Tuesday, 4 September 2012

eBooks - its not all "upside"

As I reported a couple of weeks ago (here) we're pressing ahead with the implementation of a State-wide eBook solution. We are on track to have a contract signed within the month.

While I know that eBooks are an important part of the evolution of public libraries I can't help feeling that there are almost as many "downsides" as there are upsides with eBooks as they are currently available to libraries.  Don't get me wrong - we have to provide customers access to them, but I think that we should also be aware of some of the risks.

While I'm not sure I like the analogy used by the Librarian in Black where she equates eBooks to a less than desirable lover, she makes some really good points in her article "I'm breaking up with eBooks (and you can too)". This blog is referenced on the front page of my blog as the author often has some interesting things to say.

The two aspects of the way that suppliers are offering eBooks that I really struggle with are:
  1. That the publishing industry sees libraries as the enemy of their commercial aspirations, rather than potential allies in growing the reading habit, and
  2. The rules about access fundamentally skew some of the foundation principles of free public libraries - thereby weakening our "brand".
Let me expand on point 2: Currently South Australians can join any public library and borrow any item from that library.  They can also request these items through Inter-Library Loan & the items will come to their local library for collection. The new model of eBook availability thrust upon libraries by the commercial providers is that users must be bona fide members of a particular library - with some suppliers attemting to restrict the libraries' membership conditions to say that only residents within the boundaries of the council/borough whatever can access the eBook collection.

Also, with many eBook suppliers (not all) the library only "rents" their collection for as long as they pay an annual subscription.  As soon as they stop paying the subscription they lose access to all eBooks they have "purchased" - i.e. rented!  I am all for commerical providers making a profit, but some of these practices are designed with such self interest that we need to recognise the practices for what they are.

I could say lots about the fact that in South Australia 70% of people over the age of 60 do not have a computer in their home (as reported by the Office for the Aging), let alone eReaders.  And what is the prevalence of eReaders amongst our poorest most vulnerable?  So who are we aiming this collection at?

I wont go on - but I do want us as a profession to be critically aware of the business models being forced upon us and what these may mean for the foundation principles of our profession.  We have always been happy to adopt new business models if the customer benefits, but we need to do so with some caution and hopefully with the ability to choose business models that reinforce our professional principles rather than eroding them.


  1. Couldn't agree more Geoff. I am very concerned that companies are using the move to electronic content to their absolute commercial advantage.

    Once you have their product, the only way to guarantee retaining your purchased content is to remain with them for life. It seems to me that in 20 years our lives will be maintained on 'managed services agreements'. A 'Cloud' for your files and photos, iTunes for your music, Amazon for your books, 'all for one low monthly fee'. It's a real worry.

    Perhaps we as Public Libraries should stop trying to just 'keep up', and instead start presenting ourselves as a genuine free, no obligation alternative in today's commercial world.

  2. It's interesting that you focus on point 2, Geoff. We have accepted the vendor model for a wide range of online services - article databases, newspaper databases, online encyclopaedias, language learning, health information, etc, etc. The vendor model is what it is. With no other area that we have used online vendors have we expected that we could keep the content once we have decided to no longer subscribe to the service. Platforms, content attached to the platform and subscription fees are how vendors create a market niche and make a profit. Vendors are commercial operations and I don't see much point in us bemoaning this fact.

    The bigger issue as I see it is your point 1 - Publishers see libraries as the enemy. Rightly or wrongly, Publishers perceive that libraries want to give everything away for free to everyone at the same time. They don't trust libraries to maintain a commercial interest in the Publisher's product so they licence to vendors with strict DRM controls and conditions that the vendor is forced to pass on to their customers (libraries). What libraries ought to be focussing on is changing this perception by starting to think with a commercial mindset and positioning themselves to collaborate and partner with Publishers to distribute both printed and electronic content to the marketplace. With the demise of the "bricks & mortar" bookstore by 2020, libraries are in a position to fill the gap, particularly with print material. There are ways that libraries can earn the trust of publishers and become outlets for them and at the same time preserve the foundation principles of our profession. To do this we need to think along commercial lines and be sure that we are focussing our strategies in the right area. Thinking commercially doesn't mean that we stop providing resources for free or erode our principles, it means that we understand the competitive marketplace and develop strategies for us being a significant part of it.

    1. Hi Ian
      I'm not sure I only focus on the 2nd issue, and while I didn't say it, I think that I ordered these 2 points in a hierarchy - i.e. point 2 is a sub-set of the bigger more important point 1. So we're in agreement about this.

      I am all for vendors making money. If they don't they will go broke and not be around. So my concerns are not the profit motive, but the longer term risks to library budgets. I will cite 2 things that worry me.
      1) The cost of the eBook to "purchase" is not too dissimilar than buying a physical item. Why is this when there are no printing,transport or other costs associated with item? And then I can only make it available if I pay an annual fee to maintain access to it.

      eBooks could lend themselves to a different model. Perhaps I would be happy to have access to the complete catalogue of the eBook provider and pay 40c per download. That way I don't have to pay $10 for a book that doesn't get used, but I can make popular items available hundreds of times. This shares the risk - i.e. I don't pay full price for items that no-one wants. I would want to put a limit on this e.g. $10K of downloads - so my risk was known.

      (The figure of 40c is derived from the "maximum of 26 reads" that was proposed by 1 eBook provider. 40c x 26 reads = $10.40. So this model would provide the correct remuneration to the publisher for each read. A bit like the iTunes store model)

      At the moment the vendors take no risks, and get all the rewards. This is not a true partnership, but an exploitative arrangment. It is not wonder that people pirate products when they see the unjustice of the busienss models - not that I am advocating piracy!!

      2) My other point is that while we have been prepared to take the vendors' models of "leasing" content I still question whether this is sustainable in the longer term. Universities have found that some have now got 80% of their acquisitions budget tied up in ongoing database subscriptions - leaving not enough money to respond to changing customer needs. Do we want to be in this space? To ask the question is to answer it.

      Tom Chatfield in his keynote speech at the recent ALIA conference contrasted "old fashioned" libraries that have inspirational quotes over the door such as "all are free to enter an learn here" with what is now happening to libraries. He described libraries of today as being more "EULA" libraries - i.e. we're all tied up in the End User License Agreements that govern our ability to provide free access.

      anyway - enough of this response. I think we can all see dangers & we need to think about how we work with vendors who want a legitimate profit & wantto parner with us and those who see us as the enemy and want to tie us in knots.

  3. I agree with Ben...Now-a-days ebooks and other digital magazines are becoming popular and people use them as they are easy to carry. You can access them, read them and download them anywhere anytime. People search for ebook libraries so that they can easily get these books and can return them after the fixed time duration.