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The Ebook Crisis

One of the big stories in Libraryland last week was Overdrive’s announcement that Penguin had suspended the availability of their ebooks from Overdrive and the “Get for Kindle” function,” followed two days later by the announcement that previously available Penguin ebook titles would be available for checkout, but not any forthcoming ones.

Penguin was probably frightened into submission by the ALA statement made in the interim where the ALA President complained that  “this situation is one more log thrown onto the fire of libraries’ abilities to provide access to books – in this case titles they’ve already purchased.” Then she demanded that “Penguin should restore access for library patrons now.”

When the ALA talks, people listen!

Although according to the Penguin press release published in this Library Journal blog post, that availability might just be to the end of the year, where Penguin announced they would “withhold the supply of new digital titles from suppliers to US libraries until concerns about the security of the copyright of its authors have been resolved.”

I’m assuming concern for “the security of the copyright of its authors” is another way of saying “the fear of ebook piracy.” Penguin is understandably afraid that people can download their ebooks from libraries, then pirate them.

Naturally, librarians are upset that ebooks might disappear from libraries, especially since the library ebook content is so skimpy already, given that Penguin and Random House were the only two of the “big six” publishers to allow unrestricted ebook lending through libraries.

That makes this ALA statement on the matter somewhat problematic: “Penguin Group’s recent action to limit access to new e-book titles to libraries has serious ramifications. The issue for library patrons is loss of access to books, period.  Once again, readers are the losers.”

Given that most of the big publishers don’t want to work with libraries and those that have are working on ways to restrict access even further than the one-checkout-per-title policy does already, I don’t really see the “serious ramifications,” at least for readers. If readers can’t get free access to the supply of popular books Overdrive provides, they won’t exactly be cut off from books.

I’m not even sure libraries are the losers, considering that libraries pay more for ebooks than print books, and don’t even own the titles.

Libraries will be losers when all or most books are available only as ebooks. When that day comes, public libraries as book-lending services will probably become obsolete.

Publishers are worried about themselves becoming losers, and that makes sense. Publishers are worried about piracy, and as long as their ebook model is so radically different from and reader unfriendly compared to the print book model, they should be.

If readers pay for an ebook, they want to own it, and some poor souls probably think they do. They want to be able to loan the book, give it away, or make copies of it just like they could with printed books.

Because of the easy of digital copying, and the ability to give away a book while still owning the copy, publishers are worried. They don’t like it that readers could eat their cake and have it, too.

Thus, all the pointless DRM restrictions publishers put into their ebooks. They’re pointless because they’re ridiculously easy to bypass. Type “remove drm” into Google and watch the suggestions accumulate. “From kindle books” and “from epub” were two of the top three suggested searches.

Librarians were excited when Amazon announced they would offer Kindle books through Overdrive, so Kindle owners could finally check out library ebooks. But mildly tech-savvy Kindle owners could already read Overdrive books on their Kindles, because it’s pretty easy to remove the DRM from other Overdrive formats and convert them to Kindle books, with the added bonus that books “checked out” that way never expire.

Once information is digitized, there isn’t a lot publishers can do about it, which means that they either have to keep most of their books in print or change their publishing model.

Or they could sue people for pirating books, like Wiley is doing against people who allegedly illegally downloaded some of their “Dummies” books via BitTorrent. (No list of titles was provided, but I hope one of them was Wiley’s BitTorrent for Dummies.)

The music industry used to sue a lot of people, too, but it didn’t stop digital music piracy. There are just too many ways around DRM.

The model that seems to make the most sense is the “Netflix for books” model that Amazon wants to introduce and which I opined would doom public libraries. It would be in the publishers best interest if multiple services worked that way rather than just Amazon, and libraries could be a part of that.

Academic libraries have shown they’ll pay just about anything to get access to ejournals their faculties want, and now public libraries are showing they’d pay everything they can to make sure that everyone can get access to the latest bestselling novel. Publishers should learn to exploit this.

The news article about libraries already paying more for ebooks is evidence that public libraries are more concerned about providing easy access to popular fiction than in providing value for dollar. Once publishers understand this, they might be less afraid.

They should all offer ebooks to libraries under an open license, and just gradually drive up the prices year after year. Then in a few years, we could hear a bunch of librarians talking about the “ebook crisis,” just like they do the serials crisis. Only this ebook crisis wouldn’t be the restriction of content, but it’s expense. It’ll show that no matter what publishers do, librarians will complain about it.

It’ll be great for everyone. Publishers will finally have a guaranteed revenue stream for ebooks from libraries and librarians will have something to complain about on blogs and the lecture circuit. It’s a win-win scenario.

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Comments

  1. spencer says:

    I’ve given up. I will ride this handbasket all the way down, but I will not try very hard to reverse the fall.

  2. Heather says:

    Penguin was NOT “the only one of the “big six” publishers to allow unrestricted ebook lending through libraries.” As the article you link to states, Random House still allows such lending, and it is now the only “big six” publisher who does. Please correct your facts.

    [AL: Facts corrected!]

  3. Publishing veteran Joe Esposito published an interesting piece today, What We Should Learn from the Collapse of Borders.

    His points include the rise of digital content, Amazon’s dominance and how rapidly a legacy ecosystem can crumble.

  4. Joe Esposito’s article referenced a BusinessWeek summary of Borders’ collapse, The End of Borders and the Future of Books. I couldn’t help thinking of libraries when I read the opening paragraphs:

    “When there’s a massive transition in an industry, the strong players make it through to the other side [...] What gets caught up in the change are the weaker players.

    For the past decade and a half, Borders seems to have been in the business of making mistakes.”

  5. Joneser says:

    Borders’s BIG mistake was to “outsource” its online business to amazon, unlike Barnes & Noble.

  6. I think the “netflix of books”‘ model will be bad for libraries, but I don’t think it will work too well for anyone trying to pull it off. Lending services will have to compete with each other for rights the same way netflix, hulu, and amazon compete.

    That is one of the reasons why I’m creating a DRM-free ebook lending social network. Learn how it works at ourbookshelf.com