eBook Library Lending Is Still A Mess And Now I Know Why: Publishers

eBook Library Lending Is Still A Mess And Now I Know Why: Publishers

Yesterday at Book Expo America I attended a panel titled “E-Books From Libraries: Good For Authors?” because I’m writing a piece for a magazine on the state of eBook library lending. What I learned is that the reason things are going so poorly in the world of eBooks and libraries is because publishers, agents, and people who claim to be representing the best interests of authors are super ignorant and will probably destroy everything if allowed to continue making decisions. Since I can see no pixel-stained techno peasant uprising on the horizon, I think we’re all in for a bad time.

The panelists were as follows: Ginger Clark, Literary Agent (Moderator); Carolyn Reidy, President and Chief Executive Officer, Simon & Schuster; Jack Perry, Owner 38enso Inc.; Maureen Sullivan, President, American Library Association (ALA); Steve Potash, President and CEO, Overdrive; Paul Aiken, Executive Director, Authors Guild. I’m going to point out from the start that both Ms. Sullivan of the ALA and Mr. Potash of Overdrive both had really great things to say on the panel and are both very smart about this issue. This is not surprising since they both understand the issue from the side of the libraries. Mr. Perry didn’t say too much at the panel. And Mr. Aiken arrived late, and by doing so saved us from having to listen to him be aggressively wrong for too long. That leads us to: Ms. Reidy.

Early in the panel the moderator asked her to talk about Simon & Schuster’s strategy around eBooks for libraries. This is part of what she said:

Publishers didn’t resist coming up with programs because they didn’t think it was good for their business. … They’re protecting not only their business but every author’s, too. We’re the representative of the author in this transaction. Why would we ever want to do anything to destroy that? Publishers have always thought that having an author’s work in a library is a good thing.

What changes with digital is that you can sit at home and if you have a library card you can order any book, you never have to go anywhere. And if you could get every book you wanted free, why would you ever buy another one? That’s the question we had about it in our first meeting. … That is the danger. You could literally undermine the market for every author and for [the publishers]. … Obviously, there is some discovery through libraries. There’s also some ability for people who people who aren’t ever going to buy books to read them and be a part of the conversation. We’ve always believed that the cultural contribution of libraries is important.

But this frictionless ability for people to download books does make a sea change difference.i

There is a lot to argue with in this statement, but what struck me is that last line: “frictionless ability.” That right there is an indication of why S&S and possibly many other publishers will continue to have wrong thinking on this subject.

Borrowing an eBook from a library is Not Frictionless. It’s just not. In the past few years, Overdrive and a small number of other companies that actually build the lending technology have made the process a little bit easier, especially if you have a smartphone, tablet, or other iOS, Android, or BlackBerry device. However, if you have an eInk device from B&N, Sony, Kobo, etc., the process for setting things up and moving library books over is more complex than it needs to be and confuses a lot of people. I’m very tech-savvy and I don’t do it because it’s a damn hassle. Think of all the people who want to do it but don’t have access to the technology needed (it’s less expensive to buy a Nook than a computer or a tablet or to own a smartphone) or just don’t understand how to work it. Now realize that this is a major segment of the population that libraries serve.

This is Not A Frictionless Experience.

When Q&A time came I brought this up and then asked: Why are people in publishing so worried about this problem now? No one is having panels with hand-wringing about all those free paper books in the libraries.

Ginger Clark jumped in to answer that question: “Because [eBooks from libraries] can be pirated quite easily.”

Piracy was the big, scary demon in the room for a lot of this panel. But I thought that most of the speakers were thinking about it in correct ways. At one point Clark asked if “windowing” was going the way of the dinosaur. This is the practice of not selling new books to libraries for months or even years after initial release in order to increase sales. Everyone agreed that it was going away mostly because it didn’t increase sales, it increased piracy. Plus, there was a lot of talk of not making the same mistakes as the music industry.

