Digital Underclass Podcast

Last week, after the Amazon announcements, I spoke with ZDNet Senior Technology Editor (and fellow New Jerseyite) Jason Perlow about ebooks, Amazon, and what’s changed in a year since he wrote his original digital underclass piece. You can hear the resulting podcast here; we hit a range of subjects in and around libraries and ebooks in general (including the HarperCollins limited checkout system). Jason is a fun person to talk with, not simply because he is a library supporter, but also that he understands the technology component and limitations that libraries are dealing with at the moment. Take a listen to the podcast when you get a chance.

As I reflect on the current state of eBooks (on the day of that LJ/SLJ eBook Summit, no less), my current inclination is that libraries are waiting for publishers to get their shit together. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t mean this in a wholly derogatory sense. I mean “get their shit together” in that family vacation sort of sense when the rest of the family has their luggage in the car and are waiting for that last family member to locate and pack their things for the trip. They haven’t completely figured out this eBook thing and they are damn well not ready to go anywhere till they figure it out. The fear of over-packing (or worse, leaving something behind) is effectively leading to decision paralysis; they don’t want to give away too many rights (since those could be potential revenue streams) yet they want to grab an effective market share before their competitors. So, until they figure out what they are taking, we are stuck in the driveway.

Is this an apt metaphor? Or are we waiting for someone else to start this proverbial trip?

Library Books on the Kindle, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Amazon

This evening, I talked with Jason Perlow of ZDNet about libraries, Amazon, eBook lending, and the future of the eBook as a medium. (We hit a lot of different topics so I might be missing one.) Jason had written an article nearly a year ago concerning the revolution of eBooks creating a digital underclass; his position was that with push towards digital, eventually there would be a turnover to exclusively digital content. In making things only available that way, it would create a new variation of the digital divide between the technology haves and have-nots. I had written a reply to this article asking why the rise of one format would necessarily kill another and talked a bit about the current (at the time) relationship between libraries and eBook lenders. With the Kindle coming to Overdrive last week and the announcement of the new Amazon devices this week, Jason wanted to touch revisit those articles and talk about the future of eBooks as it relates to libraries and the rest of the world. While I will provide a link to that discussion once Jason makes it available, there are a few thoughts I wanted to talk about.

First and foremost, Amazon is not actually lending these books. They are simply making their device and file format available to Overdrive. This is still an arrangement between publishers, Overdrive, and libraries. So while Amazon is renting out ebook versions of textbooks, they are not lending out fiction or non-fiction books. Historically, Amazon isn’t a company that makes a business deal for something they plan on rolling out in the near future. If they were to start lending books, my feeling is that they would either buy Overdrive or create their own lending enterprise.

In either case, Amazon would need to make deals with publishers for permission to lend content. Given their track record on the pricing front as publishers shift to agency pricing models, this would be a pretty interesting negotiation. Also, publishers would need to be convinced that eBook lending would be a viable revenue stream; since they have taken to considering borrowing as a lost sale, this would be an additional hurdle.

I find the rumors about Amazon (or some other company) developing a Netflix-style eBook lending program to be equally intriguing. Was there a outcry when Netflix started up as librarians expressed concern about losing DVD circulations? I’m guessing there wasn’t. Even so, it’ll be a premium service limited to Amazon Kindle owners (leaving out the other 60% of the market).

Second, I believe that Amazon opened up the Kindle to Overdrive for one very good and business related reason: information. Amazon is notorious for not releasing any numerical information, whether it is the number of Kindle books sold or the number of Kindle devices on the market. They believe in the power of information and data collection and have wielded it well in developing their products and services. In running the lending portion of library eBooks through their website, they capture a data point that their competition doesn’t. While Sony, Apple, and Barnes & Noble don’t have a clue as to what people are reading or borrowing on their devices, Amazon gets to expand its consumer knowledge. What they will do with the information that they gather from library lenders, I don’t know; but I have a feeling that we’ll see something in the next year or two (even if it is just an improvement on their recommendation algorithms).

Now, when it comes to any patron personal information, that has the easiest resolution. As library records are protected by state laws, it would be a matter for the state’s attorney general to make certain that they are not receiving such information. Although, since patrons need to an Amazon account to borrow through the Kindle, the company already has a ton of information as it is. What are we afraid of, that Amazon will get their library card number? Since those individuals have already given their bank and/or credit card numbers to Amazon in order to purchase Kindle books, I think the library card number would be the least of their worries.

