In my last column I discussed the various problems that I have with ebooks for academic libraries. Now I’d like to lay out what I want from library ebooks and what it would take for me to switch from print to electronic as the preferred format for books.
Different librarians have different motivations for buying library ebooks. Some want to conserve space in the stacks. Some want to purchase only the books library users immediately want. My motivation to buy (or license) library ebooks is a user request. I’m interested in whatever is best for both libraries and library users, and spending a significant proportion of my budget for hobbled technology isn’t particularly good for either one. So here’s what it would take for me to switch my preference to ebooks over print titles. The changes would have to be pretty much industrywide for me to make the big move.
Unlimited access should be a no-brainer, but publishers keep selling single-use licenses to ebooks and librarians keep paying for them, so obviously it’s not. The main advantage of ebooks over print books for library users is accessibility. They might take up less room in the stacks, and a PDA (patron-driven acquisition) ebook plan might save the library some money, but neither of those goals has anything to do with providing the best experience for library users. If accessibility is the main advantage, then limiting that accessibility makes things worse for library users than they need to be. A print book is limited to a single person because it’s a physical object that’s not easily reproducible. An ebook is limited to a one individual because someone deliberately restricted access. Without a specific user request, I won’t buy ebooks with unnecessary usage restrictions, and sometimes I won’t buy one even with a request.
This one is similar to unlimited access. Unless specifically requested, I refuse to pay money to have access restricted in order to protect sales or copyright or whatever it is scholarly publishers think they are protecting by not allowing DRM-free downloads. Not everyone is going to be reading online. Some scholars are going to want to save relevant books and book chapters the same way they save articles. Entire services such as Zotero are designed to save works with their citations for ease of use. Ebooks technically can be saved the same way for the same purpose, and if that’s not available, then once again it’s an unnecessary hindrance to library users. iTunes and Amazon now sell DRM-free songs, and the music industry hasn’t collapsed. There’s nothing to fear.
Ebooks must be available for lending through interlibrary loan (ILL). Many publishers already allow this, and the missing feature is an apparatus for doing so. There are traditional channels for sending PDFs, but on this topic I do appreciate why publishers would be wary. Theoretically, one library could purchase an ebook and just send multiple copies to other libraries that have no intention of buying the book regardless of the use. I wouldn’t support DRM, but some sort of ILL/PDA option might work well. If a library borrows an ebook through ILL a couple of times, then the ILL transaction turns into a purchase. That would have to be built into publisher platforms to work, but if possible it would be a way to protect ILL while encouraging sales.
Some publishers have great ebook platforms—Springer, for example—but it’s impossible to purchase single titles on those platforms. As a subject selector, I’m not interested in investing most or all of my budget in the entire package of a particular publisher’s ebooks. Although I have relatively generous funding for my areas, those funds are still limited, and I have to go with the option that gives me the most freedom of choice in the books I select. When we add in the other requirements such as unlimited access and DRM-free downloads, then my choice among ebooks is severely restricted. Even publishers that have good platforms will often sell individual titles only through third-party vendors with such restrictions. I had a request for a Springer ebook. My choice was a third-party vendor with a single-user license or buying an ebook package from Springer for $13,000. Thanks, but no thanks.
By reasonable, I mean for both libraries and publishers. Amazon has inadvertently fostered the myth that because there’s no printing or physical distribution, book prices should be extremely low, but printing and distribution are a relatively small part of the cost of producing a book. The hardcover price of the book could be a minimum starting point for library ebooks. Some prices are just outrageous, though. I had a request to purchase an ebook from Oxford University Press. The book was published in 2004, and we already had a print copy. OUP offered to sell me an unlimited license for the ebook for $525. If that didn’t work for me, I could instead purchase a backfile containing the book for only $13,000. Again, thanks, but no thanks.
The good news is that there are publishers and platforms that meet some or most of these criteria. The industry is obviously in transition, and I’m hoping it moves completely in this direction. However, until I have the same benefits I have with print books plus the benefits of ebooks, I won’t switch to ebooks as my first preference. For me, ebooks continue to be a nice add-on until such time as the industry standards improve, or I absolutely can’t buy print books anymore. I have to make a default choice between print and electronic for the majority of the books, and as long as publishers are deliberately restricting the capacity of ebook technology, I’ll still choose print as the default option.