ePubs: Alright, we’re mad… how are we going to fix it?

In Well it just seems like common sense on February 25, 2011 at 8:08 pm

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how sad it is that libraries seem to be left out of the migration from hard copy books to ePubs. The news that HarperCollins was forcing Overdrive to expire digital content (Joe Atzberger’s post, Librarian by Day’s post) after a certain number of circulations (26, to be exact) was the last straw for me. Something has to be done here, we cannot continue to support a publishing economy where ePubs are forced into the existing paradigm of hard copy books.

“My gosh,” you must be thinking, “what on earth model could we possibly use? We have no choice here! We are at the mercy of the publishers and content providers!” Wrong, I say. There is at least one model that I can think of that might work very well for all parties involved.

Let’s first take a look at how Amazon lends Kindle books. A happy Kindle user buys a book, reads it, and has licensed this book for their personal use. That Kindle user is allowed to lend that book to another Kindle user one time, for two weeks. After this one lend, the book cannot be lent again. This model won’t really work for libraries, but I think that with a subtle change it could be workable for all involved. Interestingly, an intrepid group of library geeks have put together the service Lendle to help Kindle users connect to other Kindle users interested in borrowing their books. Super cool, but limited in usefulness by the fact that each book can only be lent once. That won’t work for libraries. It doesn’t even really work for Kindle users.

So let’s say there is a magical content middleman who sells ePubs. This magical content middleman allows libraries to buy licenses to ePubs that they can lend to patrons. The catch is, the patron can only receive the book, a la Kindle, a single time. The content also expires after two weeks, providing the patron the option to purchase the item at the end of their circ period. There are no limits to the number of times this ePub can be circulated: the only catch is that a patron can only check it out for 2 weeks, a single time.

With this model, publishers and content middlemen have great opportunities to make money: they get the ePubs into the hands of readers, they make a little off of the library when the library buys the ePub, and the opportunity to sell another copy to the end-user (patron) when the 2 week lending period has expired. To me, this seems like everyone wins!

It occurs to me that Apple already does something similar with movies: they allow you to “rent” a movie for 24 hours. They make a few bucks, and hope that you like it enough to buy the full movie with special features. It’s not all that different, and no one can deny that Apple makes a boatload of money off of iTunes purchases.

My good friend Heather pointed me to this blog post by a library user/reader who was weighing in on the whole HarperCollins news, and it bears quoting here:

“A lend from a library is never as good as a purchase. People do it because they are readers, and they put up with it because it is really, really expensive to support a flat-out voracious reading habit on your own dime.

Publishers, if you make it impossible for young people–those in the “under 25″ category–to support a good reading habit on their own dime, these people are not going to start magically spending money on books when they start making a decent income. No; at that point, they’ll already have started spending their time haunting hulu instead, where they can actually get free entertainment. And when they start making money, they’ll be buying iTunes streams of those shows they watched for free.”

So, content providers, libraries, publishers, somebody: build this, and libraries (and our users/members/patrons) may come.

So, shoot me down: why won’t this work?

  1. Build it and they will come… Sounds like a great new adventure…

  2. Publishers want to make money first last and always. And I probably would be very hardnosed about it if I were a publisher.

    This is a problem!

  3. How long before people just start stripping the DRM off their ebooks and distributing them freely? Harper Collins also charges more for their ebooks than paperbacks. What is that all about? I emailed HC with no response as of yet.

  4. In the old days, getting your book in a library for free lending as many times as the library could manage was the best thing that could happen to an author. That was when manufacturing a book was pricy. Beyond the author’s work, and the digital formatting, digital copying costs almost nothing.

    I grew up in a world where when I bought a book I owned it. Where it wasn’t necessary to buy another copy so I could read it to my child. I could read it as many times as you liked, lend it as many times as you liked. That might mean reading it once now, and again thirty years hence. Will the technology decades from now be able to display our libraries? Or are we doomed to paying wildly inflated prices for the same books over and over again?

    Public Libraries exist to make knowledge & culture available to all. Turning them into marketing arms of publishers is obscene. They will no longer be libraries, but rather retail outlets. Thing is, retail outlets already exist– they’re called book stores.

    • There is a concern that unlimited access to an eFile is basically free distribution. It doesn’t come back, and it can be transferred to millions of people at once. It’s different from a book.

      I give away my first novel free, and lots of promo stuff, and will be freebieing another novel here in a few days, and I’m still not sure THAT much access is positive.

