Would you pay $100 a month for instant access to every book on any device?

Tim Carmody would.

It’s a short read, but I think the replies he gets from Twitter as well as the comments are worthwhile. It brings up other issues such as being able to copy content, different access models, tiered plans, and pricing. Take the time to read through.

(h/t: Daily Dish)

IT (and not that Stephen King creepy clown, either)

Eli Neiburger, known for the “Libraries are Screwed” presentation at the Library Journal eBook Summit, is stirring the pot once more by calling for the replacement of reference with IT people. From Library Journal:

"We need big servers and the geeks to take care of them," Neiburger said. "What are we going to cut to be able to hire a geek? We are going to cut reference staff. Reference is dead," he said.

Despite the fact that a trained librarian can bring value to a reference interaction, the patron today, acclimated to Google searches, does not feel that way, and librarians cannot change their mind, Neiburger said.

For what it’s worth, I totally get where Eli is coming from. He’s touted a move towards libraries owning their digital content rather than licensing it. For eBooks, it means going to the authors themselves and making a deal with them to get their works for the library to distribute. To this end, you need the data infrastructure (various hardware purchases and a patron-friendly interface) to make it work; for that, you need to have a robust IT squad. And if library budgets are presently zero sum, that money will need to come from somewhere. In eliminating the reference library staff (and replacing them with paraprofessionals), the savings generated can fund the digital infrastructure.

If I’m understanding Eli correctly, this future vision of the library would be one that has a paraprofessional front (circulation and reference) with any remaining librarians in the back (administration, cataloging, and IT). 

Interesting.

To be honest, my biggest concern is taking librarians and removing them from contact with the public. This whole “let’s move librarians off public desks” seems like a step backwards for user experience by overly focusing on digital content to the detriment of face-to-face service. Personally, I think librarians struggle with assessing what their patrons want as it is and this would create an unnecessary aloofness to overcome. I believe there is value to having a librarian in the public spaces, even if they are relegated to handling actual reference/research questions. While discovery online is not at the library website (perhaps something having library geeks could work on), discovery in-person is still a viable service and one that I believe librarians should still have a hand in.

Also, I don’t think this kind of arrangement scales very well. I can see how it would work for larger libraries, but I’m having a hard time imagining it for smaller staffed public libraries (and, as an aside, nigh impossible for school libraries). I think with some help from commenters that we might be able to guess at the minimum level of staffing and funding where Eli’s IT move would be viable. My hunch is that it could create it’s own “digital content divide” where some libraries can afford to staff and fund a robust digital infrastructure while others would simply be relegated to current vendor offerings. (Now, if you introduce consortium arrangements to fund regional IT staff and hardware, we’re talking a whole new ballgame.)

I’d like to highlight some of the comments made on Friendfeed that the article presents a false dichotomy; that you can have reference or IT but you can’t both. Why not? Perhaps it is a better question about MLS graduate programs; could they create a program where a person can speak geek and reference? Or geek and cataloging? Or geek and administration? Should these programs be focused on making hybrids?

I think there is geek in the future, but I’m not completely sold on it being the only way to go.

One-Two Punches on Publishing

First, this wonderful blog post, “It is a reading revolution, and there will be blood”. Wonderful salient quote:

It’s a revolution. That means what worked in the past is not going to work.

Yes, as humans we have a strong need for facts. We want to have something of the past that we can gather up – gather up so we can pretend that the future is predictable. But, what could you possibly use as precedent?

There has never been a market like books. There has never been a transition like the one we are part of. There’ll always be the one person who knows nothing about reading and claims this revolution is the same as what happened in music. There’ll always be some analyst who claims that in 2015 we might see 25% market share for ebooks. However, they have absolutely no clue. Same as us.

Of course, there is one difference. All the analysts and experts and Publishers and authors have zero power. We readers, on the other hand, have all the power.

It’s a revolution and it’s not based on facts or logic or any set pattern. It’s based on readers expecting to be treated decently and expecting people to behave in a human way – to treat other people the way they would like to be treated. And if they aren’t, then they have the power to do something about it.

Then comes the ever wise Eric Hellman with his post on publishing:

An efficient library channel will compete, to some extent, with ebook direct-sales channels. The optimum strategy for publishers, however, is not to force inefficiency in the library channel, but rather to optimize pricing to monetize increased efficiency.

The efficiency of library acquisitions can be increased by introducing more consortia. A library needing a collection specializing in medicine, for example, should bolster its collection by participating in a consortium with the corresponding specialization. In principle, there could be a consortium specialized for every book that gets published. Such a consortium could manage the number of copies it purchases to closely manage global demand. If the economics worked out it could even strike a deal for unlimited use of the book by consortium members.

