Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Ebooks in Libraries

Hello, and welcome to another exciting edition of Technology Tuesday. Up for today's topic: ebooks in libraries. There have been some developments in the past week or two on this front, and it will be interesting to see where things end up once all cards are on the table.

First off is a new effort by several startup companies to try and leverage a little ability Amazon just added to their Kindle ebooks: the ability to lend them to friends. That's right, if you have a Kindle, you can now loan your ebooks to other people with Kindles. The catch? You can loan each ebook only once, and the loaned copy self-destructs after two weeks. I'm not entirely sure why they decided to limit it in this way, but anything's better than nothing, I guess--so this counts as a step in the right direction. How are these startup companies trying to leverage this ability? Well, say you have a Kindle, but you don't have any friends with a Kindle nearby--or at least no friends that share your taste in books. Companies are trying to organize to let you maximize your lending ability. Basically, you sign up for the service and lend all your Kindle ebooks out to strangers, thereby earning yourself credits, which you can spend to lend books from other people. It's like one big library system, in essence, with all users loaning each other books.

This is all fine and good, but you've got to think Amazon isn't crazy about the idea. After all, they're in this to make money--to sell more books. Efforts like this appear to be aimed at getting people free books. What's my take on it? I think ebooks need to be more user-friendly. You need to be able to do the things with ebooks that you do with normal books. Lending them to friends makes sense. Limiting the number of friends you lend them to? Not so much. I believe people are inherently honest--especially after they reach a certain age. Most adults don't have any desire to steal a book--especially not book lovers. There are already illegal ways of obtaining books online (which I won't go into in this blog post). In other words--if someone wants to steal an ebook, they can. Right now. Usually days after the book is published. But book lovers would rather own the books they love. They want to support their favorite authors. If Kindle ebooks could be loaned to friends with no restrictions (but only one readable copy available for you or your friends to read at one time--just like a print book), more people would be willing to get an ereader and start reading ebooks. Since it looks people read (and buy) more books once they get an ereader, everybody wins this way. (And word on the street is that Amazon is aiming for a free Kindle one day in the future--who knows where that will go . . .)

The second item of interest is a new twist in the way publishers handle ebooks for libraries. HarperCollins has decided to let libraries have ebooks, but put a limit on how many times those ebooks can be checked out. That limit? 26 times. Their reasoning? Printed books only last so often before they fall apart, so libraries typically have to purchase replacement copies. Since ebooks never wear out, publishers worry they'll lose this source of revenue. 26 times is supposedly the national average for how long a print book lasts before it needs replacing.

My take: most library books aren't going to make it to 26 check outs, unfortunately. The really popular ones will surpass that, but the others . . . it might take years, if they ever get that many at all. So for many books, libraries aren't losing much, but for the few bestsellers (the ones people with ereaders might actually want to read), this is imposing an artificial means of making sure publishers keep getting their cut. Perhaps a better approach would have been to charge libraries slightly more for an ebook. I don't know.

All of this boils down to one thing: the world of ereaders and libraries is still a wild and crazy one, and how things look five years--or even one year--from now may well be much different than how they look today. Stay tuned . . .

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