The Ever Increasing Disappointment with eBooks

I’ve been wrestling with what to write about eBooks on the basis of the latest library eBook fiasco with Penguin Publishing. The more I think about it, the larger the enormity and complexity of the eBook issue grows. The word that keeps resonating in my head is ‘disappointment’, but possibly not for the reasons you might think.

When it comes to eBooks and publishers, I have to be quite frank: I really don’t give a shit whether they lend eBooks to libraries or not. I will come out and say that I prefer that they wouldn’t allow for library eBook lending simply because it will spare the profession the aches and pains of buying, pardon me, licensing content under terms that provide a very limited benefit to the library or the community served. I get it that licensing is the only way publishers feel comfortable with the arrangement since it ensures ultimate control over content. With an industry that is in flux, publishers want to protect their revenue streams and that the current leading strategy is to building a fortress around intellectual property. Even then, that’s not what bothers me about publishers and eBooks.

What irks me is when publishers continue to use language in their publicity and marketing about how they “value” or even “love” libraries. If this is how they treat an institution that they profess to value or love, then I think they need to check their working definitions of those terms. The love here sounds like the tactics of an unstable ex-flame who wants to get us into bed but won’t respect us in the morning. I can’t say that I speak for the majority of librarians, but I’m willing to guess that they don’t feel like a partner in this eBook issue nor do they feel valued or loved by the publishing companies. At best, this arrangement could be called shabby treatment; at worst it is marketing lip service to cover the veneer of contempt for librarian values that utilize the First Sale Doctrine and believe in the sharing version of the common good. I would call upon publishing companies to stop with these platitudes and start putting actions and policies that support these statement of support for the library as an institution.

As disappointed as I am with publishing companies, I have my own disappointment with my peers. We can’t be churning up a shitstorm every time a company makes a change when it comes to eBooks. We ceded that control when we signed on the line for the Overdrive contracts. Nor can we act surprised when a company makes a change after all of the articles and blog posts that tell us that the publishing industry is changing and shrinking in the last few years. They are trying to save themselves, so don’t act surprised when they do something dramatic.

It’s not like we can actually do anything about these policy changes or stances, either. Not because the publishing companies will resist our efforts, but that our own internal professional dysfunction will ensure that any action is mired with doubt and confusion. Suggest a boycott? Bring on the parade of people proclaiming how much it will hurt our communities. This swallow-our-pain-for-the-happiness-of-our-family bunch will bog down any boycott debates with references to the apparently inflexible librarian values such as access and availability (even if it means giving away our future). Those not on the parade will state how ineffective or misdirected a boycott is, as if the idea of showing power through economic embargoes is only for third world countries with crappy dictators. Start a petition? The ineffective/misdirected argument returns with a new spin as to not reaching the right people. In addition, the “I have trouble with the wording” people will arise from their linguistic crypts to suggest how the petition could be better (translation: for them to sign it) if there were a few major minor changes made.

Create a committee, task force, or delegation? We all know that the trouble with groups is that they are full of people and for librarians there will be grand discussions as to who should be on them with proper representation of every library type, variety, and size under the sun. Enter the pundits and blogosphere to provide the commentary as to this process, its results, and its goals. Nothing appears to get done but resume building, organization clout creation, and a reason to write a book on the topic. Walk away completely? Sure, it’s a bad deal but that’s nothing compared to the “bad librarian” guilt that is created whenever a item or service isn’t offered. We want Mrs. Smith to be able to download a book onto their Kindle (a transitional technology platform, by the way) even if it at the potential cost and risk of the library as an institution. Because our instant gratification culture has taught us that the important point in time is now, not ten or twenty years from now when licensing practices will have eroded away our ideals of culture cultivation and preservation. No, we’ll sail for the center of this storm, even if it costs us the ship.

I could go on, but I’m starting to take morbid delight in detailing these things.

In looking ahead, there has to be a number of get-your-shit-together moments. From publishers, it will have to be over how much risk they can accept when it comes to their digital properties. Until then, we will be at the mercy of their whims. For librarians, it will be about the actual cost of access and availability of eBooks. We can’t trade our dollars and principles for materials that do not match our institutional values. There will be some more dustups, more drama, and more blowups between publishers and librarians. I know we’ll get through it, but I’m not optimistic about how that might look in five or ten years from now. In the meantime, I just ready myself to be disappointed. 

Is the Academic Publishing Ecosystem Unbalanced?

The world of academic publishing has got to be a case study in scholarly symbiotic relationships waiting to happen. (Or, for the cynical, a study on parasitic relationships.)

