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.

a kindle that yields no fire

Within library circles, there has been a continued conversation as to the Kindle. Unlike previous eReaders, this one has taken off like gangbusters. The Oprah show in which the Kindle was in the spotlight has put this $360+ gadget as the must-have gadget for all the literate geeks of the world. And while the library does eventually adopt popular information technology into the collections (CDs, DVDs, video games, and the like), the Kindle has left us scratching our heads.

On the one hand, it has everything a reading consumer could ever want. Relatively easy interface, excellent reading screen, built-in options, and access to a vast array of books, magazines, and other resources. It’s small, it’s energy efficient, and it puts the desired text at the tips of the reader’s hands within a minute. It could quite easily revolutionize the world of literature. Truly, it is the flying car of books.

But, for all of its positives, this flying car runs on the fuel equivalent of soylent green. In exchange for ease of convenience, a user gives away ownership. Emily Walshe reports that, in exchange for their money, a Kindle user is simply purchasing right of access to the content. And as a lease owner, you cannot trade these rights to others (e.g. you cannot ‘loan’ a book or even the Kindle to another person) nor is the Kindle open to other ebooks. The end user is a captive audience, subject to the whims and declarations of Amazon. There is no competitive pricing, competing devices, or alternative venue. When you commit to the Kindle, you are saying the technological equivalent of “I do”.

I will concede that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Amazon is moving the ebook market forward and setting higher and higher standards for the devices. But libraries will leave this technology aside due to the restrictive nature of the terms of service. The most obvious reason is that, as a lending institution, we still cannot technically lend out Kindles without wiping the content each time. (There is a library in NJ that lends out Kindles; the flying monkeys of corporate lawyers have never darkened their doorstep, but it is a real possibility.) This defeats our main mission and purpose. In addition, the DRM is such a quagmire that only an update to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act could create the right conditions for this technological wonder to join our collection.

My personal opinion is that ebook readers are still a couple of years or technology generations from being completely viable. Aside from their staggering cost (especially in this economy), these devices will only truly be a revolution for ebooks once the emphasis changes to the device itself and take off the proprietary controls off of the digital content. The devices at present can only go so far before people will demand access to other publishers. We are a “all in one” sort of society, a people who want to make only one stop on the way home from work, and that’s something that will need to be reckoned with in the future.

The first company to make a device that reads all content will win this race. I just hope I can buy stock in it before it shoots through the roof.

(Sources: LISNews, Wikipedia)