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.
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.
At the Computers in Libraries conference last week, there was lots of discussion about ebooks. Angry discussion. Okay some of the anger was in fun, but libraries are in a tough spot when it comes to ebooks.
Thursday’s A202 session, “Ebook Trends: Info Pro Perspectives,” started with Andy Woodworth quoting Louis C.K.: “Everything is amazing and nobody is happy.” Click through and watch Louis (He’s on Conan, so there’s no swears. From 1:55 to 6:08 or so is his bit on this). His take, and Andy’s, seems pretty right-on. Twenty years ago, we couldn’t have imaged the conveniences of today’s information technologies. But we get seriously upset today when it doesn’t operate at maximum convenience.
I don’t think our complaints about ebooks are about inconvenience. Libraries are about giving everyone equal access to content. “Sharing wins,” says Andy. “Sharing will always win.” Sharing isn’t this optional thing you might or might not do in your lifetime. Boy, another month without sharing anything with anyone. Nope. “The inclination to share stories, thoughts, ideas, and concepts is more philosophically compelling than the rules around them.” Yep.
So if sharing wins, why are libraries still getting skunked? I think it’s because we forget that this system causes our patrons more pain than it causes us. We’d like to offer The Hunger Games in ebook format and not just as a downloadable audio book, but it’s patrons who can’t get the ebook.
And patrons don’t know why they can’t check out the ebooks they want to read. They don’t know that this ebook isn’t available from this publisher at all, or that that ebook just tripled in price from that publisher. My question isn’t if ebooks are worth getting upset about. It’s if libraries are the right ones to be upset. Shouldn’t it be our patrons?
After all, our frustration doesn’t get us a better seat at the bargaining table with the publishers and Overdrive. (Do we even have a seat there?) When Random House “experiments” with 300% price increases on ebooks, libraries have to buy fewer copies or buy from other publishers.
Issues like that are invisible to patrons, who likely don’t know the publisher of the book they want to read at all. They just want to read. We need to make these issues visible, because it’s patrons who are really getting skunked here. When they see enough examples of publishers gaming library budgets and cutting off access to ebooks, they’ll have the “Aha” moment we already have.
They’ll hit bingo. They’ll start making this argument about access to ebooks for us, and there are a lot more patrons out there than librarians. We’re talking about these issues already, but we need to talk about it where our patrons can hear. At the reference desk, sure, but in the local newspapers, local radio, our websites. I don’t enjoy getting skunked, but it’s a lot easier to take if it gets patrons closer to that bingo moment. Let’s make sure it does.
Here’s a quick update. I sent Pottermore a question about what format you get when you “buy” a Harry Potter ebook. They responded (very quickly, I might add) that you aren’t buying a format. When you make a purchase it appears in your “My books” list. From the “My books” page you can download the ebook in whatever format you like, up to their limit of 8 downloads.
So you could link your purchase to the Amazon store, Barnes & Noble, Google Play, and still download the EPUB file to sideload onto an e-reader using Adobe’s Digital Editions and have only used 4 of your 8 available downloads. That’s pretty cool. I hope other books, authors, and publishers will be able to create similar agreements so that buying content doesn’t tie you to a specific device or store.
This is really good news for consumers. I’d still like to actually own the ebooks I buy, though, when I’m paying for a book I want to keep. DRM or not, I want to be able to do what I want with the copy I bought. That doesn’t include making multiple copies to pass around. But I should be able to loan my copy to a friend without being labeled a pirate.
On the other hand, I don’t want to own every book I read. That’s why I go to the library. I’d be willing to rent an ebook and pay $.99 or $1.99 to have it for 30 or 60 days. That’s not the maximum I would pay, necessarily, but those prices would be an easy sale. I’d get to skip the hold list at the library and hopefully have a longer period of time to read the book. But when I’m done, the file goes away, and I’m not saddled with an ebook I can’t resell or even donate.
Is this crazy-talk?
Today’s library twitterstream is buzzing with the news that the Harry Potter ebooks are now available at Pottermore. Books 1-3 are $7.99 each , and books 4-7 are $9.99 each. Or you can get the whole collection for $57.54. They also have audio books available for download. $29.99 for 1-3 each, and $44.99 for 4-7 each. Or get the whole shebang for $242.94.
While having these available as ebooks is news, the way these downloads work with devices is really interesting. For one, the ebooks don’t have DRM restrictions. Instead of DRM that locks the ebook to a specific retailer’s system, ebooks are “personalized” and watermarked with your name. So if you share your ebook files on the internets, the Pottermore crew can easily track who shared it.
The ebooks are also available in formats compatible with pretty much every available e-reader. Kindle, Nook, Kobo, Sony, Android devices, iOS devices: check, check, all of them yes. Audio books are available in MP3 format, so they’re compatible with every device with a headphone jack, as well.