On the one hand, you have the faculty who need to get published in order to maintain their steady progress through the tenure process (for those lucky enough to get tenure, but that’s another story). In writing their papers, they need to have access to other scholarly work in order to support/contrast/argue against so as to build upon established and accepted works. The faculty rely on the library to procure these sources, whether through subscription (most likely) or article requests (a different sort of expense from my understanding). The faculty get their sources, write their papers, and get them published in whatever journal they can get accepted to.

On the other hand, you have the journal providers. They have gone out and made the deals necessary to be the owners or distributors for these journals. These providers want to put their subscriptions into the hands of the greatest number of institutions for both basic revenue reasons and the idea of building a scholarly following. (I might just be engaged in wishful thinking, but I would imagine that part of their mindset would be something like this.) The more subscribers they have, the greater chance that their papers will be cited, the more citations means that there will be a greater demand for that journal as time goes by, therefore the more potential future subscriptions could result. Their relationship with the library is crucial to getting the information and data into the hands of the faculty.

Does it sound right so far? Faculty need the journals for both research and publishing for advancement; the journals need people to submit papers, subscribe to their content, and increase the academic reputation of their holdings. Everyone gets something out of it so everyone is happy; it’s a (relatively) balanced scholarly ecosystem.

Unless, like any real ecosystem, you change one of the variables. Like raising subscription prices. Or making exclusive deals. Or restricting or limiting access. Or writing licensing agreements that are not research friendly. There are possibly a few things that I’m missing that my readers will be happy to point out, but you get the drift.

It is hardly a surprise that there is a movement towards open access; it’s a natural reaction towards a change in the scholarly environment. Because when “you have to have it” meets “we can’t afford it” or “it’s unreasonable to get it”, something has to give.

I’m going to be following this closely since it creates a remarkable dilemma. Will it create a slowing effect on the pace of academic research, thus depriving these journals of the quantity and quality of papers they need to continue? Will faculty seek alternatives that defy the traditional scholarly order and looks towards open access or shared research consortiums? How much can either side afford to give in order to continue their respective work?

I look forward to any comments or insights on this one. Because from my vantage point on the outside, it doesn’t look like a healthy environment.


I want to acknowledge these posts since inspired me to write this little ditty:

Meredith Farkas, Faculty inertia and change in scholarly publishing

Barbara Fister, Breaking News: Academic Journals are Really Expensive!

If you don’t subscribe to them in your respective reader, you really should.

Publishing and The Domino Project

This quote from the Social Media Examiner interview of Seth Godin got my brain working:

The Domino Project is trying to make ideas easier to spread. I think books are important and book publishers are basically trying to kill books. They’re making them too expensive, too long, too slow, too hard to spread and too hard to find. So the public is just ignoring them and moving on to the next thing. (Emphasis mine.)

To be fair, The Domino Project is Mr. Godin’s foray into publishing by experimenting with a new system of connecting authors to readers. The first book from the project, Poke the Box (written by Mr. Godin himself), is a self described manifesto on self-starting. He has taken a new approach to spreading ideas by creating packages for people to buy and share books with others. I have not read more than the preview chapter of the book on Amazon; it certainly looks like the kick in the ass that I could use. But my mind keeps coming back to that highlighted sentence and a question.

Is the publishing system itself broken?

Perhaps broken is too harsh a term. Antiquated is maybe a better term.  What has changed in the publishing process leading up to the point of sale (or in this case, license)? The new licensing arrangement is mentioned as a revenue stream, but is it supporting an old and inferior system? Could the HarperCollins’ 26 eBook checkout limit idea be akin putting giant chrome rims on a jalopy?

In applying Mr. Godin’s objections to publishers to the HarperCollins situation, is complying with the “Pretend Its Print” model (too slow, too hard to spread) and making it harder for people to borrow books (too long a wait) just a waste of the library’s money (too expensive)?

If so, then why are we doing it?

If not, then what are the limits of external control over your collection? How many conditions should material be subject to that originate from outside the policies and practices of the library?

Last year, Mr. Godin challenged us on the future of the library.

This year, HarperCollins is challenging the future of the library through its new licensing idea.

Perhaps we can challenge the librarian profession to work towards a whole new concept as to what a collection really means now.

This could be our self starter.

