Three years ago, I wrote here that “libraries are so valuable that they attract voracious new competition with every technological advance” (see “Libraries, Ebooks, and Competition,” LJ 8/10, p. 22–23). At the time, I was thinking about Google, Apple, Amazon, and Wikipedia as the gluttonous innovators aiming to be hired for the jobs that libraries had been doing. I imagined Facebook and Twitter to be the sort of competitors most likely to be attracted by the flame of library value. But it’s the new guys that surprise you. To review the last three years of change in the library world, I’d like to focus on some of the start-ups that have newly occupied digital niches in the reading ecosystem. It’s these competitors that libraries will need to understand and integrate with to remain relevant. In order of maturity, from already exploded to just emerging:
Reading Ecosystem Job: Find Out What Friends Are Reading
Success Tactic: Fill Everyone’s Inbox
GoodReads may be at the top of its success arc, having just been acquired by Amazon, but its growth over the past three years has been astounding. Libraries often talk about how they build communities of readers and expose readers to new books, but GoodReads has done that and a whole lot more. As much as I find the emails annoying, I just can’t resist finding out what people are reading, and the audience that GoodReads has attracted means that the discussions and groups there are populated with real people. Libraries now need to figure out how to leverage the infrastructure and virtual communities of GoodReads, and its less-annoying competitor LibraryThing, while still retaining the connections to their real-world communities.
Reading Ecosystem Job: Make Everyone an Author and a Reader
Success Tactic: Appeal to Teenage Girls
Internet consumer start-ups obsess over “engagement,” measured by the amount of time a typical user spends on a service. Wattpad’s engagement numbers are off the charts, and the amount of content its users have contributed is staggering. Wattpad reports that its writing community contributes over ten million stories per month, and has contributed over 4.7 million in the fan fiction genre alone. Users are spending over three billion minutes on the service per month. That’s roughly equivalent to the total usage of all the public libraries in the United States. If you don’t think that Wattpad is taking users away from libraries, consider that “Library Love” by kpgcatlover features heroine “Dewey Decimal Daniels” and has been read 286,000 times on Wattpad.
Reading Ecosystem Job: Provide A Comfy Place To Read Ebooks
Success Tactic: Just Let People Read
The famous diagram showing the 17 “simple” steps needed to get an ebook from a library could have been Readmill’s 16-step business plan. The company does a great job of providing a cross-platform cross-vendor open ebook reading environment with all the affordances needed by a serious or casual reader and none of the barriers. The library needs to figure out how to get readers out of Kindle, iBooks, and other closed environments and into Readmill.
Reading Ecosystem Job: License Content to Educators
Success Tactic: Gather All the Stuff
With MOOC innovators such as Coursera, edX, Udacity, and Khan Academy threatening to remake the world of higher education, you’re probably wondering: Where are those students going to get their digital reading material? If you guessed “the library,” try again. Just emerging from the Stanford University start-up umbrella is SIPX, which is building a huge academic content licensing database that’s poised to be the key marketplace connecting publishers to course developers.
Competitor: Zola Books
Reading Ecosystem Job: Find Me a Book Curator
Success Tactic: Give Hope to Indie Bookstores
If Amazon is the A of ebookstores, Zola is the Z. Since Google Books dropped its bookseller program, small bookstores have flailed for another way to survive the Amazon onslaught. Zola may be their last hope. The ABC’s of Zola start with connecting people to authors, booksellers, and curators; publishers and friends are also important. There’s an obvious slot for libraries and their experience with readers’ advisory to fit in to the Zola environment; time will tell if this mix of commerce and culture will work for libraries, too.
One thing you can be sure of, in three years there will be still another set of new companies taking advantage of new technologies to do some of the jobs that libraries are doing. And libraries will be responding to needs and filling roles that don’t exist today.
And, yes, I’m hard at work on the second version of unglue.it, aimed at “ungluing” a lot more books in partnership with libraries. I hope you’ll read about it in LJ real soon now!