I work for a large library system. And for a few years we’ve had an ebook collection, contracted through Overdrive.
We have a decent collection, but when we first acquired our ebooks, something which I didn’t quite understand was the concept of “licenses”. Sure, I understood the idea as it related to software. But I couldn’t fathom why that should apply to books.
My patrons have the same problem. I walked a lost soul through the thickets of ebook borrowing the other day. As I explained the parameters of library ebooks, she became more incensed.
“See,” I explained, “ebooks are like physical books. Just as we buy a certain number of copies of physical books, we buy a certain number of “copies” of ebooks. We’re buying licenses, just like for software.”
“But,” she countered, “they’re not software. They’re books, just in electronic form.”
“I agree. However, we don’t make the rules. We just have to explain the assinine rules to our patrons.”
Here’s how it works. Most publishers give you a discount on the ebooks. BUT, after 26 or so checkouts, you have to buy an entire new license. That would be like having to throw away a physical book after 26 checkouts and buy an entirely new replacement.
Some publishers don’t make you buy a new license after a certain amount of checkouts. But, to recompense themselves, they charge upwards of $80 for just one license.
These are the reasons why no library has the number of ebooks that Amazon has. It is just too expensive for a public library, with limited funds, to build an extensive ebook collection.
See how I mentioned Amazon? There’s a reason for that.
As an Amazon Prime member and Kindle owner, I have the ability to borrow a book from Amazon’s lending library. With over 350,000 titles, it is quite extensive, more extensive than that of any public library of which I know. I can keep the book as long as I want. Amazon, in effect, has become the Netflix of books.
But, LL, you’ll counter, you can go to sites like The Pirate Bay and you’ll see hundreds of books you can illegally download, threatening the livelihoods of published authors, and making the futures of people like you who want to publish bleak.
Well, yes. You can find nearly any book free for download online. It is a threat to the well-being of publishers and authors.
However, I will offer a counter-example: music.
When file-sharing sites first sprang up, I, like many of my generation, dove in feet first and downloaded music to my heart’s content. Napster truly was an existential threat to the music industry. (If you haven’t watched the Napster documentary “Downloaded”, do so, and watch it here.) For years, the industry went the punitive route, slapping downloaders and hosters with ridiculous lawsuits which would never serve as real deterrents.
Then sites like Rhapsody and Google Play Music began to spring up. For a monthly fee (I pay $7.99 for Google Play), you had access to millions of songs, more than you could ever hope to download. And the sites offered an easy way to search for music, curating it, exposing you to music you may not have found on your own. The sites offer a service which you can’t get on your own on file-sharing sites. iTunes also changed everything, by offering singles at a cheap price, cheap enough to serve as a deterrent to piracy. I began as a Rhapsody subscriber, then moved to Google Play a couple of years ago. I haven’t downloaded pirated music in years, because I haven’t had to. For a modest fee, I have access to just about every shade of music I could want. Piracy is irrelevant. Artists get compensated, and I swim in music. Most people are willing to pay a fair price for a good service.
The publishing industry, while not going the lawsuit route, is just as tone deaf as was the music industry ten years ago. It needs, like the music industry, to create a structure which positively discourages piracy. When you can have access to 18,000,000 tracks on Google Play for a modest fee, why would you want to spend time trawling through file sharing sites for music? Likewise, if publishers made ebooks to libraries as ubiquitous as physical books, the incentives to piracy would be greatly lessened. And to people who want a more curated experience, a Netflix for ebooks should spring up, allowing checkouts for a modest fee.
Publishing is at the same place which music was 15 years ago. As ebooks garner more and more of a share of the market, the industry has to decide how to manage the demand. As the experience of the music industry has shown, punitive measures are nigh useless in a digital world. Publishing has to embrace the new technologies, and create positive inducements to counter piracy. Otherwise, the bleeding will continue unabated. Charging upwards of $12 for one book on Amazon which exists solely in electronic form is a sure path towards demise.