So for Clark to say that there’s this worry about eBooks in libraries because they’re easy to pirate? Guess what: that’s all eBooks. The DRM scheme that Overdrive uses for EPUB is the same DRM that B&N uses and Kobo and Sony and Google and just about everyone else (except Apple). It’s not hard to strip that DRM (so I’m told) and it is no harder to do so if you buy the book than if you get it from the library. So what it seems that Clark and others are actually worried about is that library patrons are more likely to be evil pirates than everyone else. Leaving out that most of the time when media is put up on a torrent or file sharing service, the original was purchased by someone.

I will also point out that NetGalley, a service that provides free eBook ARCs (advanced reader copies), uses the same DRM. And yet I don’t see any hand-wringing about that. Maybe because the people with access to NetGalley can supposedly be trusted? Because they’re not poor people in libraries.

This fear of library pirating also makes no sense in the face of the data brought to the table by Overdrive President Steve Potash, who said that there weren’t many (or any) complaints of library books ending up on torrent sites. This doesn’t surprise me, since Reidy kept saying how there was “no data” on which strategies for library lending would work best and Potash repeatedly said that he had plenty of data, up to 10 years worth, and yet still there was talk of no data.

After Clark got done saying ridiculous things about pirating, Reidy made an answer that showed she has not ever actually used the technology under discussion.

It may be difficult to download a file onto an eReader — although most of them are made so it’s not — but let’s just say that it is today. It could be completely different in six months the way technology goes. We’re not trying to make decisions on what to do just based on what we see in front of us today. After all, it’s taken us a while to get here and things were much clunkier even a year ago. It’s the fact that a digital file can in fact be downloaded very easily. And once somebody learns how a library system works… it will become easier for them to use.

There is a real difference between a digital file and a physical book. And the fact that you have to go to the library and pick it up ad check it out vs. hit a few buttons.

This woman has a real talent for packing in the fail, doesn’t she? Before we even get to how she completely ignored the part about access to technology, let’s address the part where she handwaves away the difficulties and is sure the ones I’m imagining won’t be there in six months.

First, it’s really not as simple as just clicking and downloading a file, particularly if you’re working with an eInk eReader. Even once you’re in the system it’s not that easy. Second, I spent a long time yesterday talking to reps from Overdrive and 3M (who also have an eBook lending platform) and Kobo, and I specifically asked about how they are working toward making the lending process easy and seamless. Every last one of them said that, yes, it’s a goal and, yes, they are working on it, but they can’t always get it done because the eReader companies have to partner with them, except the eReader companies say that the lending software people have to make it work and it’s all their fault.

The only company with a mostly easy mechanism for eInk devices is Amazon, and apparently publishers (or just S&S) don’t like how Amazon brings library patrons into Amazon’s system in order for this ease to happen, and so some books just aren’t available to the Kindle.

Has Reidy spent even the hour I did talking to Overdrive and 3M and Kobo and B&N and Sony about this? Sounds like not. Because from the answers they gave me, this problem is no where near being solved in six months because no one is really working in concert to make it happen. Including the publishers.

Third thing is that last bit about how eBooks are different because a person just has to click, whereas with physical books you have to go to the library and pick it up. What this immediately brought to mind is that the difference is difficulty. It’s okay to let people have free books if there are barriers in place to ensure they won’t take too much advantage of it. Because how dare they. When I countered with this, Reidy was all: No, that’s not what I mean! But then Paul Aiken of the Authors Guild took control and told me that I had made my point in a tone that suggested I should shut up.

He launched into some tirade about how eBooks mean that people don’t have to come to libraries anymore and then we’ll lose libraries and that will be bad for everyone and did we hear about some library in California that was getting rid of all physical books and going digital only and redesigning their library to look more like an Apple store AND ISN’T THAT JUST TERRIBLE THINK OF THE CHILDREN!? I don’t know why anyone allows the Authors Guild to represent them because this dude is all kinds of out of touch.

You can imagine the look on my face as this all went down, but what made it better is that Maureen Sullivan of the ALA spoke after him and said pointedly that my question was a fair one and also addressed some of the stuff I raised about access to technology and how librarians are often the ones called on to help patrons navigate and understand the eBook lending system. She said very many awesome things over the whole discussion and kept bringing it back to how what librarians want is to ensure that everyone has equal access to knowledge and literature at a fair price. One of the things she said in response to my question really shows how much more she (and probably librarians in general) understands the eBook landscape.