I have to admit that I don’t entirely get the “libraries got a raw deal” vibe that is wandering around the blogosphere. Yes, the Kindle is still locked in proprietary hardware as well as using DRM software on its content. This was true before and after Overdrive made the deal to gain access to their devices. What exactly changed to make this situation worse for libraries? While there are protests to the contrary, there is nothing compelling libraries to purchase Kindle eBooks from Overdrive (or any books, for that matter). I’ve said it before on eBooks and I’ll say it again: if you think it’s a bad deal, then don’t buy it.

For those bemoaning that they are doing it for their library users, either consider such rationale to be an absolution for a purchase that you consider to be (to be diplomatic) ill-advised or find better use for your time than trying to climb up on the indignation cross. There is nothing stopping you from working on better educating decision makers and supporters, finding alternate eBook solutions, or negotiating for better deals with Overdrive. This pouting like a child who didn’t get a particular flavor of chocolate ice cream is not going to change the status quo nor will it make the profession look worthy of engaging in negotiation as to the future of eBooks.

While it may not be the ideal, it cannot be denied that bringing Amazon (and its 40% of the eReader market share) on board with library lending doesn’t raise the profile of libraries with it. Rather than simply buying every book, Kindle users now have the option of borrowing it through their local library. It’s not perfect, but even in giving that capability it puts libraries back into the minds of people who might not otherwise be library users. For them, it’s another selling point; for us, it’s another visit to our website where we advertise our programs, services, and materials. It’s an exposure opportunity that didn’t previously exist.

I meant it when I wrote it with Sarah when it comes to the eBook Users Bill of Rights: I want books to be available on any platform in any format and without DRM. But I can’t and won’t take any shortcoming to that goal as a sign of surrender; it just means that I have to push a little bit harder for a little bit longer. The resolution of this goal will not measured within the duration of a cable news cycle, but in the subsequent generations and how they perceive information access. Amazon has opened their device to library eBook lending; let’s see what the next thing we as librarians can do to bring them around to our position.

Lending Books, Amazon Style

From the Telegraph:

Amazon is in talks with book publishers about launching a digital book rental service in a similar vein to the popular movie offering Netflix, according to reports.

My reaction, even after reading this slender piece a few times, can be summed up into one word:


I’d love to be part of those meetings between Amazon and publishers. After the rows over agency pricing for eBooks (like the infamous Ken Follett one), I’m sure the publishing business is just overjoyed with the prospect of having their books lent out on a flat fee basis, even if it is limited to older titles. With the fall of physical bookstores, Amazon holds such tremendous power that this sounds like it will play out like The Godfather: they are going to make publishers an offer they can’t refuse. With 40% of the eReader device market, a tablet on the way, and a worldwide leader in eBook sales, what publisher wants to hold back their books from this lending service if another major publisher makes a deal?

Even the most cynical of publishers recognizes the power of profile on the (now electronic) book shelf: if you’re not on there, you are not visible to your readers. Yes, the big name authors will continue to thrive, but it is the midlist and emerging authors that will get stomped to pieces if they are excluded from the service. Given Amazon’s suggestion ability, a title missing potentially means a title not read, an author undiscovered, and a connection missed.  

What does this mean for libraries? Nothing, really, as I see it. The library tax or fee is still cheaper than the Amazon Prime subscription, even if it is not by much. Amazon has kept their Kindle off of the library scope save for the announcement of working with Overdrive. Suddenly, twenty six eBook checkouts aren’t such a bad thing when a patron could just get an older title as part of their Amazon Prime account.

Personally, I’m particularly curious as to how Overdrive would take this bit of news since there are hard-to-ignore parallels between what they do now and what Amazon proposes to do. As much as they have streamlined the downloading process for their titles, they can’t beat Amazon on infrastructure. Why would you fool around with the library’s website or the Overdrive app when the Kindle would have everything be a button away? Sure, it might not be new releases, but since libraries can only purchase so many licenses, impatient eReader users may just buy the book anyway.

I wonder if libraries are looking better and better to publishers with each passing eBook market development. They might not get the best deal compared to companies like Apple, Sony, or Amazon, but we’ll still respect you in the morning.