For myself, there is something comforting about these two posts. Libraries have always been trailing the desires of the reader; it might just be the perfect place to be at the moment. The large consumer base (as opposed to our tiny percent) of the market is capable of doing much more than libraries can when it comes to price and access. I wouldn’t suggest coattail riding here, but I think that librarians are uniquely poised to influence consumers in the reading market.

Both posts are certainly worth the read. It does present a question: where do libraries fit in a reader powered world? More provocatively, where do we fit in a world where the reader can bypass publishers and libraries to get books?

Houston, We Have A Problem

I’ve been thinking about the Overdrive/Amazon announcement that will bring the Kindle into the device fold for library eBook lending and I have to say it raises concerns for me. In addition to the questions raised by Bobbi Newman, Jason Griffey, and Sarah Houghton-Jan (all very sharp queries), I think libraries are poorly positioned for this kind of move. Here’s why:

Kindles has the largest eReader market share at roughly 41%. As the breakthrough device along with the pricing practices of Amazon, it’s hardly a surprise even with the addition of Nooks and iPads to the market. It’s still the touch-and-go no-fuss-no-muss dedicated eReader out there, perfect for any age and reading desire; the gadget that anyone can use without regard to computer skill. You pick a title, you hit a button, you get the book, it’s done. It builds an expectation as to how eBooks should work and it has been building it with the largest audience so far.

By the end of 2011, this large consumer base with its giant market share will meet the “Pretend Its Print” model of eBook circulation that has been developed.

What do you imagine the reaction will be?

If the “1 eBook to 1 patron at a time” model is that best we still have when the Kindles come to Overdrive, I think it will be a serious problem. It’s not simply a matter of sending eBook wait lists skyrocketing (which it will for new releases), but that it will fail to meet patron expectations as to how eBook content should be managed. I think it will leave libraries on the hook to explain a very limiting policy to our patrons, making us look like technological fools (or worse, incompetent).

Why? Because we are perceived as experts on books and literature and I believe this perception extends into the digital world. Patrons won’t see it as a file (even though it is) but as a book, and wonder why we can’t “fix” this so that it works more in line with what they have already experienced using their Kindles. And to throw in HarperCollins here, we’ll still have a publisher insisting on limited checkouts but now with the largest eReader device in the market in the mix.

Personally, I believe that if we really want to move ahead with Kindles and Overdrive, it’s going to take a much better lending model than what we have now. And libraries are now on the clock to find a better solution.

There is a silver lining to this in my estimation. Amazon is the first device manufacturer and retailer to make this library lending deal. That’s a departure from the previous Overdrive partners which consist entirely of publishers. Given Amazon’s 300 lbs. gorilla status in the eBook game, this could make 2012 a very interesting year for eBooks and libraries. Hopefully, it won’t be the gorilla deciding to club us to death.

Libraries & The Cloud

Earlier last week this article appeared in PC Magazine discussing the end of content ownership with the offering of cloud computing:

For the majority of consumers, however, they will come to fully trust the cloud and believe in subscription pricing for everything. Ownership will become an anathema as consumers realize they don’t want to risk losing content as they switch services, and they tire of finding requisite space on their own local storage for all those digital files. The benchmark for a good service will be based on the richness of each library. Consumers will pay companies like Amazon, a fixed amount for full-boat, yearly access.

In reading this article, I feel a bit divided. There are things about cloud computing and access that really speak to me; it’s the availability of content from wherever you are. Untethered from a location, it exists where you are. It is a promise of ubiquitous content access, a powerful notion that is quite compelling in its potential.

Where I feel a deviation is at the notion of subscription pricing for everything. My specific concern is if subscription pricing takes the place of content ownership. While I can imagine people signing up for subscriptions for eBooks in the same way that Rhapsody works, the idea that it would be the only model on the market bothers me to no end. I believe in the power of the end user to control their content; this doesn’t happen under a subscription model. It’s the concentration of power over content into relatively few hands that is a concern (although, to be fair, with the cloud and the internet, it creates other pathways to content).

Also, what would it means for book challenges? Could the groups that targeted books like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian picket corporations into getting it removed? As opposed to a single school district, it means that it could be removed for entire swaths of the population. While I would hope that it would not come to that, it is a potential scenario.

Overarching this is the digital divide, for cloud computing and content doesn’t really matter if people cannot get internet access. Could it lower the bar to access though if they did not have to concern themselves with how to store content locally? Perhaps, since the costs of devices continue to drop (whether it is a Kindle or cell phone or other device). But in the end, if people can’t access it, then it doesn’t really matter.