“…this is the classic example of disruptive innovation. It causes a lot of misunderstanding, it brings fears to light. … When we experience disruptive innovation, it’s much more effective to think not ‘either/or’ but ‘and’.”

Yes. That.

Many of the people in the audience were librarians and the ones who got to ask questions also seemed concerned with the attitudes of the publishing folks about a host of things. They swarmed the Overdrive guy once it was over to thank him for standing up for libraries in a similar way to Ms. Sullivan. Overall, I would trust the two of them to look out for the real interests of authors on this issue than some of the others on that panel.

It’s so disheartening to go to an event like BEA and have supposed industry experts show you how clearly they do not understand the deeper issues surrounding eBooks or even the underlying technology. Before Carolyn Reidy makes any more decisions about eBooks and lending, she should be forced to use the system. And not just with one piece of technology, but one from every platform: eInk, iOS, Android, computer, NO computer, library computer. Before Ginger Clark talks about the ease of piracy for library eBooks I need her to talk about all the worrying she’s doing over piracy of eBooks from a major retailer and how that is different. Before Paul Aiken opens his mouth ever I need him to not do so.

Until all of these people and the others like them actually do some real work in concert with the software/hardware developers and the librarians on the eBook lending ecosystem, it’s not going to get any easier or less confusing for library patrons and it’s not going to get any better for libraries themselves. But considering the desire to keep eBook lending from being too “frictionless” lest people stop buying books forever because of Free, I suspect this problem isn’t going to get fixed. Not in six months and maybe not in six years.

  1. I have a recording of this panel which I will provide to anyone who wishes to listen. On this quote, I re-arranged some of what she said to make it flow better, but I did not change the context at all. Also: emphasis mine. []
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12 thoughts on “eBook Library Lending Is Still A Mess And Now I Know Why: Publishers

  1. I think their concern with piracy may be partly that library borrowers will remove the DRM and keep the books for themselves forever, when you used to have to buy the book to keep it forever. On some level that’s valid, though I think there are very many people who were never going to buy the books anyway and plenty more who will buy their own copies because of liking paper, because of ethics, or because they didn’t know how to kill the DRM in the first place. (I say it has some validity because, as someone with an older reader for financial reasons, I have to remove DRM to be able to read library ebooks. I do wind up with a bunch of leftover book files, though I wasn’t going to buy them regardless and I certainly don’t share them.)

    Thanks for pushing these people and for writing about this.

    1. If they’re worried that people will break the DRM on a book and keep it for themselves then they’re silly. That person, as you noted, is not buying that book. If they get it from a torrent site, then the author and publisher lose out. If they get it from the library, someone is getting money. And if all they’re doing is keeping it for themselves because they can’t finish it in two weeks, then publishers need to find something end to wring their hands about, omg.

  2. Word.

    Let me say that /hypothetically/ I can actually strip the DRM from dozens of library books /at the exact same time/ I strip the DRM from dozens of Netgalley books. And I mean that literally. And hypothetically. And the only friction involved is knowing the right Google search and being able to follow directions. Hypothetically. I hesitate to say this is easier than downloading it from Overdrive in the first place, but yea, it kind of is.

    And if I hypothetically did that, I wouldn’t be posting it to torrent sites. I’d just be keeping the book to read in my own sweet time and not the 2-week limit of a library book or the 30-whatever day limit of a Netgalley book.

    Since I work in a library, it’s actually more frictionless for me to pull a book from the shelf than to put a hold on it on Overdrive and wait weeks and weeks for everyone else to read it. Since I would also then have to wait until I got home to get it on my ereader, cuz that’s where its usb cord lives.

    Friction schmiction.

  3. What I want to know is where all these people who claim that ebooks are great bc then you don’t have to physically go anywhere think the people who use libraries for cost reasons get their devices.

    Do they have any idea how many of our patrons come to the library because they don’t have a computer at home? Or their computer is older? Or it doesn’t have a printer? Or they had to stop getting internet because they lost their job?

    Do they realize that some libraries lend out ereaders? and laptops? and tablets?

    Do they have any idea how much of my week is spent showing people how to perform basic computer skills like changing font size, checking print preview, and using a mouse????

