Something is Rotten, and it isn’t in Denmark

It’s much closer to home amongst us at the library and with you the reader.  To be more precise, with you the eBook reader.  Not to worry though: this isn’t anything either of us did – it’s the way things currently are.  I’ll elaborate shortly, but first a little background.

When Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh buys books (the original paper ones), it’s a pretty straightforward process.  We select titles based on several criteria, determine how many copies are needed, and place our order. Given our size and the volume of materials we purchase, process, catalog and distribute, we aren’t buying retail.  We don’t do this at Barnes & Noble, on Amazon or at Half-Priced Books. We buy from wholesale book distributors called jobbers.  We have a preferred hierarchy based on pricing and service models, and can purchase pretty much anything in print — regardless of publisher. Remember that last line — regardless of publisher.  The books (or journals, magazines, microfilm) arrive and are physically owned and stored by the library, and used by you the user.  We all usually know where they are or how to find them. They are as real as . . . go ahead and pick a cliche.

EBooks aren’t such a straightforward proposition. Much of the selection process is the same, matching need and potential need with titles, subjects and appropriate numbers of copies.  Beyond that though, eBooks become more complicated. There are format considerations, staff training requirements, privacy concerns, and questions about ownership. (Are they really ours if we don’t physically have them?)  And finally the rotten aspect — the blatant, deliberate, and unwarranted discrimination practiced against public libraries based on incorrect assumptions in the name of an unknown or undeveloped business model.

What do I mean? Remember my tag line in the paragraph before last — regardless of publisher?  Well, in the eBook world it doesn’t work like that. Look at the following list, and see if you think it makes sense.

  • Simon & Schuster and Macmillan outright do not “sell” or license ebook content for distribution to public libraries.  Neither does Hachette.
  • Harper Collins will, but only for a lifespan of 26 circulations,  a bibliographic actuarial assessment they pulled out of their. . . ears.
  • On November 19th Penguin had been selling ebooks through Overdrive to public libraries in several formats including Kindle.
  • On November 21st Overdrive (a digital distributor of eBooks, audiobooks, music, and video) informed its public library customers that Penguin was suspending sales to public libraries of new titles in eBook format, AND was going to retract the Kindle format from titles previously purchased.
  • On November 23rd Penguin relented and restored the Kindle format to previously purchased titles, but announced that new titles would not be available to public libraries.
  • Not all titles available in Kindle format at Amazon are available for purchase by public libraries. I haven’t been able to determine if that’s a specific publisher issue, or if Amazon regulates the number of Kindle compatible titles that are made available.

This isn’t supposed to be entirely about Amazon and my intention isn’t to paint them as the bad guy. The reality though, is Amazon’s proprietary Kindle format is to eBooks what Windows and Microsoft were to operating systems in the 90s — the dominant or preferred emerging format. We’re still in the infant stages of the eBook as a practical and popular format/medium.  Amazon’s licensing of the Kindle format for use by public libraries has ignited eBook use, leading to multifold increases (by percentage) of eBook circulation, and real increases in eBook’s share of circulation relative to all library circulation, a trend that seemed unstoppable just two months ago. I’m no exception. I thoroughly enjoy my Kindle, reading both borrowed eBooks from the library and buying others from Amazon. I believe these publishers mistakenly assume one use precludes the other, that they’re mutually exclusive.  I have to tell them, that assumption is a mistake.

But now? I’m not so sure the upward curve will be what it might have been. We the libraries and you the library user are more than a little marginalized as authors, publishers and distributors/vendors try to determine how they can make a profit (not a bad word IMHO,) or even just an income in a non-traditional marketplace. For them, it may be a brave, or fearful, new world; for us, it just stinks.

— Richard

5 Comments

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5 responses to “Something is Rotten, and it isn’t in Denmark

  1. I will say that I’ve tried to check out e-books on my Kindle and have only been marginally successful. While I can purchase books on Amazon and have them download to my Kindle with no problem, library books only seem to download onto the Kindle app that I have on my laptop. It was a frustrating problem to have over Thanksgiving, when I was traveling and took my Kindle, but not my laptop.

    All that to say, I completely agree that how e-book borrowing works needs to be refined.

  2. I think they underestimate the library user. In the paper world, library ownership obviously did not preclude personal ownership. I cant imagine why, especially with services like overdrive that regulate how many days you have the ebook, there is the sudden assumption that users will no longer purchase the book in any format. Was there this turmoil when audiobooks were released? IMHO it should be the same issue: the original paper book in a new format….

  3. Richard

    Dear Friends.

    I believe the issue is copyright. Some would go out of their way and buy the ebook, and then place it on a server for you to download – free. They would even change the format – to what every computer has, a word processor such as MsWord. This I believe is the only problem that publishers have, as they would not be able to recover their costs. As for Amazon, they would not be able to distribute an ebook if it is available for free with a simple google search.

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