Now, here’s the question: should libraries start looking to the cloud as the next step of information access? While we should retain physical locations (since providing internet access and printing services still requires computers at a location as well as programming and information literacy classes), how much could we push out into the cloud for the benefit of the communities that we serve?

(h/t: Library Link of the Day)

About that EQUACC Interim Report…

The ALA’s Equitable Access to Electronic Content (EQUACC) Task Force released its interim report today. The group is examining the challenges and potential solutions to “access, use, distribution and preservation” of digital content. The whole report is on the Library Renewal site. A couple of passages popped out at me.

5. Model Projects (Working Group: Linda Crowe, Mark Stoffan, Jamie LaRue)

The Task Force believes that librarians should be encouraged in testing new models for acquiring and providing access to e-content. These experiments will identify successful and do-able projects that will shape the e-content marketplace, reader interest, and carve out new roles for libraries such as publishing. (Emphasis mine.)

I was pleasantly surprised at that idea; why not get involved in content creation? I would be interested in hearing more of the pros and cons of such an endeavor.

EQUACC’s next steps are contingent, in part, on approval from Council as well as the need for additional funding. In that vein, the Washington Office submitted a proposal for 2015 funding on behalf of the Task Force.

Ok, I guess this is where my understanding of organizational bureaucracy, budgets, and funding gets hazy, so I’ll need someone to gently explain this to me. Because my gut reaction is to wonder what happens between now (2011) and then (2015). I’m sure it’s not as awful as my first impression felt, but a little education would be greatly appreciated on this one. 

Overall, I really liked the report. It was a good progress update on the Task Force as well as a succinct overview of all the issues that they are looking at. I wasn’t expecting any solutions to arise from it, but I did feel like the final report will be an excellent survey for current and future digital content issues.

At the same time this report was being posted, Cindy Orr posted an entry in her blog at Overdrive. As pleased as I was with the Task Force interim report, I cannot say the same for Mrs. Orr’s blog entry. The trouble for me starts halfway through. (Emphasis on the parts that really annoyed the hell out of me.)

On behalf of the Task Force, I would like to suggest that librarians study the issues, articulate what we would realistically like to see happen in this arena, and resist the urge to overreact. As Christopher Harris, one of my colleagues on the committee, says in a recent School Library Journal article, what we need is to discuss and talk through these issues, not lash out in rage. Librarians historically get their facts straight and check their sources carefully. We also uphold copyright law.

I would like to add that we need to educate ourselves and act within the arena that exists right now while we plan for, and try to influence the future. That doesn’t mean that we can’t work to revise copyright law, or try to negotiate new models, or change anything else, but it’s fruitless to argue that all works should be available to the public for free regardless of their copyright status.

It also means recognizing that, no matter what we’d like the facts to be, in most cases we don’t own electronic works, but license them. We also need to consider the reality that authors and publishers and wholesalers need to be paid or they will go out of business.

[…]

While venting anger at HarperColliins may feel good, we should try to remember that they were one of the very first large publishers to agree to take a chance on libraries. They have stated that they consider this 26 checkout model to be a “work in progress.”

I hope that we can remember that things in the digital world are still evolving quickly. Models will develop. New publishers will sign on. We’ll work it out if we stick to our principles of doing our homework, following the law, and advocating for a realistic solution in order to assure equitable access for readers now and in the future.

Wow. I think the most unfortunate part of that condescending passage is how it starts off, “On behalf of the Task Force…” So, is what I am reading in this blog entry what the Task Force really wanted to say to the librarian community? If I was to go all Freud on you, the interim report comes across as the superego and this blog post sounds like the id. Everybody calm down! We need to talk more! You don’t have all the facts! You’re lashing out! You’re not connected to reality!

After punching through all the straw man arguments (no one is arguing for free content, authors not getting paid, or circumvention of copyright), I’m wondering what the point of this blog entry was. It feels somewhere between a plea to give Overdrive (and by association, HarperCollins) a break and an admonishment for people moving forward and taking action on the situation.

As to the former, my perspective is that people seem very restrained; the majority of action taken is against HarperCollins eBook purchasing with only few going for a full boycott. The tone is rather civil, the explanations are clear and rational, and it is being carried out in a respectful manner. Overdrive seems to have a free pass on this one, a lucky break for a middleman company in this interchange.