(h/t: Library Link of the Day)

Integrating Library Borrowing into eReaders

From Library Journal:

Sony unveiled its latest ereader device today, Reader Wi-Fi, which will be the first dedicated ereader—though not the first device—to offer wireless borrowing of OverDrive library ebook titles. The Reader Wi-Fi, which the company calls “the lightest touch screen 6″ eReader device ever” in the announcement, will be available for purchase in October.

According to Sony Electronics spokesperson Maya Wasserman, the ereader will feature a dedicated icon on its touch screen’s main menu to connect to the OverDrive system, in a similar manner as the OverDrive Media Console app currently available for other devices.

On first glance, this is a very interesting development here. Rather than have people download the app or go through the current loops, it is now part of the out-of-the-box bundle. It removes a few steps out of the eBook borrowing process and makes it something I’ve been wishing for: more integrated. Of course, whether people use it or not is another question but it won’t be from a lack of opportunity.

For me, I see integration here as a step towards integration elsewhere. It means that it is possible, there is one major company that is willing to try it, and that it could become a standard feature of future eReader and tablet computers.

I won’t hold my breath, but no one has ever passed out from crossing their fingers. So, fingers crossed.

The Enchantment of Libraries


I know what some of you are probably thinking right now.

“Ebooks? If only he knew what kind of Byzantine arrangement eBooks are for libraries! Between the publishers and the content providers and the restrictions and whatnot, it’s just a giant tangled mess.”

But, even perhaps without that knowledge, Guy’s point still has some legs. Reinvention is not necessarily a clean process and it is something that libraries are undergoing right now at an imperfect, inconsistent pace. The advent of eBooks is undeniable; it will change how people perceive and access books when they have the option of getting one from wherever they are.

In looking towards that evolution of libraries, the demise of Borders should be a powerful lesson for libraries. Take a look at their business plan in the last ten years. They widened their movie and music selection, added a café, and then struggled onto the eBook market and eBook reader platforms. I’m not saying that this is something that will happen to libraries, but that kind of change should sound a bit familiar.

(Yes, I concede that they had a profit motive that libraries don’t, but their course of action to change their strategy does have parallels.)

If anything, at least someone outside of libraryland is pulling for us. We could use all the library champions we can get.

On Freedom and eBooks

From CNet:

Richard Stallman, who bridles to see the idealistic purity of his free-software philosophy debased into the more pragmatic open-source movement, can be a prickly character. But I find myself agreeing with some of his concerns about e-books.

In a piece titled "The Danger of E-books" (PDF), Stallman bemoans the e-book’s loss of freedoms that most of us take for granted with physical books and places the blame on corporate powers.

"Technologies that could have empowered us are used to chain us instead," he said. "We must reject e-books until they respect our freedom…E-books need not attack our freedom, but they will if companies get to decide. It’s up to us to stop them."

This sounds like a good supporting piece for the eBook Reader’s Bill of Rights even if it takes the extreme vantage point.  I’ve been thinking about that piece lately; it’s been about four months since Sarah and I released it upon the internet. It got a lot of coverage within the online librarian community and managed to hop outside it in a couple of places (BoingBoing being one of the bigger hops out). But, while it had initial spark, it has failed to catch on in larger continuing conversations regarding eBooks. Perhaps it is a bit too radical in its reach; perhaps it doesn’t go far enough in addressing the larger cultural and societal attitudes towards the treatment of electronic content.

I guess it boils down to who do we as a society trust with written content. From the manuscript to the final product to the marketplace, there are many current barriers in existence that can prevent a book from reaching its final destination in the hands of the reader. Is it only when it reaches the final step, in the hands of the consumer by right of the First Sale Doctrine or the licensing agreement of eBook sellers, that is the true point of controversy? Will there be an “ownership awakening” in which consumers will reject licensing and demand ownership rights or else? Perhaps not, but certain food for thought for your comments.

#hcod on the radio

I did an interview for the local news radio station here in Philadelphia. Local is a relative term here since the station (KYW) covers the Delaware Valley region and gets some of the highest listening shares (over a million people) out of the Philadelphia radio market. I hope it brings the issue to more people outside of the library world.

(I’ll confess that I haven’t listened to it because I really don’t like to hear myself; same thing goes for videos of myself.)

