At the urging of one of my co-presenters, I’m posting the script I used for my CIL presentation last week. A few things to note:
- I generally don’t use slides unless I absolutely have to. I dislike Powerpoint and am alright with Prezi, but I have a very non-scientific theory called the “Bermuda Triangle of Modern Audiences”. Between staring at you, the slides, and their personal devices, it makes attention spans disappear into thin air. I’d rather have just myself at the visual so I work to make up for it.
- Yes, I do write in asides, jokes, and other little seemingly ‘off the cuff’ remarks. Sometimes I use them, sometimes I don’t, and sometimes I add things in when I speak. The transcript of the recording will not exactly match the script, but it’s close enough.
- This particular talk had been rolling over in my brain for months. I went through a bunch of different starts, different tones, and different messages that I wanted to share. I ended up using the first one I created and, like magic, the words finally flowed for me. Well, sort of. I was pretty insane with rage by the time I finished the script due to the closing deadline as well the difficulty of the presentation birthing process. I read through it and it seemed fine. Thanks to Sarah for reading over it to tell me I was not insane and Julie for letting me practice present it to her. Both of you gave me the confidence to stand up there and let loose.
For those interested, here is the video recording of the presentation with Michael, Sarah, and myself. I have a hard time watching myself, but I felt it went very well. It misses my first few lines so you can read them below in the script.
It took me a few weeks to try to find the right words in order to summarize my perspective on eBooks, but in a sudden late insight it finally yielded to me. And it sounds something like this:
Everything is amazing and no one is happy.
Doesn’t that capture the current state of affairs perfectly? I thought so. (I lifted that line from a Louis CK interview on Conan O’Brien. It’s on YouTube and I highly suggest checking it out.)
Everything *is* amazing. Look at what the computing and communication revolutions have created in the last two decades. We can beam text and pictures across the world in a matter of moments. There are online platforms in which average citizens have come together in ways that can change their worlds, in political revolutions like the Arab Spring and the unvolunteered governmental transparency of Wikileaks. Even as I am talking to you right here and right now in Washington DC, my words are being shared (possibly) across Twitter in real time with people around the country and around the globe. In the span of a few generations, we have moved from telephones with party lines and radio relays to hand-held devices that allow us to contact anyone from nearly anywhere while providing a cornucopia of information at our fingertips. Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on the advances in computing and communication technology that have changed within your lifetime AND to which we now take for granted.
Everything *is* amazing.
And yet, no one is happy when it comes to eBooks. What could possibly be wrong with a product that you don’t have to spend money on to print, gas and transportation for shipping, is the current object of desire for serious bibliophiles and the institutions that serve that demographic, and works on handheld devices that everyone from 4 to 104 can use with arguably relative ease?
Let’s start with librarians since, well, that’s the group I know the best in this equation. We (the royal we) want ebooks but we can’t or won’t get them. I say “can’t” because the majority of the remaining major publishers do not allow for library lending of their ebooks. Full stop. There’s not much of a supply and demand to the situation when the supply is being withheld.
I also say “won’t” not simply because either we are too short staffed and underbudgeted (which are pretty legitimate reasons), but I feel there is a high lazy factor at play here. There is an unfortunate prevailing professional tendency to seek a solution that requires the least amount of work and energy in order to implement; I feel that there is an overwhelming and far too common desire to simply accept solutions and services that work right out of the box. We like to throw money at problems. When that doesn’t work, we try to acquire larger stacks of money because that’s easier than practicing our aim or changing the size of the target.
This must be why there is great confusion as to why money won’t solve the eBook dilemma for libraries. We have it, they want it, so what’s the problem here, right?
It’s not that publishers don’t want library money; they certainly are willing to take it through multiple channels and things such as library editions and other upsales of their wares. No, that’s not the issue here.
Publishers just don’t trust our customer base.
While librarians in theory work to uphold the principles of copyright and not engaging in unauthorized copying (otherwise known by the misnomer of ‘pirating’), we can’t extend a guarantee of such upstanding behavior for our community. When that computer readable DVD or CD goes out our doors, we can’t verify that the patron won’t copy it or rip it into iTunes or otherwise post it online. The publishers hold firm in their belief that, for the price of a library card, the average consumer can gorge themselves on digital content without laying a dime on the retail counter.