As to the latter, there’s a pretty standard complaint about ALA not taking action quickly. If people take action in their own hands, then more power to them. To me, this call for doing more homework, more dialogue, and more study of the issue begs the question, “How much more time, talk, and information do you need?” For an direct assertion that people are missing important facts, there is no follow up as to what information they are specifically missing that would dramatically impact their decisions. A simple mention about a link to online resources does not make the case. (And for a group charged with examining digital content access issues for sensory and physically impaired, having resources only available online brings its own issues of the digital divide and online vs. offline librarians into the mix. Just sayin’.)

Overall, I’m interested to see the EQUAAC report when it’s done. I hope that it will be a good and comprehensive overview of the digital content issues. It should be the real “hot read” of the annual conference. Of course, who knows what the situation will look like when June rolls around?

Where’s the Logic?

From Teleread:

The Bookseller has some interesting coverage of the London Book Fair, but I don’t have time right now to go over all of it. I’ll focus on the one bit that just leaped out at me. A number of execs—David Shelley of Little, Brown, Richard Mollet of the Publishers Association, and Stephen Page from Faber—explained that fighting online piracy is costing publishers a bundle, and is one of the reasons publishers cannot afford to raise e-book royalty rates as some publishers have been requesting.

From the embedded link above that goes to TheBookseller.com:

[David] Shelley told delegates: "Money spent on print and paper will be spent on specialists to fight piracy. The costs of this are only getting more expensive, and could spiral way out of control. There are also legal costs, when sites refuse to take down content." Shelley claimed the "unknown costs", as well as other new digital costs, would replace the cost savings made on digital.

Huh. So, the cost of printing is going to be shifted to fighting piracy. Those costs can only go up with the possibility that they could become unsustainable (that is what spiral out of control means, right?) Then you add in legal expenses on top of this money equation (unless that’s part of the spiral). And then when you add it all, it would replace (read: equal) the cost savings on digital.

Wait, what?

I’m not sure I get it. But in looking at the publisher margins for ebooks: (as I wrote about in a post about two weeks ago)

How much better for the publisher and how much worse for the author? Here are examples of author’s royalties compared to publisher’s gross profit (income per copy minus expenses per copy), calculated using industry-standard contract terms:

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

Author’s Standard Royalty:
$3.75 hardcover; $2.28 e-book.
Author’s E-Loss = -39%

Publisher’s Margin:
$4.75 hardcover; $6.32 e-book.
Publisher’s E-Gain = +33%

Hell’s Corner, by David Baldacci

Author’s Standard Royalty:
$4.20 hardcover; $2.63 e-book.
Author’s E-Loss = -37%

Publisher’s Margin:
$5.80 hardcover; $7.37 e-book.
Publisher’s E-Gain = +27%

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

Author’s Standard Royalty:
$4.05 hardcover; $3.38 e-book.
Author’s E-Loss = -17%

Publisher’s Margin:
$5.45 hardcover; $9.62 e-book.
Publisher’s E-Gain = +77%

They would be taking the money made from this new greater margin and using it to fight online piracy. Which they may or may not be able to do based on the impossible-to-calculate-but-possibly-unsustainable sum of money. But since they have a better margin from eBooks, they have more money to fight piracy.

And that’s why they can’t pay authors a larger royalty.

It’s that kind of logic that makes me think of Eli Neiberger’s idea of going directly to the content makers to purchase the rights. Why deal with a middleman who is hell bent on a Sisyphean task of financially dubious results?? The cost of that madness would be added to the cover price; we (libraries and regular consumers) would be paying to support these ill reasoned expenditures. I’m all for rights holders pursuing actions t defend their intellectual property, but not under the “we must burn down the village to save the village” kind of approach. There has to be a better way.

It’s odd, as I close this post, to think that some publishers actually have issues with their digital content being at libraries. I would think we’d be a lot easier to deal with than your average pirate website.

Third World Piracy, First World IP Headaches

piracy-handy-guide

The Social Science Research Council recently released a report entitled “Media Piracy in Emerging Economies”. This three year study focused on music, movie, and software privacy in countries like Russia, South Africa, and Brazil. You can get the report here, depending on which part of the Consumer’s Dilemma you qualify for in terms of price. The major findings of the report are as follows (I’ve summed up their bullet points):

  • Prices are too high. [Prices are 5-10 times higher relative to income.]
  • Competition is good. [No competition means no lower prices.]
  • Antipiracy education has failed. [Self-explanatory.]
  • Changing the law is easy. Changing the practice is hard. [Same.] 
  • Criminals can’t compete with free. [Same issue as legit companies.]
  • Enforcement hasn’t worked.

I wouldn’t immediately move to lump eBooks into this pile, but as it is a digital file, it can’t be far off from these findings. Especially the point about “criminals can’t compete with free”, which feels like a remote overture towards libraries; why would people buy the book if they can just borrow it for free?