Aspiring Writers & eBooks

There is a line of thought that’s been on my mind for the last day or so that I need to get some outside perspective on. As I am aware that this blog has some very intelligent and talented readership (it’s not flattery if it is true), I want to run this by my readers for input and feedback. So, without further ado…

One of the biggest and best pieces of advice that aspiring writers are given is that they should read. And not just read, but read everything they can get their hands on. A cursory Google search yields website after website repeating the same sort of advice; while it is not academic proof, I consider it to be excellent anecdotal evidence for the case. It makes sense to me in that the more writing a person experiences the better command of story, character, sentence structure, style, and/or substance they will adapt in their own reading. It is a textbook case of learning through example and then doing.

What really gets me wondering is how this could change due to the rise of eBooks in the market. Here is a format that is readily available for distribution, ships online or over cell data networks as quickly as the connection will allow, and stored in a computer or e-reader device. It is not limited by store hours or being sold out, but by the discretionary funds of the purchaser.

For a voracious reader and aspiring writer, it means that there has never been a better time for instant gratification when it comes to reading. Combined with the generally lower price point, it means that aspiring writers can purchase more books while doing so quickly and conveniently. This works towards the advice they are generally given above.

The overall question I’m driving toward is this: if the price of eBooks came down, information networks expanded (and narrowed the digital divide overall), and the barriers to content and content creation overall are lowered, would this lead to a greater number of writers overall? In my mind, it would lead to a greater number of top tier writers and an even larger number of midlist authors. That, if publishers worked towards these kinds of ideas, they would be creating larger talent pools to draw from.

I fully realize that I have no direct causation evidence; I cannot say for certain that the creation of those conditions would lead to more authors. But I can’t help feeling that I’m on the road to being right. What I’m wondering is if someone out there has something they can add or rebut to my points to make it a bit clearer. Would making eBooks cheap and abundant be the conditions to creating more writers in the future?

I’m waiting to hear your thoughts!

Apple Takes A Bite Out of the eBook Market

From Teleread, a message from the non-deceased iFlowReader app:

The crux of the matter is that Apple is now requiring us, as well as all other ebook sellers, to give them 30% of the selling price of any ebook that we sell from our iOS app. Unfortunately, because of the “agency model” that has been adopted by the largest publishers, our gross margin on ebooks after paying the wholesaler is less than 30%, which means that we would have to take a loss on all ebooks sold. This is not a sustainable business model.

For further background and context, Apple changed their policy about selling products through apps. This means that any app that sells a product through it must pay tribute must give Apple a 30% cut of the payment. As such, it reduces the number of competitors in the Apple based eBook market to the major players who are selling through either the iBookstore or the Safari portal or those that can afford that margin. And, if you read the whole message at Teleread, it was done in a rather unsavory way.

In any case, it’s an interesting story in the evolving eBook market. It does beg questions about retailers changing the rules about what eBooks they carry and if they withdrew any from their sites. What do you think?

Beyond 26 Checkouts

On Monday, I got an email from Carol Scott at telling me that they were happy with how the HarperCollins petition was going and were going to send it out to a larger segment of the website’s membership. Ok, cool!, I thought, closing up my phone and putting it back into my pocket. At the time, I was setting up for the New Jersey Library Association conference and the signature count was around 3,000. Later that afternoon, I got a text message from a friend. 

“What’s going on with your petition?” “Why do you ask?” “It’s jumped from 3,000 to 4,200 in like an hour. I just refreshed it and it went up another couple hundred.”

Then I started checking it from my phone. Over the course of two days, it went from 3,000 to 50,000. Whoa. As of the time I am writing this, it has 63,525. Library Journal wrote an article about it the other day for which I was interviewed. There’s one quote I gave that I’d like to highlight.

"The long term goal is to have authors, publishers, and libraries come together and talk about ebook circulation and lending models that make sense in a digital age."

Which brings me to the purpose of this post.

While the outpouring of support for the petition is incredible and much appreciated, there is still a matter of finding better eBook lending models that work for both authors, publishers, and libraries. I’d rather not have this petition be completely perceived as a finger wagging at HarperCollins, but as a conversation starter for other eBook lending models. I would not want the dialogue to entirely consist of reactions to publisher trial-and-error introductions of new formulas, but a collaboration between a business industry and a public institution with mutual interests.

In earlier statements, HarperCollins has called the 26 eBook checkout limit an experiment. In that case, I would like to propose additional experiments in eBook lending models. This is not limited to just HarperCollins, but a call to every publisher who allows libraries to lend eBooks to try something new.

If I was to advocate for any kind of experimental lending model, it would be around the idea of multiple simultaneous borrowers. I’ll outline my reasoning and rationale as I see it below.