Hell, this fear extends into the consumer realm with publishers and authors controlling the ability as to whether an eBook can be lent by a retail customer to another person. Even then, the terms call for a short borrowing period (2 weeks at most) as well as limited ability (one time only, if I recall correctly). Since the consumer only licenses the content, that’s not an overreach but a judicious management of intellectual property… right?
So, what is the common thread here between libraries and the consumer? To me, it looks like the “problem” is sharing.
You know, sharing, right? That thing that is on every status update on Twitter and Facebook and other social media outlets and the widget at the bottom of every online news article and blog post and probably the reason why they created a Forwarding option for email and that marketing through the ages has been encouraging people to do by word of mouth (“tell your friends!”) and not only that it is something practiced as a cultural norm regarding hospitality and continues to exist as an oral tradition (the precursor to print, mind you) and if we concentrate really really hard it is something that probably went ALL THE WAY back to our ancestors sitting around a community fire (or for some of you, the Garden of Eden) sharing ideas, stories, myths, legends, thoughts, and other intellectual and cultural lineages?
Yeah, that’s the sharing I hear about, the truly “dark” underside of the development that comes with being a complex social creature. This is “the horror” that comes from breeding technology and culture together. Ebooks are the resulting child of this union, endowed with all the the traits of this constantly emerging digital world… along with the expectations of the long established and deeply rooted cultural object.
Is that what all this fanfare and turmoil and handwringing and meetings and blog posts and trade articles and “friction” and revenue streams and very serious people making very serious faces *really* about?
And to imagine that I thought there was an actual problem at the heart of the issue of eBooks.
Because here is the undeniable truth of this issue: sharing wins.
Sharing will always win.
First of all, it has a major cultural and social headstart of ten’s of thousands of years. Our delightfully intricate monkey brains are built for it. Our organizations of knowledge are constructed with that in mind. And our current aforementioned increasing complex social platforms are built towards it.
Second, sharing is already happening. It happens when people thwart those lending limitations by registering multiple Kindles or Nooks on one account so they can pass around books they buy with impunity. It happens when websites pop up to facilitate ebook loans between complete strangers. People aren’t waiting for libraries to find a solution to ebook lending, they are making their own. And not just hopping onto bit torrents to do it.
Third, people will fight on this principle alone. What a book has given them in terms of feelings, insights, experience, knowledge, and changed their world is something they will want their friends and families to share in as well. The notions of copyright and intellectual property are quaint and adorable, but really, no one will have an epitaph on their headstone that reads, “He lived a fulfilling life within the strict confines of Title 17”. The inclination to share stories, thoughts, ideas, and concepts is more philosophically compelling than the rules around them.
Good day, sir.
So, what can be done?
Invest in the rights of the reader. Grant people a claim on the eBooks that they purchase. Give them a vested interest. Build a community around it. Show the reader that you value them by giving up rights to them. Don’t hold them at arm’s length. Bring them in to you!
People want to share. Enable it. Hell, monetize it with rewards for lenders who end up generating sales. Every book made available to the hands of a reader is taking a space that would otherwise be filled with a competitor’s book or competing interest. And two weeks? Get rid of time limits. Why put a shot clock on reading? Who cares if a book is lent and doesn’t come back for six months? (Aside from librarians, that is.) And one time lends? Why would you make people choose who they can lend a book to only once? I’m sure that has never led to an argument between family or friends. That’s inane, it’s strangely cruel, and it’s miserly.
To bring all these thoughts and words home, I give you my bottom line:
If you treat a book like a book, people will notice and act accordingly. If you treat a book like a computer file, people will rise to those expectations. No aspiring writer will answer the call to write the next Great American Computer File. While I concede that eBooks possess the vulnerabilities of a digital format, I urge all parties (librarians, authors, publishers) to embrace, nurture, and carry forward the cultural associations of the book into the digital realm. The eBook is greater than the sum of its contents and containers.
Act like it and the world will follow.