Music, Ebooks, & The Long Tail

Cory Doctorow wrote a piece yesterday named, “Music: The Internet’s Original Sin.” In it, he explains why he thinks music will remain at the center of the file-sharing debate, even though most digital music sold is DRM-free and music labels have stopped suing downloaders (for the most part). He explains the early rush to illegal downloads this way:

Back at the beginning of the file-sharing wars, during the delirious 18 months during which Napster went from zero to 52 million users, much of the focus was on the novelty of getting music for free – but there was also a lot of buzz about getting some of that music at all. Prior to Napster, more than 80 percent of recorded music wasn’t for sale (except as uncatalogued, obscure used LPs).

Music that hadn’t been available was suddenly right in front of you. That music probably wasn’t in high demand at all, but the amount of low-demand music that people want ends up representing a huge catalog. This phenomenon is called the long tail, and you can read more about it in the Wired article that coined the term, named aptly, “The Long Tail.”

Music labels have moved to capitalize on this demand by selling digital downloads of low-demand music. Once they’ve (re)secured the rights to sell the music online (which can be no small task with obscure artists, let alone the Beatles), it’s easy to make those albums available through iTunes, Amazon’s MP3 store, and other online shops. These albums are also available through music streaming services like Spotify and Rdio. If you suddenly remember a song that you haven’t heard in a decade, listening to that track is probably a couple clicks away.

Ebooks: Need I Say More

Compare the digital music scenario with the current state of ebooks. They are, in two words, not similar. There isn’t a vast long tail of ebooks available for sale or rent. Securing rights to create ebooks versions is a challenge, just like with music. But unlike music, books are much more difficult to digitize. (Compare the time it takes to rip a CD to the time it takes to just scan 10 pages of a book.) Since most book publishers rely heavily on DRM, distributing ebooks is more difficult. Buying ebooks is more difficult for consumers, too.

As Cory points out, our relationship with books is fundamentally different from our relationship with music. (Seriously, read his piece. It’s smart stuff.) We use books and music very differently, but that isn’t likely to make people more accepting of the current state of ebooks. Ebooks lag far behind music in going digital, and it doesn’t feel like ebooks are catching up.

When we tell library members about ebooks (which most people still don’t know we have), this needs toe part of the narrative. As all of Twitter pointed out yesterday, J.K. Rowling’s next book now has a cover. The book will be published by Hachette, which currently doesn’t sell ebooks to libraries. When should we explain that we won’t have this title as an ebook? Now? Or when a patron’s calling the front desk because he can’t find it on Overdrive?

Now, now, tell people about it now! If you tell patrons that we have ebooks they can read for free, that’s good news, right? If they find out about library ebooks when the one ebook they want isn’t available, the good news will get bulldozed by the bad. Tell people the good news while it’s still good. Besides, the more patrons check out ebooks from libraries, the more they’re likely to call for publishers to sell ebooks to libraries. That would be very good news indeed.

Expectations, Overdrive & Customer Service

When your expectations aren’t met, funny things happen.

Another example? Sure thing.

These are setups, right? The basketball players see this old dude who plays terribly for a while. He’s embarrassing himself. The lamp is carried on the owner’s shoulder like a baby. It looks up through the window to its old home. The viewer is drawn into one understanding, one perspective. The videos play these missed expectations as funny, but it isn’t always that way.

Library members have a perspective on libraries that libraries cultivate: we have books. We have a lot of books. If the book you want isn’t in the building, we’ll ship it in from another branch, maybe from another system. Maybe we’ll even just go buy it. Because you asked. We’ve worked really hard to establish this reputation. Supplying books certainly isn’t the only thing libraries do, but it’s one of those core services that we have to do well, because it’s an important part of who we are.

Ebooks don’t work like print books. Lots of titles we have in print aren’t available in ebook formats at all, let alone being available through Overdrive. Even when titles are available, our money doesn’t go as far with ebooks, so we can’t buy as many titles or as many copies as we can with print. The public doesn’t understand this. They barely know we have ebooks at all

When people complain about ebooks, which they can reasonably see as indistinguishable from print books as a library’s core service, the first thing we should do is apologize. Don’t explain. Certainly don’t chastise them for not submitting their response through proper channels. We’ve worked to set their expectations, and then we didn’t meet them. Your patron–your customer–needs empathy before any of the “Yeah, but” explanations you have ready.

Try this on: Imagine you’ve spent a lot of money getting a fancy new 4G phone that’s supposed to download files at super-fast speeds. Two weeks later, you’re on vacation and you can’t access the data network at the beach house your family rents every year. Your old phone worked there, but your new expensive phone doesn’t. You call the store where you bought the phone, and instead of apologizing, the salesman says “Oh yeah, well this is a different network so coverage isn’t the same. You should have checked the coverage map that’s online. Besides, this is a carrier issue, so you should have called them and not me.”

At this point, you’re probably trying to light the salesman on fire with the power of your mind. The poor cell phone reception at your beach house isn’t this individual salesman’s fault. He can’t fix it. But everyone who represents that network system owns it. You bought that new phone expecting it would work better, and sometimes it does, but in this case it was a big fat FAIL. You hope for a fix, but you need an apology if they want to keep you as a customer.

We need to do more than apologize. We need to explain this whole ebook situation before the system fails people’s expectations. And I’m very confident that we aren’t doing this enough because people barely know we have ebooks at all. What are libraries already doing to explain the deal with ebooks? Let’s do it more, and better. This is a burning issue for libraries. In fact, I think my hair is starting to smoke.