Monday, January 31, 2011

Public Library Online -- a very worrying thing.

"Attention! Attention! The revolution has been made aware of a reactionary incursion into the public library."

The public library -- the place where so many readers gained their first taste of the books they now spend money on. The public library -- an institution, which, for all its flaws in places, remains one of the keystones to literary access for anyone -- including those from a disadvantaged background, and those of us with book-habits too big for our incomes.
The public library -- a pet hate they dared not name -- of Big Publishing because, if they paid anything to anyone (besides the initial cover price) it was to those irrelevancies, authors, via PLR (in the UK, Australia, Canada and another 25 countries, not including the US). On the other hand everyone was supposed to support libraries, and paying authors is the publishers' rationalisation for the cover price (yes authors get... well 6% for newbies. But really we publishers exist merely so we can act as a conduit to them. We make a small nett profit (which, like retail, we compare to the authors gross when questioned). And we do such valuable things for our large gross. Buy paper. Pay for printing. Arrange shipping and distribution. Do the accounting... sometimes editing and proofreading also happen! We keep you readers from being drowned dross, because we know what you really ought to want to read. Authors are lucky to have us and we nurture and look after them out of a love for literature, and pure, well, mostly pure, altruism.).

And then along came the e-book. And many of the stated reasons for the cover price being what it is... evaporated. The monopoly on retail access -- at least for the electronic bookshelf -- disappeared. Many authors and wannabe authors saw that the gatekeepers -- who also kept the bulk of the income -- were being disintermediated. Not many private tears were shed for the behemoths who said the e-book price really had to be almost the same as hardcovers to make ends meet and support their noble efforts (including paying for the office in NY and the advances for the various agenda driven publishers pets) although the beast is not dead, (and won't IMO die, and will remain in new forms) so they got some sympathy in the public eye.

But there is more than one way to skin a cat. And while I expect publicity, money-clout, big-business dirty deals and possibly getting government legislation to get used to keep control of retail display access - or at least most of it, this one I did not expect. It amounts, de facto, if not de jure, to false advertising -- like calling your ten fellow power seizing coup d'etat plotters and wannabe dictators "The Peoples Democratic Liberation Army" and the snatching of the moral high ground by means of terminology.

Enter left, with fanfare, "Public Library Online " -- which is neither a library in the normal understanding of the word, nor does it fulfil the intent behind the word ‘public' as I see it - it's a private company with access by subscription only. In fairness, it is ‘online'. One out of three...

Set up by Bloomsbury, but now allowing access to other publishers (one imagines, for a fee/royalty payment) - not the hoi polloi, however, it is a ‘service' offered to those overextended, underfunded and incredibly valuable national treasures, REAL libraries, of - for a fee - online access to a virtual ‘shelf' of e-books (which can only be read online).

For the library that signs up, well, the admin is dealt with, there is no hassle, with a library card number your library members can read (so long as they're online) any of the books on that ‘shelf'. There are new shelves offered every year (or more often?) all for a 'minimal fee' and there is no need to pay the author a PLR (another bit of admin done away with) as they get 40 Pounds for every participating author, for every 1/4 million people that library authority serves. Why, as this article points out authors who the publishers decided to include would earn 1000 pounds per book per shelf a year - the equivalent of selling (according to them) 2000 paperbacks. And many library readers then go on to buy the book... It's a win-win-win... isn't it?

Hmm. I doubt it. I think it's more like asking the fox to guard your hen-roost. And opening the cage so the fox can do the job better!

For starters 1) while libraries will apparently be able to choose their shelf -- they will not be able to choose their books. So we hand choice to the publishers... who have done such a good job of broadening reading and getting more people to buy books haven't they?

2)PLR generally pays according to the number of times your book is taken out. It is, at the moment, possible to donate your author copies to libraries (I do), and thus at least get them into the system, letting people try them, and to get some feedback not related to retail access. It won't be under this system.

3)PLR pays the author. Not the publisher... to hand on a smidgen (no doubt adjustable at the publisher will), and, if you want to be on a ‘shelf' you'd better suck it up, and take whatever terms you are offered. In other words - less books for more money in PLR expenditure terms.

4) We return to the gatekeeper model - where the publisher decides exactly who will crack the nod. And Bloomsbury decides which publishers will crack the nod. So from bad we go to twice as bad, as far as allowing the public to choose what they would like to read. So much for ‘Public'.

5) Being on a ‘shelf' with a popular best-seller will mean a great deal to an author, especially a new one, or midlister. It's almost zero cost to the publisher, but can be used as a powerful inducement/threat to keep writers in line. ‘You self-publish on Kindle, you'll never be on our bookshelf again.'

6) A book once paid for, is paid for. It remains there even if your library has no money spare for new books. Not so with this system. You've _leased_ the books for a year. If you have no money: you have no books. If you have less money... you'll have less books. Not exactly a gift to the public in straitened times.

7) In normal parlance - and in the new e-book retail - a book remains on the shelf many more years - far longer than brick-and-mortar retail access. This allows the book to gradually build a following by word of mouth, removing the ability of publishers to control sales by publicity and distribution. Not with this system. You have a year. When you have no large publicity spend, a year is not enough. When you do, it's plenty.

8) This is nice and easy, we do it all for you.... ergo this a proprietary system we control. You, Joe Author, cannot merely donate your work to it, and once your library is dependent on it, we can do whatever we like to the costs etc.

9) Counting the book numbers on a 'shelf' - if I have this right - 9-10 - means authors get 35-40% of the income - and the library is spending more or less 100 pounds per book. That's NOT a bargain. 60-65% of that is being absorbed by the publisher, who has no returns, no paper costs, trivial distribution and storage costs, and no retail cost, and thus are taking this share (way above what they had for ordinary books) for admin and proof-reading and editing. -talk about gouging ‘the public' - getting your money whether you like the author or book or not by means of your taxes.

10) The effect of this on the value and role of librarians does not seem to be considered. I'm all for libraries doing away with/making simple the stupid donkey work of people who should be there because they know and love books -- replacing books in alphabetical order, and clocking books in and out. But this removes the librarian one step further from the ESSENTIAL functions of good librarianship -- choosing the right books (not ‘shelves') for their readers interest, and directing specific readers to those books. Next thing we know it'll imitate the ‘brilliant' success of taking away local control over these functions in book shops. That worked SO well there, I am not surprised that publishers want to repeat it in Libraries.

I could go on... but I really do not see this as a good thing for readers or authors.

I love and support libraries. This I see as a very bad thing for them, and for readers, and for writers. Publishing has, with some exceptions (and help from Chain retail and education authorities), been in the driving seat for the decline of literate people reading (the absolute numbers of literate people has increased, the numbers of readers in this group has dropped dramatically - the market has increased a hundredfold, the number of books sold... 10 fold.). Are they the right people to hand the exclusive keys to the library system to?

I'm not sure how to counter it. The Baen Free Library is one possible model.
About the only good thing I can say about it is that it is only online - at this stage.
Anyway: your thoughts?
Am I entirely wrong? Are they saints being vilified by bad me?

27 comments:

MataPam said...

I'm going to call it a mixed bag.

Still over-priced and over-controlled, but it will give people a taste of reading and researching on their computers or phones. