates to libraries: what happens when Oprah picks a book that is from one of the Big Six publishers but is not from Random House or HarperCollins? In the case of a book choice from Hachette, MacMillan, Penguin, or Simon & Schuster (all of the publishers that do not allow library eBook lending), what happens to libraries and the digital edition? Without a doubt, these publishers would love to get their book onto the Book Club 2.0 list. It’s a powerful Oprah-style publicity ride for their author and the book, capable of pushing books up the sales list as well as cementing an author onto the scene. It’s a prize to be won, for certain, since the rewards are quite lavish. It’s a no-brainer to say that the Oprah special digital edition will not be available for libraries if it is one of the four publishers mentioned.

When it comes to pass (and I will bet dollars to donuts that it will) that Oprah picks a book from a publisher that won’t allow library eBook lending, what will we do? We will have an excellent teachable moment and we can’t squander it.

From organizations like Library Renewal to the ALA down to the every single public library service desk, this will be a spotlight moment to educate the public as to what is going on with libraries, eBooks, and publishers. This will be a moment to highlight that library lending leads to retail sales. This will be a moment to outline the issues around eBook licensing, ownership, DRM, copyright, the statements that publishers have made about library eBook lending, and what it means to the end user. This could very well be a fruitful moment as the eyes of a very large reading group (the members of Oprah’s Book Club 2.0) are on a particular title with a desire to borrow it in a digital format. Librarians can’t afford to miss out on this chance!

Get your handouts and elevator speeches ready, your eBook information updated, and be patient. Oprah may in fact give public libraries an excellent opportunity to reach out further into our communities and bring the library eBook issue to the people. We can’t miss it.

Unglue.it (And Why It Matters)

Unglueit

About a week and a half ago, Gluejar opened up their Unglue.it service, whose purpose is to coordinate crowdfunding in order to pay authors and publishers to release a published book as a digital edition under a Creative Commons license. It works as a mechanism to encourage copyright holders to make their work more widely available while providing a good incentive for them to do so (namely, people interested and money to do it). In a publisher and author landscape that is looking for other eBooks models, Unglue.it fills a much needed niche where people can put their money where their interests are and rights holders are given another option on the menu.

With the advent of crowdfunding sites like Kickstartr and Kiva, Unglue.it takes this concept and puts it to work in a way that is beneficial to publishers, authors, libraries, and readers. As a Creative Commons work, libraries can acquire, distribute, and curate these Unglued eBooks without the current bevy of terms and limitations offered by other companies. To me, this is why Unglue.it is important; it provides a method and a means for authors to get paid for their works while expanding their audience and retaining other important creator rights. In terms of eBooks and library vendors, there isn’t anything else like it out there.

With that in mind, now comes the moment of truth: will it work? In considering the other current options, I’m really hoping it does. People have shown their willingness to pay for things they believe in (Kickstartr being a great example) and eBooks are ripe for the same treatment. The hard part (as I’m told in any business) is getting that first success. While there are only five campaigns going (as of the posting time), it’s these five campaigns that need to show authors and publishers that this is a viable eBook option for their work. And one, most notably, that skips Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble and the eBook unsteady eBook giants they have evolved into. Getting to the first success needs to happen in order to entice more authors to consider doing the same with their current or backlist of works. It’s not so much a “now or never” moment for eBooks and making them easily to find and access, but it does move the needle in that direction if Unglue.it can get people to fund these books “now”.

Unglue.it will be a site to watch over the next year and one to invest in as campaigns for titles come up. Like Kickstartr, any pledges are not deducted until the campaign is over. Even then, the author or publisher can lower the asking price at any time; even a scary asking price shouldn’t be a barrier to pledging. At a minimum pledge ($1), you get a eBook copy if its successful. Not a bad deal overall, even with an air of gambling thrown in to boot.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the site evolves, how people discover and act on the campaigns, and what the future holds. It could make the eBook issue a little less sticky.

 

[Disclaimer: I’m a friend of Andromeda Yelton, one of the Unglue.it team members. I’ve also hung out a couple of times at conferences with Eric Hellman, President of Gluejar. I think they are both great library advocates and I really hoping for their personal success when it comes to Unglue.it.]

Pocket Full of Kryptonite

Money quote from the latest Eric Hellman offering:

eBook portability is Amazon’s kryptonite. If the vaunted Agency Model were not a sham, publishers could simply make portability a standard provision of their agency contracts: "Thou shalt enable portability". And that would be it. No collusion around pricing or discounts would be needed. Amazon could discount the living daylights out of their ebooks, but customers would still judge its competitors on their merits.

Stop what you’re doing and go read the rest of the post. I’ll wait.

As I see it, I’m not why publishers would get involved in the price aspect to this extent; it seems akin to dairy farmers telling Walmart what the price of a gallon of milk should cost.

Eric is right. Locking people into platforms is what gives companies like Apple and Amazon an obscene amount of power over the market. You make books platform agnostic and give people the ability to shift them around as they want and it sucks some of the pricing power out of companies like Amazon. (Either that or raise the wholesale prices and let Amazon figure out how much it wants to soak up in terms of loss leaders.) But the key aspect is to make their books portable which will in turn work to break open the market.

(Note: In posting about eBooks, I do feel like that Michael Corleone quote from the third Godfather movie, “Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.”)

Schrödinger’s eBook

Last week, I had the privilege of both attending and speaking at the Computers in Libraries conference in Washington DC. As can be expected of a technology oriented conference, eBooks were prominently featured as an entire track for the two of the three days of the conference. There were presentations on the future of the medium, how to market them, how publishing is going to change because of them, what libraries are doing things now, and the challenges they present. Even so, I think a basic fundamental question was punted by the organizers and the participants (myself included). That question is this:

“Is an eBook a book?”

There is a significant problem when people who are employed in the publishing industry or the librarian profession (book experts, you might call both groups) cannot give the same answer as to whether an eBook is a book or not. There was even a presentation that started with a PowerPoint slide entitled “eBooks are not books”, then proceeded to use nearly the exact same book acquisition terms to describe the collection and management of eBooks. After making a starting claim that they are not the same and should be treated differently, the use of the same language felt like it controverted this point. Also, I don’t believe these differing viewpoints break down on publisher-librarian lines; each group has members that hold opposing viewpoints on this question. For myself, this is an example of the greater mounting confusion as to where eBooks fit in to the greater societal and cultural picture.

Seriously, this should be the only question being discussed at this time because it is the most fundamentally important one. How can the other questions as posed by the presentations mentioned above be answered if we (the book expert people of all stripes) cannot come to a united conclusion as to whether an eBook is actually a book or a computer file or something else. It must be settled because each possible answer takes us (publishers, libraries, authors, readers) down very different paths. Nevermind that there are inherent implications and associations that are held regarding books and computer files, many of which are not shared (no pun intended). This question absolutely needs to be resolved before we can truly move forward with eBooks.

For those who wish to hold the middle ground and declare that eBooks are both books and computer files, it is here that I feel that best comparison of such a belief resembles the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment. In declaring that it exists in both mediums simultaneously, it places the eBook in a virtual quantum state in which the observer determines what they want the eBook to based on the situation. Rather than relying on a random event as to whether the cat is alive or dead (as Schrödinger’s experiment stated)), the eBook either becomes a computer file or a book when it is convenient to do so.

When it comes to appealing to readers, publicity, and the sales pitch as to why to read a particular book, the eBook invokes all of the tried-and-true lines and clichés that invoke the way books make us feel and the thrill of the printed word. When it comes to ownership or reigning in sharing capabilities or other traditionally associated values of a book, it magically morphs into a computer file subject to the terms, limitations, and end user agreements that are pressed upon the buyer at the time of purchase. This slight of hand behavior suggests that an eBook is a book except when it isn’t; this is a poisonous paradox that will inhibit the future of this medium if it not resolved one way or another.

Personally, I believe eBooks are books in the same way that water is still water whether it is in a solid form (ice), liquid, or a gas (steam). The different phases of matter still have the same molecular structure; the conversion process does not change this fundamental core. Likewise, in converting the print to digital (or even audio for that matter), it does not subvert the fundamental nature of the literature and prose contained within the medium. In other words, the content of an eBook conforms with the expectations of literature, not computer science. Therefore, it is a book.

I concede that this is not a perfect reasoning nor that this conclusion is not open to some good counterarguments. However, I believe that in making this ultimate determination, it will assist in all decisions made downstream from it from how eBooks are handled, collected, and curated; security measures to promote acceptable forms of sharing while preventing unauthorized copying; and the establishment of clear rights to authors, publishers, libraries, and consumers. What counts is that a starting basis is established from which we as a literate and reading society can move forward.

So, how would you answer the question: is an eBook a book?

This is Your Brain on eBooks

In prepping for my CIL talk on Thursday, I came across these two eBook related articles that I wanted to share. The first is written by evolutionary neurobiologist Mark Changizi discussing the lack of spatial navigation cues for our brains to latch onto. Pull quote:

The web, from its text-shifting sites to its entire large-scale structure, is navigated with little or no actual navigation, and a lot of teleportation.

In nature, information comes with a physical address (and often a temporal one), and one can navigate to and from the address. Those raspberry patches we found last year are over the hill and through the woods — and they are still over the hill and through the woods.

And up until the rise of the web, the mechanisms for information storage were largely spatial and could be navigated, thereby tapping into our innate navigation capabilities. Our libraries and books — the real ones, not today’s electronic variety — were supremely navigable.

[…]

The web and e-books have upsides physical libraries do not, of course, but they are deeply lacking in spatial navigability, and so they don’t yet serve the brain-extension role that is within their potential. We should embrace the new technologies, but utilize them in novel ways that take seriously the topography of the information.

The second article comes from Time magazine health writer Maia Szalavitz and builds on Changizi’s argument. Pull quote:

This seems irrelevant at first, but spatial context may be particularly important because evolution may have shaped the mind to easily recall location cues so we can find our way around. That’s why great memorizers since antiquity have used a trick called the “method of loci” to associate facts they want to remember with places in spaces they already know, like rooms in their childhood home. They then visualize themselves wandering sequentially through the rooms, recalling the items as they go. […]

E-books, however, provide fewer spatial landmarks than print, especially pared-down versions like the early Kindles, which simply scroll through text and don’t even show page numbers, just the percentage already read. In a sense, the page is infinite and limitless, which can be dizzying. Printed books on the other hand, give us a physical reference point, and part of our recall includes how far along in the book we are, something that’s more challenging to assess on an e-book.

Combined with a TED talk by neuroscientist Neil Burgress talking about how our brains tell us where we are, it gave me a moment of pause. While there is a real push to use eBooks in the education setting, I’m wondering if and how our brains will adapt to this kind of container change. I don’t believe that it is a complete wash, but it sounds like the difference between flying with good visibility versus flying by instruments only. Without outside points of reference, it changes the operation of the aircraft completely.

I’m looking forward to hearing more studies on the subject, but I have a feeling that eBooks might be somewhat at odds with the way our brains evolved. The next decade should be fascinating to see how our brains adapt… or not.

(h/t: Andrew Sullivan)

Note to Overdrive: Make a Deal with Amazon Publishing

To me, this makes sense in the wake of the Random House price hike, Penguin withdrawing their collection, and HarperCollins continuing with their limited eBook checkout policy. Amazon is poised to become the next major publisher, it has the deep pockets that can attract authors of all calibers to their fold, and librarians are hell bent on making sure that libraries offer eBooks to their communities (pricing or terms and conditions be damned). This is the perfect time for Amazon to come in with a public relations win by agreeing to non-sky high pricing with non-limited circulation demands.

Sure, we’ll still buy the essential eBooks by popular authors from HarperCollins and Random House, but we can get more for our money with Amazon authors. Why? Because we want to show genre diversity in our collection, a principle supported by the ability to purchase in quantity. I’ll presume that these books will be available only in Kindle books format, thus leading to hard conversations with members who purchased the Nook under the former understanding that it was completely library eBook compatible. This in turn could encourage people to buy Kindles in the future (or iPads, since they run the Kindle app) and taking away from sales of the Book, the Barnes & Noble device. (Barnes and Noble being the company that publishers are betting on to survive as a physical book retailer.) It will put Amazon authors into the hands of library patrons along with all of the marketing and information collection abilities that Amazon loves to offer and gather. They can achieve market dominance in the library eBook lending field just by showing up and not acting like an ass.

I’m not concerned with retaliation from other publishers. What could they do that they haven’t already to libraries? Would they hold back their print books? Refuse to sponsor ALA association awards? Write out another press release about how much they value their relationships with libraries and librarians yet still won’t consider eBook lending? Honestly, what could they possibly do?

Overdrive, make a deal with Amazon Publishing for eBook lending.