      Obviously, once you BUY (or otherwise transfer) an eCopy, it should be eternal.

  5. Point 1: I completely agree with your claim that we librarians need to create a new model that will work for librarians and publishers.

    Point 2: Publishers have explicitly stated two concerns about eBooks in libraries. I think your proposal would be more convincing to publishers if it explicitly stated both concerns and addressed them.

    Publisher Concern 1 is that library eBooks never wear out. So libraries will have no need to purchase replacement copies. That is the reason HarperCollins is requiring expiration after 26 days.

    I think your model should explicitly explain that limited check out period and patron purchasing address this concern, i.e., patrons will be buying copies. (Some good data explaining how many times print books actually can circulate before replacement and how little we actually buy replacements would also help your argument.)

    Publisher Concern 2 is that patrons may be able to borrow eBooks from many different libraries. In March 2010, Macmillan CEO John Sargent described patrons sitting on their couch, browsing the eBook collections of their local library and libraries in three other states before downloading the eBook they want.

    I think your model should address this concern.

    Chris Rippel
    Central Kansas Library System

    • The public library a block away has copies of books dating from the 1930’s. The wearing out argument is specious. Particularly as copyright used to be finite.

      If publishers don’t start adapting I expect they will be obsolete very soon indeed.

  6. michaelzwilliams: Good point about making you register, Akismet should catch most of the spam so I turned off the requirement to register.

    I’m glad to hear that you are taking your titles to a more user friendly publisher! There are only a couple of ways this whole Harper Collins thing can work out: we change the model, or authors, en masse, migrate away from traditional publishers due to unfriendly terms to the readers. I wonder if you have any ideas on how to motivate and/or inform authors that their works are being kept from readers due to DRM, and that they should do as you plan to, and move to more e-friendly publishers.

    • Part of the problem is an outdated business model, literally from the 1950s. HC wanted MSSes printed out on paper with a disk enclosed, and sent printed proofs and galleys back and forth. They only allow up to 1000 words of sample, “Not to include any plot” (as if there are any original plots), and make it very hard to get electronic copies (Did you even know they had electronic copies? I didn’t, until the whopping 50c royalty showed up on a statement). This is slowly falling by the wayside, but is still how much of the industry works.

      I send everything to Baen electronically, they proof it and galley it electronically, I confirm, it goes to production. They encourage promo-ing 1/4 to 1/3 the book in snippets online, we all give out free content (entire novels) to attract readers, the downloads are cheap, and not encrypted because A: it’s an expensive pain in the butt to bother and 2] readers really are leery of anything encrypted with good reason. Sure, there’s some “piracy” (technically it’s infringement. For it to be “piracy” you’d have to actually steal the rights, not a download), but it’s not enough to waste time or money trying to track down. Also, those copies usually are full of holes and hard to read, so who cares?

      There’s one textbook publisher in the UK, IIRC, who puts the entire book online once produced. Sensible. People get access if they need it and as promo, and it really is easier to have the textbook in front of you, but adding in the ability to search for terms makes it more user friendly as well.

      As the comparison has been made elsewhere, the buggywhip makers are lamenting the lack of whip holders on automobiles. There’s nothing they can do about it, but they’re not going to change; they’ll just get displaced.

      I find it aggravating to see articles on this and hear lamentations of, “if only there were a publisher who…” when Baen IS that publisher, and we’ll be happy to take people’s money as a market lesson.:)

      The final irony is that most Baen authors are very, very “right wing” (using the flawed terms of the day), with a handful of far lefties (The Baen Free Library was Eric Flint’s idea. He’s a Trotskyite), and we all see cheap and easy access as opportunity, not loss.

    • Also, the titles have to to go the publisher with the market for that genre/type. There’s not unlimited choice in the matter.

  7. […] work great right now”, there’s no standard format, and the current model is broken. This is the only one I have seen. Please leave comments if you’ve seen others and I’ll update this […]

  8. Well, first I need to comment that requiring a subscription to spampress to post is about as awkward and annoying as dealing with DRM. OTOH, I sympathize, because I have a dozen spam filters on my blog and the @#$ers still get through.

    That said, the market is going that way, HC is just retarded. I get my rights to the titles they published back later this year, and they go straight to Baen for cheap, non-DRM downloads, and the first title will be a freebie. Eventually, all publishers will do this. For now, let them make their buggywhips.

  9. @Frankie: Libraries cannot promote illegal activities such as piracy, so that’s right out. Libraries have *always* been more or less free marketing for publishers: they make money off of selling libraries books, and they also cultivate a populace with voracious reading habits, who then (sometimes) go on to buy lots more books.

    I’m not married to the idea that the lending period has to be 2 weeks. That is definitely negotiable in my mind, the key point is that a user gets a single ePub a single time, and as a concession for allowing the library to circulate the ePub indefinitely on a single purchase, the publisher is allowed to market the book for sale at the end of the lending period. This seems fair to the library *and* to the publisher.

    @metalsmithgirl – I agree in principle that libraries should not be depending on a certain content provider to build a solution. The fact remains that we don’t have a body willing (able?) with the resources and willingness to actually come up with something and execute it well. Any body that *could* come up with something will likely, at this point, be so far behind that their solution will never come to be adopted. Couple that with the fact that you’ve got content providers like Amazon who are really cornering the market, and already not allowing libraries to put library provided content on proprietary devices, and you’ve got a big problem for libraries, at least in terms of libraries providing what people want, which is ePub content on the device that they have in their pocket. I’d love to see some innovation come out of libraries on this front, and I’d be ecstatic to be proven wrong about the capabilities of the library community to execute such a project, but a lot of initiatives have gotten bogged down in committees and bureaucracy.

    What we need is a real standard that everyone agrees upon, that works universally (or on many, many devices), with terms that everyone can live with. Note I didn’t say “with terms that everyone likes,” because I don’t think terms can be devised that make everyone happy: Libraries won’t be happy unless it’s pure ownership and no DRM, and publishers won’t be happy unless they can control their content with an iron DRM fist.

    Despite the fact that I propose a solution that still relies upon a form of DRM, I still firmly believe that DRM is a scourge on our culture and freedom, and should be avoided *where possible*. Open solutions are always going to be better solutions, but they’re not going to be the solutions that big business likes. Parallel to this discussion of openness vs. DRM, we need to talk about the role of copyright in our information ecosystem, and ways in which copyright is being abused by big business to restrict the freedom to create. Other, much smarter people than me are working on this part of the problem, but it’s not terribly common to hear librarians going on about how copyright is affecting the library, even though it does affect almost every single facet of their operation.

  10. Why in the world should libraries ask for someone to please please please build us something!


    Letting someone else build a platform (OverDrive) is exactly what got libraries into this mess in the first place. Too many people and too many libraries are willing to let someone else do the work, but then they get mad when they actually own the content, or don’t have any say in the terms.

    Anyways OverDrive already has LibraryBIN built into many libraries’ OverDrive websites where there is a link right on a titles page that links to OverDrive’s consumer site where people can buy the book for themselves.

  11. […] alternatives to Harper Collins and other current eBook models? I’ve not seen many mentioned, except for this one, that actually is a fantastic middle of the road solution, and might just promote more sales for the […]

  12. Yeah. If you want to turn libraries into a sample service for publishers.

    I just see that going horribly, desperately awry, where libraries become a marketing venue. I’m already treated like a consumer, a wallet, everywhere else on the planet. You could just leave libraries alone and let them do what they do. Library users are already book buyers. They don’t need to be converted. And by converted, I’m using it in marketing parlance.

    I foresee a new future in pirating HC ebooks as HarperCollins makes piracy the easier, saner distribution method. (Not to mention the ideological protest against artificially grubbing funds from libraries.)

    I borrow ebooks from my library. It’s a pain in the ass compared to a paper book where I can just login and click renew. I have to go log into windows and download them all over again and run them through Adobe Editions and if I don’t finish reading them in the 28 day period. If someone doesn’t have it. Lucky for me, ereaders aren’t so popular here.

    Twenty eight days is so long, you say. Yeah, maybe in your native language. But fighting your way through a novel, three to five pages a day. Not so long, really. Might be worth considering that, too, when you think about the communities and demographics that libraries serve most, the ones that would be cut off without a library.

  13. Courtney Milan is a really good romance writer – one of my kind of authors…Good post. I think I’ll go tweet it 😉

  14. […] Content middlemen, we need your help! « Things I've Learned says: February 25, 2011 at 4:29 pm […]

  15. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Heather Braum, Liz Rea. Liz Rea said: I was so mad I wrote about it: Content middlemen, we need your help! http://t.co/Zxczitz #hcod […]

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