(h/t: Library Link of the Day)

An Open Letter to Publishers

Considering how “many months” Josh Marwell states that HarperCollins has been looking at the eBook issues in his Open Letter to Librarians, the first reply to the whole HarperCollins/Overdrive/26 circulations meltdown is remarkably short on details or assurances of recognition for the issues raised by librarians. For a publisher to explicitly solicit feedback and then carefully restate their case for why they are changing their pricing model means they either don’t care or they don’t get it. Rather than give in to cynicism, I’m opting for the latter since libraries have rapidly changed in the last ten years (just like the last time they visited their pricing model). Perhaps it is time for an update.

Within that time period (well, starting before that, but I digress), libraries have moved from information gatekeepers to information gateways. Libraries have lost the monopoly on knowledge content to the information/communication revolution and have shifted to the role of being an access provider. The key word in that sentence is access. It is now our institutional everything.  We facilitate access to literature and information resources to the communities that we serve, whether it is the local grade school, university faculty, or little old grandmothers.

What this new pricing model does is threaten that access arrangement. And for all the things that you can do to libraries and/or librarians, the last thing you want to do is screw with access. It’s one of those things that librarians have incorporated into the Library Bill of Rights. It’s also one of those things that librarians want to keep as a binary answer (“Yes, we have that” and “No, we don’t have that”) rather than make it a nebulous one (“Well, we might have access to that when your turn comes up but only if we decide to renew the license which is dependent on a number of contingencies…”) Access is one of the core values that librarians will fight to the death for. This “26 and done” idea goes against it completely which is one of the major underlying reasons for the uproar that this has created.

You get the point.

Also, I’d like to highlight this other point as written by Karen Schneider:

But libraries are only partly about the here-and-now. We’re also about preserving the cultural record. We cannot preserve ephemerally-licensed “content” that can be wrenched from us at the discretion of giant corporations. Right now, it appears the only safe technology for the cultural record, in terms of traditionally-published books, is the dead-tree format. I am not being technologically-backward to say that; I’m being culturally forward.

This is why perpetuity (a term that was thrown casually out there) of the eBook is important. It’s about maintaining the cultural timeline. Today’s literature will be the seeds of inspiration for tomorrow’s great works of fiction and prose. Libraries are not interested in keeping eBooks forever because we like collecting items, but because it matters in the long term. So, don’t take perpetuity off the table here as an eBook option. It has value far beyond the bits and bytes of the format it is stored in. And that’s something libraries treasure more than transitional formats.

Unlike the Open Letter to Librarians, I am not without an alternate solution for revenue paths. While permanent copies need to remain on the table as per the relatively unspoken “Pretend It’s Print” model, the flexibility of the format and the market makes for some other possibilities. My suggestion would be to offer eBooks that expire after a pre-determined number of checkouts but that those checkouts are not limited by the Pretend It’s Print ‘one copy, one customer at a time’ condition. Meaning, if a library bought a limited license that allowed for fifty checkouts, those fifty checkouts could happen in the first month, the first week, or even the first day. But once they are gone, that’s it.

It’s the equivalent of an eBook rental, the same strategy that libraries do for print books that are in high initial demand. You get to set the price for a set number of checkouts or (since we are in an age of technology and wonder) let the library set the number of checkouts and base the price off of that. You get to sell more eBook equivalents on the front end of a book release and libraries get to play Oprah (“You get an eBook! You get an eBook! Everyone gets to borrow an eBook!” etc.). More importantly, it puts an eBook into the hands of a person who clearly (1) reads, (2) has disposable income to purchase more eBooks (since they can afford the device in the first place) and (3) is timely when a book is new, hot, and riding the hype. If the person likes it, they will either buy it for themselves and possibly starting buying that person’s backlist. I’m sure your sales people can get creative in making bundles of your so called perpetuity books and offering a certain number of these limited licenses to go with it. (Because librarians can’t turn down a bargain.)

If any publisher uses this, I fully expect to get an invitation to one of these mythical librarian advisory boards I’ve heard about.

To HarperCollins, don’t use the time that librarians are investing to tell you what’s on our minds through blogs posts and emails to just be thinking about that next thing you are going to say. There is a reason that this has invoked a rare moment of professional unity. This is a public relations moment that you can rise with; don’t squander it with vague platitudes about the importance of authors and librarians. Tell us how this helps us, you, and all the people that will be influenced by this decision.

This is the beginning of a conversation, not the midpoint of a shouting match.

The Rise of Self Publishing?

From Publishing Perspectives:

My prediction for 2011: Everyone Becomes a Publisher. Literally. Whether it’s bloggers turning their posts into books with Blurb, or going the whole DIY route, self-publishing will become an increasingly attractive option for greater numbers of writers, be they casual or professional. Not so fast. If the growth numbers hold steady, I expect Bowker to announce before BookExpo America that nearly a million new titles were published in the United States alone this year – of which it’s likely more than half were self-published. If you’re looking for a top trend for 2011, a further explosion of self-published books, either in print or digital, is likely to be it. Of course, point-and-click book publishing might never truly make an author happy –publishing is, after all, collaborative — and the question remains of whether the audience is there to buy and read so many of these new titles.