    Are they at all aware that even out tech savvy patrons have issues trying to figure out the mess that is ereaders, ebooks, and library lending of such? And that it’s not always about skills or intelligence, but rather the fact that since the industry is in it’s infancy, there is much less standardization and a lot of (seemingly) random incompatibility?

    No, clearly not. Because if they did their assumptions and worries would be completely different, and much more realistic.

    Thank you for asking your question, and for writing this up. and yay! for Maureen Sullivan.


      Sorry for the caps, but I have to wonder if any of these publishers or Authors’ Guild people have even BEEN in one of the libraries they’re purporting to defend lately.

      Okay, so I work in an academic, not a public, so the economics are a little different (and, oh, don’t get me started on academic publishing, because I’ll be here all weekend). But: three-quarters of our acquisitions budget now goes exclusively to digital materials. AND YET our door counts are up year upon year. The disassociation of the library’s content and the library’s facilities does not mean the latter has to die–ask anyone whose toddler is addicted to storytime.

      And, yeah, our patrons are a *bit* more tech-savvy on the whole because most of them are college students, but even so, I spend a good portion of my time helping with computer/e-reader use. Someone’s got to do it, because god knows the online help is typically useless.

      My own profession will likely find this next statement heretical, but: what’s so bad about looking like an Apple Store?

  4. One quick thing and then I’ll have to come back later:

    Many of these are the EXACT SAME ARGUMENTS that publishers advanced against public libraries back in The Day.

    EXACTLY the same.

  5. It’s not hard to strip that DRM (so I’m told)

    It’s even legal in New Zealand if it’s to let you do some non-copyright-infringing activity and yeah, dead simple.

    This fear of library pirating also makes no sense in the face of the data brought to the table by Overdrive President Steve Potash, who said that there weren’t many (or any) complaints of library books ending up on torrent sites.

    Also Tor have found no discernable increase of piracy since they stopped putting DRM on their ebooks.

    [Aiken] launched into some tirade about how eBooks mean that people don’t have to come to libraries anymore and then we’ll lose libraries

    Yeah, that’s your classic tirade from people who’ve never been in a library in, possible, their life, and don’t realise that lending books is not actually the majority of what a library does. (And Genevieve’s far from the only librarian who think looking like an Apple Store isn’t such a bad thing. I think it would intimidate a lot of people, myself, if that was *all* it looked like; I think libraries need to contain lots of spaces: both for chatting and for quiet; for electronic and for print; for self-help and for consulting experts; for meetings and for events and for homework. But there are some great ideas on customer service to be had from the Apple Store, and I know libraries implementing similar things with great success.)

    The only company with a mostly easy mechanism for eInk devices is Amazon, and apparently publishers (or just S&S) don’t like how Amazon brings library patrons into Amazon’s system in order for this ease to happen, and so some books just aren’t available to the Kindle.

    To be fair, a lot of libraries are leery about the privacy implications of this too.

    On technical issues, there’s a great classic cartoon on DRM on public library audiobooks.

  6. One correction: It’s my impression that the Amazon library lending scheme was disliked by librarians, rather than publishers. The ALA had a lot of concerns about how the tracking Amazon does could affect reader privacy.

    They do seem to have worked something out, or at least my local libraries offer a Kindle option for most ebooks.

  7. I’ve researched and written a good deal about the impact of piracy on the book business. There’s no evidence that DRM of the sort used for trade books has any effect on piracy. The more likely reasons a book is pirated: it is not available in a format I prefer (unwelcome news for advocates of windowing); and it is not available in my market.

    Clark, Reidy and Aiken are entirely wrong on this issue. For all content, there is a market at the price of zero – people who are willing to use library services are an example. They trade some “friction” – waiting for their turn on the lending list, for example – for the opportunity to borrow a book at no direct cost. If they worked with libraries, publishers could earn money (by selling books to the institutions) and still meet demand at the price of zero.

    I wrote a post last year in which I described libraries as the “first, best defense against piracy”. It’s mind-numbing to hear the people leading the agency and publisher parts of the business make this fear-based, data-light argument against digital lending.

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