I’ve written and re-written this blog several times in trying to convey the state of libraries, publishers and e-books in the United States. Often my goal in writing has been to avoid using the word butthead. Other times it has drifted into rant wondering how publishers can be so confused about the technology that is actually involved instead of the imaginary one that keeps being referenced. Other times it has focused on the issues of non-ownership and that you’re buying licensing as opposed to ownership. Other versions focused on the difference between techies and readers and how the shift from the techies to mainstream readers changed the situation.
Let’s just agree that the state of e-books is complex and changing quickly. When you add libraries to the mix, the issue becomes more complex.
Now, I know you’re thinking, “Why should libraries complicate this? Libraries buy and lend physical books. Public libraries in the U.S. have been doing this for over 100 years. Plus, they buy specific formats of things, like compact discs, dvds, and they’ve been providing access to databases since the ‘90s. They have digital subscriptions to serials in addition to databases. This should be right up their alley.” Let me give you a tip: Stop thinking when it comes to this issue. Thinking will just make your head hurt and frustrate you. (I don’t think that’s just me projecting but Tina, as always, will let me know if I am wrong.)
I’m going to hit a few of the current issues that public libraries have to consider to be able to provide e-books for the public.
1. Libraries need a way to track checkouts for e-books, a way to track how many “copies” of a title are checked out, and how to “return” a digital book. It is not the library’s intent to allow patrons to keep digital books or cheat authors or publishers. There are companies that provide this service for a fee. One of the best known services is offered by a company called Overdrive. It lines up titles from publishers, has a system to add onto the library’s existing integrated library system, a way to allow patron holds, a way to track simultaneous usages/checkouts of digital copies related to the title, and a way to track the digital returns to allow the digital copy to circulate again. (With digital copies, libraries still have to decide how many “copies” it wants for its system. So maybe it gets 10 digital copies for the newest , hot title. This means 10 people can checkout the digital title at one time. )
But this isn’t as simple as it sounds. One of the hot topics in the public library community and among public library users in the state of Kansas is that Overdrive isn’t an option for most. (Kansas has a very strong state library. Most public libraries in Kansas depend on the state library to negotiate rates and contracts for all public libraries in Kansas to use. That makes sense for a lot of reasons. The State Librarian of Kansas looked at the new Overdrive contract, noticed that the fees were increasing by 700% from 2012 through 2014 and said, “I don’t think so.” The state consortium pulled out of using Overdrive. (Some public libraries in Kansas opted to sign individual contracts with the company.)
2. Different formats for digital books.
Until late 2011, you could not checkout a digital book from a library on a Kindle. This was because Amazon saw itself in the book selling business and not the book lending business but when it got consistent feedback that some new, potential users were going with the Nook because you could use the Nook to checkout library books, it figured it needed to expand into libraries and solidify its digital format for the long term.
Not all digital books are available in Kindle format. So when one is looking at a public library and which digital books are available, you have to see which formats are available and how it works with your device.
Just because a title is listed as being an e-book in your library does not mean that your device can read it.
If this were 1983, it would be as if public libraries were buying copies of movies in Beta and VHS and waiting to see which one would win. Very few libraries were buying Beta and VHS. They waited to see which would “win.” Right now, nothing is winning. On the other hand, libraries didn’t have to think about VHS and Beta producers coming to the library and taking the tapes after x number of checkouts but that’s also an issue when libraries are licensing certain titles. These titles can only circulate x number of times and then must be repurchased. I’ll be dropping this topic now because the facial tick has returned and that’s always a sign I’m getting too worked up.
3. Creating a system to meet library needs in house.
Sigh. This is an issue. Douglas County Public Library in Colorado is creating its own in house system that will allow it to purchase titles, store them, and allow for checkouts/holds/returns. In addition, it also has access to different digital systems, including Overdrive. And you might be thinking, “Why aren’t more libraries doing this?” Part is money and part is commitment. The library has to have enough money to hire people to create this system, work out the kinks (because all new technology is going to have kinks) and be committed to providing this type of in-house service. When a library district makes this type of commitment, it’s not just to the equipment or the salaries, it’s also committing to keeping current with all issues involving e-books and formats and purchasing and licensing. Remember all my words concerning tight library budgets? When a library makes this type of commitment, it’s majored main chunk of change. The community has to be behind what the library is doing and the library has to be thinking long term.