First, and it has been said in many places, eBooks are computer files. They embody the digital notion of abundance. The idea of expiration or artificial scarcity is an affront to the global information network that has been built around computer files. It is a quality of the medium that should be used to its advantage, not as something to be contained. The question should be not be “How can we limit the very thing that makes it extraordinarily flexible and unique?”, but “How can we use this to get it to as many people as possible while making money?”

Second, the ability for lending to multiple simultaneous borrowers should be considered in the light of immediate book release market share. In stealing a sentiment from Seth Godin, the book itself is not as important as the conversation around it. People talk about what the book makes them feel, how they relate to the content within, and the desire to share these aspects with others. With the rise of social networks and acquaintance relations on them, that kind of sharing goes beyond the immediate family and friends. It becomes a crowd experience, one in which people will seek out other find people who have read the same book. 

In other words, what I am suggesting is that by allowing multiple simultaneous borrowers, a book can potentially control social network conversations during those first crucial weeks when it hits the market. It could generate more reviews and buzz on sites like LibraryThing, GoodReads, Shelfari, and Amazon. There will be more check-ins on social sites like GetGlue which feed into bigger sites like Facebook and Twitter. It’s the power of numbers idea when a person sees that a large number of their personal network talking, blogging, Twittering, Facebooking, GetGlueing, and reviewing a book at the same time. Certainly some have purchased the book while others have borrowed it, but their combined social media output has marketing value. It’s an advertising campaign that money can’t buy when consumers are the ones talking about their product of their own accord. This word of mouth marketing could and should be nurtured through more permissive lending models.

Third, in making multiple simultaneous copies available to libraries, I would propose that it could have a curbing effect on piracy. By providing an easier alternate route to published content, it could bring people with certain types of pirating behaviors (e.g. lack of convenience, too high a price point) into a legitimate system. In bringing those people into the legal side of the equation, it strikes a blow against existing pirates at their revenue sources (from pirating works and advertising). Also, it could translate into less money being spent fighting piracy overall (which, as noted in this article, could prove to be a substantial and costly endeavor to the detriment of authors). Furthermore, there are better datasets to be gained from their inclusion in overall usage statistics. That translates into better planning practices for both the publisher and the library (in other words, more money saved through efficiencies).

While some may see this as a type of capitulation to piracy, I completely beg to differ. I think it’s a bargain to expend a little money subsidizing this kind of lending model at the front end rather than chasing down people downloading illegally on the back end. (As the RIAA can tell you, courts aren’t cheap.) There is a public goodwill value to be considered (I don’t know how it could be quantified or calculated), there are benefits to both publisher and library in engaging in this arrangement, and the fact of the matter is that brand new markets like eBooks need a new and radical approach in the new sharing culture. A little work on the front end here could save a lot of headaches later on.

Fourth, this is a very unoriginal thought, but the very nature of eBooks allows for tiered purchasing models. Whether it is ‘per use’ or ‘x simultaneous borrowers’, it’s just a matter of figuring out the right pricing. It can and should be more expensive than a physical book because it does more than a physical book. Tiered models embrace the flexibility and portability of the eBook as a computer file.

The largest and more persistent objection to simultaneous borrowers is the notion that it undermines the eBook market. I call shenanigans on that. The people who come to the library as it is now are the ones who are not purchasing first edition hardcover books. Even if it did attract eReader device owners who regularly purchased content, they’d have to register with their library to do so (not quite the same as click and buy, I assure you). And if there was still concern about the potential impact on sales, there is a relatively simple mechanism can be put into place: limit the number of times it can be borrowed in a calendar year. For example, if someone can borrow an eBook only twice in a calendar year, they get four weeks to read it (on the basis of a two week loan). After that, they either go without or buy it. This should assuage the fear of people permanently borrowing material while making it available to them in the short and immediate term. (Perhaps longer borrowing periods can be determined over time, especially in other settings like high school or college.) The eBook market will continue onwards and library lending does not pose a viable threat to it.

In essence, I believe there is a financial decision here: one could allow for a more permissive library lending system in which, yes, there will be lost sales but less piracy and greater market penetration OR a publisher can continue to limit lending, discourage digital collections that put their eBooks into the hands of readers and drive the social sharing marketplace, and spend money to track down and fight pirates both professional and casual. There is no perfect system for lending eBooks nor will there ever be one, but that fact should not stop experiments towards progress from occurring.

So, let the other experiments begin.