Wait, the ebook you buy at Pottermore works with the Kindle and the Nook? Yes indeed. When you purchase an ebook, you can connect your Pottermore account to your Amazon or Barnes & Noble account. (I’m still hunting down whether you can connect to both with a single purchase.) By connect, I mean the Pottermore site opens a window where you can sign in to your Amazon/B&N account to link accounts. Your Kindle-compatible ebook will then get loaded through Amazon, but the entire purchase process happens at Pottermore. You can see this in action at Pottermore’s YouTube page.
Why would Amazon, and others, do this? Why would they let you purchase an ebook through another store and load it onto your Kindle–something they’ve never done before, according to this article at The Bookseller? With no inside information at all, I’d guess they just want it that bad. Same for Barnes & Noble, Google’s new store called Play. (Pottermore currently doesn’t have an agreement in place with Apple to link to the iBookstore, but the DRM-free file can be added to the iBooks app through iTunes, very easily.)
So you can buy the Harry Potter ebooks in one place and use it on the device of your choosing. And further, you can download the ebook a total of 8 times, in case you lose the file. Pretty nice. Here’s the bad news: you don’t own the ebook. Here are the details, straight from their Terms & Conditions page:
12.1 When you buy a downloadable book from us, what you are buying is the right to use that book in the way we explain below for your own personal, non-commercial use only:
The text describes how you can download content and use it on your e-reader. Under section 12.2 comes the next little nugget.
You may not and may not permit others to do any of the following things in relation to any book or extract:
§sell, distribute, loan, share, give or lend the book or extract to any other person including to your friends (except in the limited circumstances explained at 12.1 above);
You can’t sell it. That’s when you know you don’t own something. Pottermore files don’t have DRM to enforce this. All the same, you’re forbidden from loaning the ebook file to a friend, let alone selling it to a stranger on Craigslist.
If that takes the shine off, visit your local library’s ebook collection on Thursday, when the Harry Potter books should be available to read for free on the e-reader of your choice.
I’ve been visiting libraries with our E-Reader Sandbox program, introducing the devices and ways to use them. When we get to the section on checking out ebooks from the Ohio Ebook Project, I see lots of frowns when I describe the waiting lists for some titles. At the moment, for example, there are 163 patrons on the waiting list for The Help, even though the page shows that the library has 108 copies. “It’s just like with books,” someone says.
But They’re Digital
People know that the ownership model isn’t the only option when it comes to digital files. I don’t know much of anything about Netflix’s inner workings, but I know they don’t have to buy a “copy” of each TV episode I want to stream. They have licensing agreements in place. No one has to wait for me to finish watching Mr. Bean “eat” steak tartar to watch it themselves. I’m not interested in those licensing agreements (unless one ends and I lose access to content I like). As long as it just works, that’s all I need to know.
If patrons are confused about the way ebooks and libraries work in this regard, it’s not necessarily naiveté. Maybe they think of ebooks like text files that can be duplicated endlessly with a simple keystroke. But maybe they’re thinking of other access models. Count me among the crowds who would like ebook access to newly-released titles to be as open as works in the public domain hosted at Archive.org. How should I know that the library’s access doesn’t work like that?
Welcome to the Real World
That kind of access is a pipe dream, but ebook licensing is among a number of library functions that often take place invisibly. Sometimes invisibility is good. As a patron, I can ask for a book at the counter and it’s handed to me, or it’s put on hold and delivered to my branch, or the library considers purchasing it. Maybe Inter-Library Loan deserves its own episode of “Modern Marvels,” but on a daily basis, that process’s invisibility is fine with me.
Conflicts arise when people have expectations that aren’t met. “I have to wait behind 163 people? Wait, 164? I thought I could just download it now.” We can help people set their expectations by educating them before they’re disappointed. Tell your patrons how ebook lending works, and make that part of your pitch. When Kindle-format ebooks came to Overdrive, libraries quickly sent out the word on their websites and Facebook pages. “Now available” was true, but it only told part of the story.
Limited availability is bad news in some sense, but it’s also important news. When you read a Black Friday ad, it’s important to find the footnote that reads “Minimum 2 per store.” You’d probably prefer that number to be 500, but you’d definitely want to avoid waiting in line all night to be the thirtieth person to find the item’s out of stock.
Libraries buy books. Sometimes they’re digital.
Maybe this six-word summary doesn’t say enough to communicate the essential message, and maybe it doesn’t accurately describe your system. Find the simplest explanation you can. Use a footnote if necessary. Whatever explanation you use, you’ll need to use it a lot, in lots of locations: your website, your Facebook wall, your entryway hall. Find ways to keep the message fresh. You don’t want to bore people who have seen the message twenty times already, but you don’t want to miss the patron who’s finally coming to see what the ebook buzz is about.
Create your own documentation on the topic and keep linking to it. Don’t rely on Overdrive’s site to explain it. Help set patron expectations early and often, and they’ll be better able to move past the bad to the good news about ebook lending.