ebooks and libraries

I’ve cranked out two of these and tried very hard to resist pumping out the third on the same day. Nope – gonna print, then ponder some other stuff for a while. For those interested, here are the links to the first and second articles in this group.

Ebooks won’t kill libraries. In fact, I don’t think they’ll make the library much different than it is now – accepting, of course, that you’ll be able to check out an electronic packet instead of a stack of paper. Of course you’ll still be able to get that stack of paper, too, and often it’ll be genre fiction or other things that are perfect fits for e-print over p-print. (e=electronic. p=physical or paper.)

heh – I can hear some of you yelling now. OK, let’s get into the meat.

Let’s start with paper. Earlier I made the case that in some areas print will remain dominant – children’s books being the easiest example. Granting that example, I also said for some things e-books would dominate; in particular genre fiction. Yet here I am saying libraries will continue to receive p-print materials. I’m quite comfortable making this claim. There are two major reasons for it.

The first reason is the one that may fade over time. That is that while customers without readers and the inability to afford them form about half the publishers’ customer base even though they form between 75 and 85% of the total population. Library patrons come closer to meeting the total population groups. They get a LOT of people who cannot afford to purchase a reader AND the books. A library that doesn’t at least attempt to serve the majority of its community is one that’s doomed to loss of funding and possible disappearance. For these people it’s either p-print or nothing. Now as I said, that may fade over time – in fact given long enough it’s almost certain. There is, however, another compelling reason.

In the other library article earlier article, I pointed out that library theory says the libraries fulfill four roles in their communities. They have, though we forget, other roles for other communities. In the publishing industry libraries are customers – which seems intuitively obvious. Far less obvious, libraries are advertising.

Eric Flint argues frequently that book stores fulfilled this same purpose, especially for new authors. There are so many books out there that it’s almost impossible to be noticed online, but that a bookstore allows the display to a targeted audience. After all, the reason you’re in there is probably not to get a cup of coffee but to pick up something to read. Libraries are much the same, except they make a slightly different balance. In the bookstore, a book which doesn’t sell goes away, even though it often takes time to develop an audience. This is particularly so when the new author’s work happens to come out the same month a Mega Author’s new Tales of the Same hits the shelves. (money for one book. This guy looks interesting. Oh, Wait, MA’s new book is out. OK.) The library, of course, carries the book its purchased till it’s forcibly removed – by theft, by damage, or by simple age. (It is the rare public library that won’t keep an author’s work for at least five years even if it never leaves the shelf.)

For my inevitable digression, I suspect part of the renegotiation of roles and exchanges between libraries and publishers will reflect this exact thing. I don’t think libraries will ever get books donated – primarily advertising budget for the publisher and author – but I do think massive discounts for printed mass-market may indeed be negotiable. This is particularly true if and when the threshhold of electronic readers is reached – where almost everyone has one, just as they have a telephone today. If I’m ever hired in a library, particularly if I’m the director or part of the admin team, it’s something I’m going to keep on the burner. As I said, however, that’s a digression.

The advertising is the counter to the argument of several authors that libraries are pirates. That they should have to pay a royalty on every item that’s checked out as if they didn’t, the customers would have purchased the book. In a word, hah. (Actually, in the US that’s “hah”. In the UK among other places, the authors do indeed get a royalty. sigh.) With the possible exceptions of a few Mega Authors, what would happen is that the customers wouldn’t read anything, instead. No sales, still, but the authors remain unknown – or if MAs, gradually become forgotten much faster than many of them do now. As I said, as electronic books become more and more common, I think the ability of libraries to claim their needs for print books can be negotiated in part as advertising for the authors and publishers.

However, the libraries won’t have just p-print. You will be able to get e-print from the library as well. Heck, you can today at some libraries. And here-in it gets tricksy.

See, the arguments that libraries are the seed of book piracy become more legitimate when the format is one that can be easily copied. That’s the root of the piracy argument, anyway. It doesn’t help that the only realistic way to make e-books work for libraries seems counter-intuitive to those who think even a little about how e-books work.

See, the way it works is that the library purchase so many ‘copies’, and then ensures that only that many are ‘lent out’ at a time. The lendings are time-corrupted files. It’s a fairly old system – consider any “trial period” software you’ve used and you get the idea. Download, get the code that opens it, and you’ve got (lending period) days to read it. Renewal is a new code, and after a certain number of lendings you just can’t get it.

Nonetheless, there will be valid risk of the computer literate picking up the library copy, cracking off the time limit, and then reading (and even sharing freely amongst his friends and acquaintances) without particular difficulty. And unlike doing this with the copy machine (which has happened in the past – I still recall my first bogglement at the photocopied Hobbit), the copies will be as good as the original and require no significant outlay from the thief, be it for one or one thousand copies. This is the core of the whole piracy problem, of course.

I will note that libraries will work with publishers and authors to fix this problem. The reason is that for the patrons who have readers, e-print is much better for the library. It is cheaper, obviously. It uses a LOT less shelf-space, even if a marker (consisting of the cover in a pretty but empty display) is used. Probably most beneficial from the library point of view is its durability. Paper books – paperback or hardcover – wear. Pages get wet or have food spilled upon them. Pages tear, glue (and thread bindings) separate with pages getting lost. Things are spilled and drawn (by accident and on purpose) making some words illegible. A paperback is good for maybe a dozen circulations. Hardbacks will go fifty, even (maybe) as many as 100 times before they must be replaced. An electronic master can be copied indefinitely, however, meaning there is no real need for replacement ever again.

Let me close with the final reason why e-books won’t kill libraries. Quite simply, because a lot of people who want to read, even if they have the readers, will read a lot more if they don’t have to pay for each book on the access. Yes, some people use their library to avoid buying the book they want to read. Many do because they wish to read it once, and when done expect to not want it again. (In fact, repeat readings are far less common for most books and authors. I’ve noticed that an author or book that gets checked out more than once is one that turns out to be popular at bookstores, too. Sometimes I’ve spotted trends that way.) The same goes more-so for many non-fiction items. People check out books on subjects in which they are interested, but which aren’t of sufficient interest to want to buy an inhouse reference. (I told one interviewer, for an acquisition position, that the library did not get books for the expert, but for the expert’s other hobbies. The trick, then, was to identify those hobbies. Yes, if there is a large community of expertise – say, you’re in an area known for carpet manufacturing – then you also get some on that as well. But those are for the non-experts who want to understand their community a little better.)

e-books won’t kill the libraries. Libraries will carry more e-books instead of (and supplemental to) p-print, just as they added videotapes and DVDs and computers and audiobooks and, well, every other alternate method that allows them to serve as much of their communities as possible. Some of the details will change, but the majority will be much the same as it ever was.

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