The Failure of E-Book Devices

The failure is not the technology. The capacity to download, store, and recall hundreds if not thousands of books is impressive. The ability to replicate the look of font on paper is incredible. Each generation of e-book devices is rapidly outpacing the previous incarnations with additional features such as internet browser, PDF support, wireless updates, subscription support, and multiple e-book file types. The technology in and of itself is grand and a true marvel of the modern times.

The failure is how the e-book reader companies do not consider libraries as a viable customer.

If you read the FAQs or Terms of Service for Amazon, Sony, Mobipocket, and Ebooks, there is a clear indication that you cannot lend an e-book to anyone. Ok, that’s not entirely true, since Sony indicates that you can lend an eBook to a friend (gasp!) so long as they are an authorized user of your account (Awww!). Sure, you can authorize a friend, but if you are someone who passes around books to all your friends and family, this becomes an onerous exercise in authorizing and de-authorizing just to share a reading gem. Also, it makes the lending of a Sony Reader with eBooks a circulation nightmare for a library under those ‘guidelines’.

Mobipocket stakes dangerous territory by saying that you cannot lend an eBook but you can lend the device. Since they don’t make any readers, this could possibly put them at odds with the companies that do make devices that they support. (I’m sure Cybook and iLiad might beg to differ, but I digress since I can’t find their positions on it.) This makes the use of Mobipocket books a big no-go for libraries. eBooks mentions that it uses robust software to ensure that only the legitimate owner of the eBook can read it. While it does not outright prohibit lending, it sure as hell probably works to stymy it. I smell a terms of use violation buried somewhere in there like a leftover World War II ordinance in a French farm field. Thus, the libraries are usurped once more.

Out of all of these devices and shops, Amazon has the most frustrating position. With the Kindle, there has been much discussion about whether or not you can lend one. The current Amazon stance is the equivalent of a wink and a nod that you could lend one, but it’s against the terms of service. While my first reaction was admiration of shrewdness, it has since evolved into insult. Did Amazon really think that a libraries would not be interested in offering this device to their patrons? Either they are terribly short sighted as to their market or just plain inconsiderate that the well established institution of the library would love to offer a new medium for people to borrow materials.

This simply cannot stand. If this is a product of the electronic industry getting into the publishing business, they need to wake up and smell the pulp. Libraries are not your average customer and we should not be treated as such; for lack of a better analogy, we are the street level dealers to our vast clientele. We deserve to get special treatment.

So, all you e-book reader industry people out there, here’s a couple of ideas for you from this librarian.

(1) Write a terms of service exclusively for libraries. Don’t leave us in this gray legal area where no one is a winner. We won’t want to lend out your product if we feel like we are going to get bit on the ass when you don’t support it or repair it (due to terms of service violations) or suddenly decide to sue the crap out of us for lending them in the first place. Stop ignoring libraries and start embracing us for the information and technology educators that we are.

(2) With your army of lawyers (Amazon, Sony, etc.), write a service contract in which you provide us with devices and materials which we can then lend to patrons. (Leave it to us as to how we make them financially responsible to borrowing the readers; we are better in the lost or damage item debt collection field than you are.) For example, a contract that gives us a reader, you stock it with the top 10 or 25 or whatever bestsellers that month, we lend it out, you update it as the month goes on, we send you back the device every year or so (which you can resell as used or refurbished or whatever) for the latest generation, and throw in a service/repair contract on top of that. Make it work so that we can put your devices on our shelves with materials that people will want and we will take care of the rest.

(3) Profit. You profit both literally and through increased exposure for your product to the public who might not otherwise be interested in your e-book reader. We profit with increased patronage, circulation numbers, and overall system usage statistics. It is a win-win-win for us, you, and our patrons. You can’t beat that result, not even with a stick.

We are in the intellectual enhancement business, no matter the medium. Libraries are the allies of the e-book reader devices. Start treating us like it.

Cross posted to LISNews.org

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)