Felix Salmon at Reuters writes:

For starters, Mike Masnick is absolutely right that the report debunks the entire foundation of US foreign IP policy. That policy has essentially been written by the owners of US intellectual property, who jealously protect it and think that the best thing they can possibly do is be as aggressive as possible towards any sign of international IP piracy. As the report shows, this makes a tiny amount of profit-maximizing sense for the companies concerned. But it actually encourages, rather than reduces, piracy in the aggregate. (Emphasis in original)

And (as quoted by Andrew Sullivan in part, attributed at the bottom of this post):

The big forces driving media piracy in developing countries are real and powerful and will not be changed, no matter how many western politicians get on their moral high horses and insist that countries like India and China build a “culture of intellectual property.” But the irony is that if governments and corporations really wanted to build such a culture, then they would encourage companies to set their prices low enough that the populations of those countries could actually afford to buy music, movies, and software at the full legal retail price. It turns out that domestic companies are quite good at distributing media at low prices, and can build profitable businesses by doing that. But foreign companies have different incentives in the short term, and don’t do that.

It’s worth reading his whole take on the report. The quotes he pulls out are stunning. For as much puffery that is placed on the ills of piracy and how much it costs those three industries, the documentation to this claim is either suspect or non-existent. Considering the robustness of these industries, it’s hard to see where the financial suffering begins.

Reihan Salam at the National Review Online has his take:

High prices for media goods create what the report’s authors call “the consumer’s dilemma”: you can pay the high legal price, you can find a pirated copy, or you can skip consuming the good in question. Technology has been diffusing faster than incomes have been converging. That is, there are now millions of people living around the world who have the devices and the broadband they need to consume media goods produced in the rich world, but without the incomes they’d need to pay the prices to which people in the rich world have grown accustomed.

In viewing these reports and reactions through the librarian kaleidoscope, the steps taken to prevent piracy in the third world make for a difficult product and limiting conditions in the first world. As the people who can afford eBooks under their current pricing structures, we (both libraries and consumers in the first world) are seen as the best way to recover expenses and generate revenues. We pay the DRM and monetary price for the actions of others well beyond the long reach of intellectual property law.

Now I’m off to wonder where libraries fall into this picture. As an entity that lends content at no additional cost to the community member, I can see why libraries are held as suspect in the publisher eBook lending idea. You can’t compete with free; but you also can’t compete if the obstacles to content make the pirate alternative a viable (albeit illegal) option. It’s something to consider as we move forward with eBook collections.

(h/t: Daily Dish, twice)

eBooks for eComrades

Of all countries, North Korea has an elibrary online.

Oh, it gets better!

The library has a statement on the site that reads like a Creative Commons license.

Consulting, downloading and reproducing is allowed when reference is made to this webpage

The website carries a copyright notification from 2007. And, sure, it may be a bunch of old propaganda and not something that is otherwise collectible. But if the North Koreans can put a Creative Commons-esque license on something (and you know how they feel about sharing information otherwise), then what’s our big hang-up?

(I will accept comments only written using propaganda terms and phrases.)

Across the Pond, E-readers are not Library Equivalents Edition

Leo Benedictus writes in Prospect Magazine about the closing of libraries in England and the rise of e-reading. Salient quote:

The talk of a future in which children cannot access books is also not just wrong, but backwards. E-readers—already available for £52 ($83), and falling—offer an incomparably more convenient way for anyone to find good things. While defending libraries, surely there is also time to promote the fact that, thanks to Project Gutenberg and Google Books, every child in the country can now download virtually any out-of-copyright book for nothing. (Piracy will doubtless do the same for most in-copyright books too, as may digital lending, though this is less cause for celebration.)

He goes on to argue that digital readers will be able to provide children with libraries of their own. I would agree with that notion if libraries were simply book access centers; who wouldn’t want to make it easier for readers to get a hold of books? But libraries operate beyond that capacity. E-readers do not provide the same internet access as current library computer labs; they do not have classes on computer use or other topics; nor do they provide programming for people of all ages.

A library also functions as a place, whether for old men to gather and play chess or teens looking for a safe space to be to do their homework and avoid the dangers of the street. It’s a community focal point, a space preserved for mental and social activity the same way parks are saved for physical activity. An e-reader is a poor substitute for an actual place where these ideas can congregate and be exchanged.

Mr. Benedictus argues that 2011 will be the year that each child will receive their own library through an e-reader. That may be so, but it will be at the loss of the discovery of books next to those titles on the shelf and a place that houses them.

(h/t: The Daily Dish)