NPR’s Libraries and eBooks Report Highlights eBook Ignorance

The good folks at NPR’s Marketplace did a story on the state of ebooks and libraries the other night. At first I was excited, since it’s great to hear any story about ebooks, especially library programs that tend to fly under the radar. But NPR’s reporting was so horribly, egregiously, painfully inaccurate that I really wonder if they did any research at all.

Let’s start with the biggest head-scratcher:

Kai Ryssdal: For all that die-hard bibliophiles say they will never ever give up their actual printed books, they may be fighting a losing battle. E-book sales are up 118 percent this year over last. The number comes from to the Association of American Publishers. You don’t have to buy your e-books though. Public libraries will let you borrow them for nothing. Not without some fine print though.

Gigi Douban reports from Birmingham, Ala.

Gigi Douban: The circulation desk at the downtown branch of the Birmingham Public Library is humming with activity. And long after the library closes for the day, dozens of users will continue to check out books — from home.

The county’s libraries last month launched an e-book collection. Users check e-books out for a couple of weeks by downloading onto a computer or an e-reader. Pat Ryan is director of the county library system.

Pat Ryan: And there are no late fees, no trip to the library, the book expires after the date.

But there’s a hitch. Library e-books don’t work with two of the biggest e-readers — the Amazon Kindle and Apple’s iPad. Analysts put Amazon’s share of the e-book business as high as 90 percent. And giving away free downloads at the library would cut into that share.

Ryan: We’ve had a lot of requests for the Amazon, does it work on the Kindle, and we would love for it to, but they don’t allow anything but the books that they sell for their e-reader.

Umm…yes and no. First of all, Amazon is in the business of selling ebooks. It’s not shocking, or remotely scandalous, or even harsh of Amazon, to not license their particular flavor of digital rights management to the library. But here’s a newsflash for the library-Kindles can read unprotected .mobi formatted books without a problem. The bottleneck here isn’t Amazon, it’s the lack of leverage that libraries have with publishers to allow DRM-free library downloads.

On top of that, I have another newsflash for libraries; if you want your library books on the iPad, work with Adobe to create an Adobe Digital Editions compatible app for the iPad. Apple has allowed every major ebook company to release apps for the iPad so the bottleneck isn’t Apple; it’s Adobe and Overdrive (the major library ebook distributor) for not finding a way to make it work. Complain all you want about the big bad companies, but the failure here is with the libraries for assuming everyone else will bend to them, when the reality is that there’s plenty of routes for them to fit within what’s available.

Or, here’s another thought; rent out Sony Readers, which DO work with library books. Charge a monthly rate to “rent” the reader, and let people download as they wish from the library. With the right negotiations, libraries could even sell Sony Readers as part of a larger ebook awareness campaign. With the tight state of funding, both of these ideas could lead to a revenue stream for budget-strapped libraries AND give them the opportunity to engage with their users as they set up and teach them about the devices.

Further, NPR barely touched upon the bigger issues in ebooks and libraries. They only mention in passing the fact that libraries only buy one or two licenses of ebooks, but that’s a huge obstacle in practical use. It’s counterintuitive and confusing to head to your local library’s website, only to discover it’s out of stock of an electronic title. No one physically took it away, but draconian rights management has blocked it because more than one person downloaded it.

As a deflection/pseudo-explanation, the story then veers off into a random discussion of book piracy. There’s this confusing commentary:

Travis Bryant: It’s real easy to lose control of your product.

That’s Travis Bryant. He’s director of digital products for Keen Communications, which publishes travel and business books.

Digital piracy is a real concern among publishers. In one instance, Bryant’s company found 700 illegal copies of a single book online. And Bryant says book sellers don’t want to mess with a business model that works for them.

Bryant: I think that’s more the case with Amazon, Apple, is that we’re succeeding on our own. If we introduce a third party, an open door, not so much the fear of losing control, but just introducing those variables would not be good to our business model.

700 copies, my goodness! Now, how did Bryant’s company know it was 700 copies, and not the same file shared 700 times? And what title was it? Well, looking back on 2009, the Kama Sutra was the most downloaded book from torrent sites, and the only true “bestseller” title was the complete Twilight series. All four books. Separately they didn’t even make the top ten. So while 700 sounds like a frightfully big number, the reality is that it a) might not be that big of a title, and b) might not really be as big a piracy issue as they’re making it sound like it is.

Here’s my take on what libraries need to do to improve their ebook marketshare. One, improve selection! My local library doesn’t carry “Twilight” as an ebook, for example. Searching for a prolific author like James Patterson brings up four random titles of his, not even a whole series. So before they blame Amazon and Apple, maybe the issue is that they don’t have enough titles worth downloading.

Second, fight for better digital rights management or no copy protection at all. The bottleneck in getting library ebooks on more devices is with Adobe; if they had a way to add Adobe DRM’d books to smartphones and iPads there would be no issue. Publishers insist on DRM, the libraries chose Adobe, and they need to work with that, or fight for DRM-free downloads. Until then, pointing the finger at other companies isn’t going to help.

Finally, as I said above, start renting and selling ebook readers. With costs dropping precipitously for readers that support Adobe DRM, there’s no reason not to try it, and then the “oh, I can’t read it on my Kindle” excuse won’t fly. Buy up some Kobo Readers and a few Sony Pocket Editions, hold a weekly seminar on how to set them up, even pre-load the ebook on them for patrons if necessary, but do SOMETHING. Complaining to NPR doesn’t count!

Categories: eBooks, Editorials

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13 replies

  1. Better yet….if Amazon just wants to sell ebooks, how about letting Kindles read the Adobe library files? OR how about Amazon come up with a Lending/Renting scheme. Then dead tree libraries will disappear.

    I have no idea what the publishers/book sellers charge libraries for their eBooks, but I would hazard to guess that they charge an exorbitant fee with an equally stupid license that says you must only have 2 out at a time. They likely also pay thousands in licensing fees for the server that serves them up and keeps track of them. too. Why? Mostly because they can, but the biggest issue here is like you said: Publishers are clinging to a dead model.

    I am sure there was probably some equally dumb stuff like this when the papyrus scrolls were replaced by bound books printed on a Gutenberg press.

  2. @joel: amazon is a business, their business is selling books. Why give away access? Its like the libraries complaining that B&N doesn’t take library cards…why should they?

    And I am thoroughly convinced Adobe is not a better option, nor is it “universal”, so why should Amazon feel obligated to support it? That’s a rant for another editorial, when I am not on vacation…

  3. I confess to not being a big ebook reader. I have Kindle software on my laptop and do not own it or the iPad.

    I wonder how much real clout libraries have with publishers. Our public library system is hopelessly fragmented. I live in the Los Angeles area and there are two public library systems – the LA public library and the LA County public library. I don’t think they even co-operate (I have two separate library cards but have not tried too hard to see if it is necessary). Given this, I am not sure how exactly we can expect the libraries to dictate terms to publishers, Adobe or anyone else. I think the only thing they can rely on is for folks like us to complain and complain loudly to publishes, Adobe and I think Amazon and Apple. Don’t you think that if Apple and Amazon decided that they want to support public libraries, they could make it happen.

    I think it makes sense for Amazon to help out the libraries. If I could get to read library books on Kindle, I think I would buy one. This in turn might mean that I would start buying books for the Kindle rather than physical ones.

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