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!