Pricing & Lending & Borrowing, Oh My!

I usually tweet these kinds of articles that arrived on my virtual doorstep today, but I really wanted to highlight some things from the three articles that got me thinking today.

First, this one on eBook pricing from Teleread:

Sattersten points out that the main issue at hand is consumer perception of value. Consumers see that everything else digital is cheaper than the physical equivalent, and think e-books vs. books should be the same way. He brings up the example of a print book that’s cheaper than an e-book, explaining “That creates a short circuit in customers’ brains. You don’t pay more for things that are more convenient. You pay less.”

The article points to the importance of another calculation that is going on in the electronic content market equation: that of the consumer. The consumer will make their own evalution to what is worth the asked price and what is not. In the past, when a consumer thought something was overpriced, they would go without or, in the less common alternative, steal it. The bar for pirating digital content is much lower compared to stealing physical content; it’s a few keystrokes and mouse clicks compared to stuffing a CD or book into your clothing. This is not to say that all consumers make the choice to pirate, but when they see something they feel is overpriced, they will look for other ways to get it. The idea is to make the price and effort of getting it legitimately much lower than the same steps to pirating it.

Second, this lovely article on e-lending from Slate:

These restrictions are misguided. They’re bad for readers, they’re bad for authors, they’re bad for e-book stores, and they may even be bad for publishers. Of course, the ways in which our rights get chipped away as we move away from analog content is a constant worry in the digital age. I’m not the first pundit to note how terrible it is that we can no longer share, resell, or modify the books, movies, and video games that we get over the Internet. But the sharing restrictions that publishers have placed on e-books strike me as particularly stringent, a rule that underlines how we’ll mourn physical media when it goes away. Under Amazon’s and Barnes & Noble’s sharing model, you’re allowed to loan out a book just once, for two weeks, and while it’s loaned out, you don’t have access to it. The fact that publishers can’t stomach even this milquetoast model should have us scared for a future in which physical media loses its primacy. (Emphasis mine)

The paragraph below the one quoted has a nice set of links to studies about the secondary market for goods. (Although he duly notes that eBook reselling might not be a terribly viable option to which I currently begrudgingly agree.) But it raises a good point: like Cory Doctorow saying that durability is a feature not a bug, the ability to easily lend material to another is an enhancement, not a net loss. These lending possibilities within friend and family groups that do not share physical proximity creates more audiences for eBooks to reach. Whereas the physical book would have to wait for the next time the family or friends group got together, the eBook does not suffer such limitations. While some may argue that unlimited eBook lending would preclude others from buying the book, I would argue that the current limitations do nothing to expand audience or author market share and other things that generate revenue.

Last, this awesome little article on the emergence of a sharing culture from Time:

[T]he ownership society was rotting from the inside out. Its demise began with Napster. The digitalization of music and the ability to share it made owning CDs superfluous. Then Napsterization spread to nearly all other media, and by 2008 the financial architecture that had been built to support all that ownership — the subprime mortgages and the credit-default swaps — had collapsed on top of us. Ownership hadn’t made the U.S. vital; it had just about ruined the country.

While the common rationale offered for the increase in library usage is the economic recession, I’m wondering if the emergence of people who are happy to borrow over buying is another factor. If so, it represents a possible longer trend to which libraries are perfectly suited for capitalizing on. (Whether and how they would be able to capitalize on it is another matter.)

Although, as I think on the implications of a greater lending oriented society, the role of the library may not be as the entity doing the actual lending but to help others set up such borrowing arrangements. I imagine it as a community based niche ‘collection’ that the library can refer people to while providing management consultation. Personally, I don’t see a problem to encouraging other borrowing arrangements in the community; if someone does see a problem, please point it out to me.

Share your thoughts on what you think about one or all of these articles. There’s a lot of food for thought here!

The Failure of E-Reader Devices, Ctd.

Since my initial post on the subject two and half weeks ago, I have read over the replies that have accumulated across a couple of sites. I’ve appreciated the time that commenters have put into their replies to the post. In reflecting upon the discussions put forth, I can see that major flaw of my post was lumping e-readers and e-book stores together. In separating the two, it creates a pair of much more navigable and manageable issues for the library.

As various replies have correctly pointed out, e-books are already being lent out through libraries by vendors such as Overdrive and Netlibrary. Personally, I’d like to see some of the major e-book dealers (such as Sony and Mobipocket) consider creating lending arrangements with libraries. The additional titles and competition that they would bring would be good for libraries, patrons, and the market. As it stands now, the vendor provided software enables you to read these books on your computer, PDA, or is compatible with a handful of selected e-reader devices. For me, the current issues that dance around e-books are the various levels of permissions that are granted by the publisher and the author when it comes to the transmission of their work. It can be aggravating to show a patron a couple of different e-book choices and then have to go into nitty gritty details as to why one book could be put on a PDA while another cannot. In fact, I’ve had patrons turn down borrowing an e-book since it would not transmit to their iTouch or PDA because they wanted to take the book with them rather than be only allowed to read the book on their personal computer. I would strongly urge e-book lending companies to encourage publishers and authors to allow their materials to be viewed on any device; otherwise, it’s completely useless to the library as a lending material if no one is interested in meeting the requirements.

