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More Developments on Ebooks and Libraries

I've been meaning to write about the recent news in the libraries lending ebooks debacle, but I'm just now getting around to writing my thoughts out, so apologies if my links are a bit outdated.

One of the great things to come out of ALA Midwinter this year was the plan to schedule meetings with the Big Six publishers to discuss the relationship between libraries and publishers when it comes to ebooks. ALA was successful in scheduling meetings with five major publishers, and while all the problems of libraries lending ebooks were not solved at these meetings, I can agree with ALA President Molly Raphael's general assessment that a lot of good information was shared on both sides and that everyone came away with a better understanding of the big picture than they had before and an ongoing dialogue had been opened.

One of the main problems identified in the meetings that surprised me (but probably shouldn't have) is that intermediaries like Overdrive have now became the socially acceptable bad guys. Publishers claim that if they can create a lending model that works for everyone (a not insignificant "if"), they're fine with libraries lending ebooks to their patrons for free, but in general they do not like that these loans have to go through a third party like Overdrive, especially when the 3rd party gives all control of Kindle ebook lending to Amazon instead of libraries (as Overdrive has done). Penguin has gone so far as to suspend any new lending of titles through Overdrive until this issue is ironed out.

Mostly I'm frustrated because so much of the language of this fight, especially on the issue of intermediaries, feels like libraries are playing the victim yet again. "The big scary capitalists won't let us poor little libraries lend ebooks to our patrons and we don't know how to offer them a plan they'll agree to because we don't know how to structure a deal in terms of profits." And then there's the fact that Overdrive is nobody's ideal solution, but since we in the Libraryland tend to just put up with inferior technology solutions, we don't have an answer there either.

Clearly, though, we should be advocating for better alternative to Overdrive. 3M seems the most likely to become a legitimate competitor to Overdrive, and at least some folks seem to like their model better. Until we get some competition in library ebook intermediaries or ebook delivery models, though, publishers can continue to use Overdrive as the scapegoat for why they won't lend to libraries.

While Penguin singled out Overdrive as their problem, other publishers focused on different issues. Random House decided that their problem was the seemingly endless life of an ebook, meaning that libraries only had to buy one digital copy to last forever, instead of replacing paper copies of popular books as they wore out or were damaged. So they are planning to raise the price of ebooks offered to wholesalers that provide ebooks to libraries.

Because they already do this for audiobooks I'm theoretically okay with this practice (but not thrilled). Once Random House reveals how much higher these prices are going to be, I may change my mind. But it does make sense that for current popular titles where we will be getting many, many more uses out of an ebook than the average consumer or from a paper copy bought at the same time, we shouldn't be surprised to pay more for that digital copy.

Another main theme that came through from these talks that I am more nervous about is publishers' worries about the lack of "friction" in library ebook lending. They worry that it's currently too easy to borrow books from libraries, which is why many publishers only offer their backlist titles for lending. They're afraid that if people can read a book for free from the library, then they won't buy it. Publishers seem to have gotten over this when it comes to paper books, so I'm a little frustrated that they refuse to look at ebooks in a similar fashion.

While patrons can rent an ebook from the comfort of their own home, they have to drive to the library to pick up and return a paper book, but the hassle of downloading the proper software, logging in to your local library's ebook collection and finding a title that's actually available to check out today is not exactly "frictionless".

In fact, there's increasing evidence that patrons are switching back to paper books because libraries are unable to keep up with patron demand for ebooks, causing endless waits and headaches for our ebook reading customers. Studies are also starting to come out showing that our ebook borrowing patrons tend to buy more books than our paper book borrowing patrons. Right now at least, ebook reading is still fairly niche and only devoted readers are doing it, the kind of readers who generally tend to buy more books, apparently. Shouldn't publishers be offering the services their best customers want?

Really, though, it seems like the main problem is that every publisher has their own hot button issue and rather than offering books to libraries and trying to work through the messy process of finding the solution that works best for everyone, many have decided to just avoid this market segment entirely until the dust settles.

Personally I think this is a ridiculous business move, but in a country where the motion picture industry is trying to pass laws like SOPA and PIPA instead of investing in easy-to-use legal means of selling or lending their downloadable content online, I guess it's not surprising that the publishing industry is following their example. The thing neither industry seems to understand, though, is that the internet isn't going anywhere, and the demand for their content to be easily accessible online is only going to increase. Sticking their heads in the sand and hoping this internet fad is going to pass only means that illegal means of distributing their content  will continue to expand and flourish.

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