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.
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.