When it comes to e-readers, it is my fear that we will end up with something that resembles the video game console market. With the Wii, Xbox, and the Playstation, these are a handful of proprietary systems that dominate the market. Wherein the past, a game manufacturer could develop a game that worked on multiple platforms, the current trend is for companies to sign exclusive deals for their product lines. In carrying this over to the e-reader world, it would be the equivalent of James Patterson or Janet Evanovich signing a deal to exclusively publish their e-books through Amazon. The other companies would be snubbed as would any libraries not lending a Kindle (not that you could lend it as it is, but let’s pretend) as would any patrons of those e-reader lending establishments. The expense and hassle of these proprietary devices plus their propriety book formats would create a decision for a library as to whether to collect a single e-reader format or multiple types. Given the nature of budgets this year, my inclination would be the former strategy would be adopted. Overall, under this scenario, libraries and patrons would lose out in terms of access to materials.

It is my fervent hope and desire that the focus of e-reader manufacturers change from proprietary to universal platforms in which a device could read any e-book. But, alas, I think we are a few business and technology cycles away from any sort of movement towards that lofty ideal.

I am still quite serious about getting companies to allow libraries to lend their devices. So, in the hopes of turning words into actions, earlier last week I started to contact the various e-reader device makers about creating a terms of service or other arrangement that would allow libraries to lend their devices. My basic question each appeared like this:

“I have a question that I’d like someone to help me with: why is [name of company] not creating a special Terms of Service for libraries so that we can lend out [their device] with content and not risk a licensing breach?”

Depending on the web form or email, I would copy an excerpt of my post and include a link to the original post. Here’s the rundown of replies thus far:

- Sony was a complete (unsurprising) run around.

From my initial submission:

Thank you for contacting Sony Technical Support.

We appreciate the time you have taken to write us. Your email has been assigned Case ID XXXXXX. An email support agent should reply to your letter within the next 24 hours. Occasionally some inquiries will require additional time.

Thank you for your patience as we strive to provide you with the best service and support possible.

The Sony Online Support Team

Within an hour, I got a reply:

[AndyW],

Thank you for contacting Sony Support.

While we have been working hard to make the Digital Reader the best product on the market today, there is always room for improvement. We look forward to getting this type of customer response on our designs and will do our best to incorporate as many as possible in the future. To submit such requests we have established a dedicated email address. Please send all such comments to: feedback@ebookstore.sony.com

Thanks in advance for your feedback.

Thank you for understanding.

The Sony Email Response Team
C6LD
Paul

So I sent off my initial query to the email address and got back a rather irrelevant reply.

Thank you for your feedback! We read every submission to help us define the future direction of the store.
If your request is for a new title or author to be added, we are working to add new content regularly so please check back often. Also, if you have not already done so, be sure to sign up for our weekly newsletter that highlights new releases and additions and well as promotions and special offers.

To sign-up for our newsletter:
1.      Launch the eBook Library Software.
2.      Click on “My account” at the top and Sign in.
3.      Choose “Update Newsletter Settings” in the “Newsletters and Notifications” section.
4.      Check the newsletters you want to subscribe to.
5.      Click “Submit”.
Thank you again for taking the time to share your comments with us!
Regards,
The eBook Store from Sony

Hello, customer service fail! I’m not really sure where to go from there, since their customer service website is mired with communication pitfalls. I’d love to be able to try to get someone from corporate who could actually give me a real person reply, but I guess I’m relegated to crossing my fingers and hoping they read this post.

- Foxit, the creators of the eSlick reader, had this response:

Dear [AndyW],
Thanks for your email.
I think it is a good suggestion you have sent.
But we have no plan to do this Marketing mode at present.
For now, we are working on reseller program. Our reseller can place order and Foxit will give some discount for them according to the quantity.
Thanks!
2009-06-02
Best Regards,
Nancy
Foxit Software Company
www.foxitsoftware.com

And since I’m not going to be ordering, I guess I don’t have to worry about that reseller discount.

- Amazon wrote back something that made my eternal optimist stir, but it still leads to me to believe that I got the official brush-off already.

Hello,

Thanks for writing about make libraries able to use Kindles and lend them out with out being in breech of the terms of service. I will pass this information on to our Business teams from review.

Strong customer feedback like yours helps us continue to improve the service we provide, and we’re glad you took time to write to us.

Thanks for your interest in Amazon Kindle.

Please let us know if this e-mail resolved your question:

If yes, click [here]:
If not, click [here]:

Please note: this e-mail was sent from an address that cannot accept incoming e-mail.

To contact us about an unrelated issue, please visit the Help section of our web site.

Best regards,

Jonathan R
Amazon.com
We’re Building Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company

The last line drew a wry grin to my face as a sudden dose of irony. I can only really hope that it is not simply a product of the marketing department. I’ve decided to see if I can get an actual phone call from a customer service individual by choosing the “no” option. Here’s hoping.

- I have an outstanding inquiry with Cool-ER which I should follow-up upon in the next week or so. I’m also still tracking down a place to submit an inquiry for the iLiad reader since their website appears to be uniquely obtuse for customer inquires.

I would encourage those who read this and want their libraries to have the ability to lend devices to do their own contacting of the companies involved in the e-reader business. While my persistence might get me eventually to a real live person (the new pinnacle of the customer service experience in the 21st century), it is only through combined action that libraries will see movement in their favor. E-reader use might not be the reality of today, but as the technology generations improve these devices, I feel that it will be in the future of the library. This is the time to work towards better and more open e-book formats compatible with our lending practices as well as devices for people to read them on. We are positioned to share and shape this future and we should not let it get past us. For our future collections, there is too much at stake to watch the businesses that will influence the patron borrowing interests of tomorrow proceed without us as an advisor and partner. We owe it to the future of the library to act now.

Cross posted at LISnews.org

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)