That passage is part of a post asking various industry figures what the biggest thing in publishing was in 2010 and what they predict for 2011. For libraryland, it begs the question: in the age of self publishing, how many of those kind of books become part of the collection? Will the current trade publications start reviewing them? Or will it be left to book bloggers to take up some of the load? Or will no one read them unless they happen to catch on?

Out of the three scenarios, I would predict their likelihood in the reverse order they were asked. There are smaller issues like how to deal with people who want to donate their self-published ebook (since it takes up no physical space except for that of a hard drive) and whether self published books or ebooks could become their own group within the overall collection*. And if a library was to accept self-published works on a larger scale, what kind of quality control goes into separating well written material from the (for lack of a better term) bad stuff. It would appear that, while the number of purchases of physical books is going down, the overall number of books coming to the library is going up. Not something I think people would have even considered five years ago, for certain.

It is worth taking a look at the publisher’s thoughts and predictions. There are considerable mentions of tablet computers, ebooks, the aforementioned self-publishing, and learning to thrive in a new business model and consumer expectation environment. It’s certainly worth the short read.

(*If anyone is wondering what that faint repetitive schnick sound is, my guess is that it is Liz Burns sharpening her shiv and getting ready to skewer this topic.)

Best Book Prognostication EVER

From Terribleminds:

You know what the future of publishing is? The book. The motherfucking book. With pages and words and shit. And no, I don’t mean the e-book. I mean the kind of book that you can use to pound a nail, hit a bear, break a window. The physical object.

The book is never going away.

The book is an icon. The book is a treasured object. It is equal parts totem, fetish, decoration, and hand-me-down. It is a container of permanent wisdom and knowledge (or, in the case of some books, a container of permanent bullshit, but hey, that can be just as awesome).

I said it before and I’ll say it again: the fact that anybody still wants to burn a book shows you how powerful the physical object is, both as itself and as a symbol.

Books are magic. Books are love. Books are infinity times two.

I’m not saying the audiences won’t shrink. I’m not suggesting that publishing won’t be changing its models. I’m not saying that publishing books will remain the most stable industry.

But the book, she ain’t going nowhere. Because the book is a thing. I don’t mean “thing as physical object,” I mean, “thing as thing, as cultural bulwark, as obelisk and idol.”

I was introduced to author Chuck Wendig by my brother who has written some guest posts for his blog. Remarkably insightful and delightfully profane, Mr. Wendig rarely disappoints in his posts about life as a writer, the writing process, and the rollercoaster that is the life of a freelancer. In taking on the current constant hand wringing regarding the future of the book and the e-book, he serves a fresh reminder as to the place of the book in regards to culture and society, both as a physical object and as a container for the contents within. It’s probably one of the best takes I’ve read on the future of books and not just because I was giggling through most of it.

If your work filters can tolerate it, go and read the whole thing right now. Bask in the unholy glory of one author’s take on the future of publishing.

Ebook Anger: Not Just for Librarians Anymore

From Teleread:

I am sick of the price fixing. I am sick of the head-in-sand burying. I am sick of publishers or agents or authors or whomever the actual decision-makers-without-clues are who are mucking up what should be a simple money-for-product transaction by continuing to operate on what my father calls the finest business model ever set up by 17th century Big Business. Enough! I am no longer dialoguing with you on this. My decision? I figure it will take you maybe two to three years to come to your senses, and while I am waiting, I am opting out of this whole thing.

Go over and read the whole thing. It’s an interesting perspective from the vantage point of a heavy reader and their device. To my eyes, it seems like the Amazon price point of $10 has become some people’s bar of measurement in terms of purchasing ebooks. This is not new since Kindle readers from the early days of the device have railed against any books over $10.  But, going forward, it presents an obstacle for publishers as they seek a better price point for different bodies of work in which larger expenditures of money have been invested.

One of the other things I noticed is the lack of complaint regarding ebook lending and DRM. While it may not be an issue for this person the same way that it is for some librarians, the fact that it is not on the laundry list of issue is worthy of note. It could be that it is not something people consider to be an issue since they have come to other understandings about what they can do with a physical book versus what they can do with an ebook. I’d actually like to ask this person about that, so I might leave a comment over there.

What are your thoughts on this open letter?