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Libraries pay price for ebook 'friction'

Publishers, librarians still look for ways to make high-tech leap


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Multnomah County Library Director Vailey Oehlke is currently reading an electronic version of 'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,' checked out from the Multnomah County Central Library. 
Multnomah County Library Director Vailey Oehlke is reading “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.”

She checked the electronic version of the bestseller out of the library after having been put on a wait list for a copy, liked it, but between one distraction and another couldn’t finish the book before its due date.

The library wait list meant it could be months before she could check the book out again to finish it, so Oehlke spent $13 and bought a copy of the ebook.

Now, if you think about it, Oehlke’s predicament doesn’t make sense. Electronic books, or ebooks, only exist in cyberspace. Wait lists and renewals shouldn’t matter once Oehlke had downloaded a library copy to her electronic reader.

But there is a lot that doesn’t make sense in the intersecting worlds of libraries and ebooks, as far as Oehlke is concerned. First and foremost, she says, is the fact that the six major U.S. book publishers won’t sell electronic versions of most of their books to libraries, fearing lost business. When they do sell popular ebooks to libraries, they often triple the price.

When the library conducted its most recent annual survey, Oehlke says, the most common request was that it carry more ebooks, which make up about 5 percent of the library’s collection. As far as Oehlke is concerned, given that recent studies project demand for ebooks will skyrocket, especially from young adults, keeping ebooks out of libraries defeats one of the fundamental missions of libraries: equal access to information for all.

The library cannot purchase the electronic versions of more than half of the books on The New York Times bestseller list. That means only people with the money to buy them — if they want electronic versions — can read them.

“Why would we want to hearken back to a time when only people with resources had access to books and learning?” Oehlke asks.

Settling on a price

Book publishers and libraries have always maintained an odd relationship, symbiotic most of the time but occasionally, forgive the metaphor, not on the same page. Publishers want to sell as many books as possible. Libraries foster reading, publishers say, but they also allow people to read books without spending a dime.

With print books, the answer has always been what the industry calls friction. The library wait list is basically a creator of book friction. Enough friction — a long enough wait — and some people will head to the bookstore and buy a copy. Those who can’t afford it benefit because the buyers shorten the wait list for everybody else.

But creating friction with ebooks is a lot more complicated, says Oehlke, who is part of a national library association committee trying to address the problem. For starters, publishers are concerned that despite their software attempts to prevent it, some smart software engineers will figure out how to download ebooks from the library and then share them with others.

“A large part of the conversation now is how do you make it onerous enough for public library users to check out an ebook from the library, that they will be more inclined in certain instances to purchase it?” Oehlke says.

On that, at least, both sides appear to agree. “Nobody seems to be satisfied, either on the publishers’ side or the librarians’ side,” says Adam Rothberg, director of corporate communications for Simon & Schuster.

Print books, Rothberg says, become worn and fall apart after enough people check them out. That results in libraries buying more copies. Ebooks never wear out, at least not unless programmed to do so.

Rothberg says the loss of bookstore sales to electronic retailers such as Amazon, and the ease of placing holds on library books without visiting the library, also play a role in the changing relationship between major publishers and libraries. He says readers traditionally have sampled a book at the library and then bought other books by the same author. But with readers able to order an ebook from either a publisher or from the library while sitting at home, people may simply choose the latter.

“We haven’t yet found a business model with which we’re comfortable and that we feel properly addresses the long term interests of our authors,” says Rothberg.

But they will, says Mark Meckler, chairman of the entrepreneurship and innovation department at the University of Portland School of Business.

“We went through this same battle with music,” Meckler says.

In Meckler’s world, the issue of ebooks and libraries comes down to groups he calls innovators, early adapters and the early majority. Ten years ago, he says, Napster provided software that allowed anyone with a computer and a connection to illegally download music. The people he calls early adapters began sharing songs and record companies and artists lost revenue. Then the early majority rationalized the illegal practice and did the same.

Eventually, all the major stakeholders got together, Meckler says, figured out they were all losing money and found a solution, which included a Digital Rights Management agreement to ensure copyrights. The key was finding a price for legally downloading music that convinced the majority of listeners that they’d rather pay than do something they knew was illegal.

That price was 99 cents a song.

“Even a dollar fifty was too much,” Meckler says. “Somehow 99 cents worked.”

A clunky system

It is likely, he says, that innovators will devise software that will allow the theft of library ebooks. And early innovators are likely to use that technology to illegally download ebooks, unless somebody develops a software standard that satisfies libraries, publishers, authors and readers.

“It is inevitable,” Meckler says. “It’s a matter of patience and it’s hard when you’re the library, because you want to do what is good for your community. Yet if they give out the books before the protective technology the copyright laws are going to get infringed.”

Meckler says the library will have to act as the late majority in this process — the consumers who don’t adopt a new technology until it is “absolutely proven.”

But he has little doubt that will happen. The key for libraries, he says, is that as the ebook version of Digital Rights Management standards gets perfected, the libraries get a voice to make sure the model adopted works well for them.

For example, Meckler says, libraries prefer to maintain the privacy of patrons. But companies through which libraries buy or lease ebooks might prefer a model in which the libraries get ebooks cheap, but the companies get the borrowing habits of library patrons — valuable marketing data.

Another issue to be dealt with, according to Oehlke, is the mechanism by which library patrons download books. The system used by Multnomah County requires readers to go to an online catalog of a company that leases the ebooks to the library. There, readers can download software to their own computers and move the ebooks to their own reading devices. The ebooks stay on those devices for three weeks before software makes those books disappear.

One benefit of the system is that ebook readers can’t accrue overdue fines. But overall, Oehlke says, the system is “clunky.”

As far as creating the friction publishers want, Oehlke has hopes for a new proposal coming out of her national committee. Library patrons who visit the library website and put a hold on an ebook would get a pop up message on their computer screens. That message would say something like, “Wait too long? Why not buy it?” according to Oehlke. And the screen would provide a one-button link to a site that sells the book.

Readers with enough money could buy the book, and those without would wait.

Meckler says he has no doubt that ebooks in libraries will eventually become standard, much as songs legally available by download eventually became standard. But it might not happen at a speed which will satisfy everyone.

“These days, we’re used to everything going so fast, we expect libraries to already have the technology,” he says.