A friend who works at the last remaining big box chain bookstore in our region tells me she spends most of her day doing work which brings in not one red cent for that company. The chain has focused largely on e-readers these last couple years (just check their homepage to see how central their e-reader has become), and one of their selling points is free on-site tech support. But the stores have no dedicated tech support staff, so everybody has to respond to customers who walk in with e-reader problems. What do you suppose is the most common complaint? I can’t figure out how to download library books on my e-reader. 

So here is a chain bookstore, closely allied with big publishing houses and the major distributors which connect them–selling hardware which is not generating sales for their e-books. At least, not as many sales as they planned and need. And like so much of latter day corporate capitalism, its all about market share. If you think that’s not the issue, check out how the big players like Apple and amazon are under fire for possible price-fixing collusion in e-book markets.

This got me interested in library models for e-book loans, and how they fit into the changes in the book industry. Turns out our local library systen offers e-book loans through the OverDrive interface–whose relatively crude formatting method does not require librarians to do anything but receive the e-book (thus saving local libraries from the laborious tech issues of translating format for various different devices). Here’s how it works. You sign in to the system electronically with your library card number, then you can “check out” whatever available e-books you like. The e-book catalog is very limited right now, and there is a 3-week term after which the book is involuntarily “returned” to the system–that is to say, it is sucked back off your device (supposing said device is internet-enabled and on a network–and if it’s not, you pay a daily fine once it’s overdue). And other readers can’t “check out” that e-book till you “return” it. Just like its hard copy books, the library posesses a fixed number of copies of any given e-book, and if they are all “checked out” you gotta get on line like everybody else.

This seemed so strange for a cyber-system. Why, I pondered, would the e-book loan system duplicate the format of physical book loans? Isn’t one of the big perks of e-readers the instant gratification of downloading anytime you have the urge? And why couldn’t a library simply copy out e-books for all readers, as desired?

The answer is business. Publishers ae looking to sustain income from library sales and they have created a model to insure this by licensing the book for limited use–one copy dowloads to only one user at a time and cannot be shared between e-reader devices. And since they are charged for each e-book copy individually, libraries order a limited number, exactly as they would any “regular” book. And just as planned obsolescence in hard copy books causes them to fall apart within a couple years of regular use, the e-book purchases are timed-out after a fixed period (that is to say, the e-books are sucked back off the library’s catalog), at which point the library has to re-purchase these books if they wish to continue having them in circulation. This is the position staked out by publishers in the first wave of e-book sales to libraries. Ars Technica discusses the six major publishing houses’ contractural approaches to libraries, and describes the basics of library loan of e-books.

So the big surprise (anybody surprised?) is that people with the means can get instant gratification–through amazon or any other pay-to-play e-book supplier–and download at whim. But those who rely on the public library system for books will not benefit from the e-book system except for the option of reading on a screen. In other respects an e-book loan from our library is nearly indistinguishable from a regular book loan. Can you fit more books in your backpack at one time, if they’re loaded on an e-reader? You bet. Just don’t count on having those books for more than your allotted 3 weeks, or being able to log on and grab the hot new titles as soon as they come in to the library–any more than with a traditional library book.

Which brings me back to the big box bookstores selling the hardware for all this. It seems a lot of folks would sooner be wait-listed for a library book than buy one for their e-reader. The e-readers have been promoted not because in themselves, they bring in a lot of revenue, but because they lock in the reader to whatever e-book system works on that device. But library e-books are not locked in to any particular brand of e-reading device.

At first glance the failing business model of the big box chain might seem like great news for smaller players like local indie bookstores. And in some ways it is (our local indies are thriving now that the last other big box chain went under). But think about this: without any remaining major national bookstore chains through which to purvey their books, how will the major publishing houses survive?

with e-love,
p.s. Indie bookstores have contracted with Kobo–you can have your e-book cake and benefit your local indie bookstore, too. Indiebound (a good source for reasons to buy indepdendent) has a partial list of participating bookstores.