Electronic Words: eBooks and Libraries, What’s the Price?

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Don’t forget to sign the EULA when you go in the door, please!

Talking about a “war” between libraries and publishers seems perhaps a bit hyperbolic, but here’s an interesting Forbes piece by David Vinjamuri from a marketing and brand perspective about how eBooks fit (or fail to) in the library ecosystem. He talks to both sides, each of which is seeing their mission, legacy, and biz model challenged. At root, what does it mean for libraries to license rather than own eBook content? Who is a reseller, who is a lender, and who is the end-user? (Me, I’m just a humble reader.)

Do libraries increase book sales or cannibalize them?  This is the issue at the heart of the struggle between libraries represented by the American Library Association (whose president is Maureen Sullivan) and the Big Six publishers.

(Vinjamuri shares the remarkable, if hard to verify, factoid that Random House employees all got 5K bonuses courtesy of the “50 Shades” books. Somebody should profit from the hours lost reading that, I suppose. Sir Rushdie has pointed out that it makes Twilight read like War and Peace.)

Back to the Forbes piece: it’s got a good rundown on where things stand today with the big six publishers and eBook policies for libraries, which made me, a library nerd, through and through, more sympathetic to the publishers’ dilemmas.  eBooks remove “friction” from the market, because, among other things, you don’t even have to go to the library to borrow a new eBook. Leads to some head-scratching on the model of a library “owning” something on my behalf and “loaning” it to me free of charge. (Parallels to digital music borrowing don’t seem to shed much light.) If it’s a EULA anyway, is there a loss of the public good if I just sign the EULA with the publisher, and they price it accordingly. (This is more or less what I do with Naxos Music Library, which costs a lot for an annual subscription, but gives me a massive amount of all you can eat classical music, and saves any “per title” cost. With the result that I haven’t bought a physical CD, except one as a gift for a 89 year old, in two years.)

Vinjamuri proposed solution is a “cost per use” approach that could give publishers rational pricing info, but keep eBooks in libraries. Seems like content metering in a certain sense, and would bring a potential infrastructure and perhaps privacy cost (although these already exist to some extent). There is also the question of how a library builds and preserves a collection in an eBook environment? (It is not just this year’s bestsellers that libraries traffic in, but also large amounts of out-of-print and scholarly material that still has a place on the shelves. If eBooks vanish after 26 loans, what does it mean to have an ‘eBook’ collection?)

Also not mentioned is much anticipated, but never quite here, eBook revolution in the college textbook market. This would seem to be a natural use for the format, but some college students and faculty are very resistant.

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