A lot of libraries are looking at what Douglas County is doing and learning so they can decide if they want to try to follow in Douglas County’s footsteps or if it’s cheaper to pay an outside company, like Overdrive, to stay on top of things.
4. Major publishers.
Honestly, Darlings, I wish someone in each publishing house in New York would go down to the street, wait for the first 25 year old talking on a smartphone to walk past, grab that person, pull the individual into the publishing house and get the smartphone user to explain how e-books do and do not work. Once the publishers grasp that concept, they need to repeat the process of grabbing a smartphone user off the street so this person can explain why e-books are not like digital music in 1999 and that Napster no longer exists and there was never an e-book equivalent of Napster.
I’m attaching a blog tracing the history of how major US publishers thought paperback books were going to be the end of publishing. (So I suppose US publishers have a history and mindset of not understanding their own industry and readers. ) http://www.demimonde.com/2012/11/30/revolutions-in-paper-and-pixel/ It must be exhausting when the sky is perpetually falling and yet the sun comes up the next morning. I can’t imagine how confusing life must be for these people.
Major publishers seem to believe many odd things. One apparent belief is one that I caution you not to have, which is “Every library e-book checkout is a sale lost.” Just poo-poo this notion because it is full of poo-poo. Certainly publishers have been happy to sell physical books and audio books in all their formats to libraries. They continue to do so. But e-books started getting popular and now libraries are snatching money from publishers and authors.
Several publishers will not make their books available in digital form for libraries. Attached is a December 2012 article on how Simon and Schuster is being flexible by allowing a second title to be made available to public libraries. http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2012/simon-schuster-open-to-selling-ebooks-to-libraries-in-certain-circumstances/
Gosh. What a flexible bunch of guys…
Other publishers do not allow their major releases to be available to public libraries for several months. Actually, one of the best places to see this type of information is here: https://www.facebook.com/thebig6ebooks (This is because the State Library of Kansas understands technology and how to communicate with people who are interested and …
Honestly, Big 6. You are in New York City where there is a public library system internationally known for its reference work. Get someone to call in a reference question and a librarian will explain the technology to you as well as the history of public libraries and publishing, and even use small words if needed. Just think about it.)
I must stop here. Family members are backing away from me and I’m only typing but I gather my facial contortions and snarling are upsetting everyone…
To sum up: Libraries and e-books and publishing... It’s all going to shake out but not any time soon. I’m off to meditate now and try to regain my composure.
I will try to answer any questions you may have. I will not take them personally and I will try to answer in a coherent, respectful tone.
Madame S has worked in and around archives and libraries and library related businesses since 1985. Well, she started volunteer work in public libraries in 1976 as a junior high student. (She was recruited and told if she put the catalog cards from various packets into alphabetic order for filing into the library catalog, she could take and read the paperbacks that hadn't been cataloged yet. So she began her professional life with an understanding of how the backroom works and who you need to make happy in order to get special benefits. Plus, she got to see all the books that came in before the rest of the patrons.)
Armed with this information, she misspent her first semi-decade working for library districts, state library networks, large city libraries, small city libraries, a library system software company and book distributor. Madame S was taken to the library when she was very young and realized she had found heaven on earth. In 1968, she got her first library card with her name on it and has never looked back. She continues to ensure any library or library branch she uses has higher circulation statistics than it did before she arrived.
Today we have a special giveaway in honor of this visit to Seekerville by Madame S. We'll be giving away a Seeker e-Book of Choice to one commenter. Unless you prefer to attempt to get it at your local library.
Winner announced in the Weekend Edition.
And if you missed Madame S's last post, you can catch up here: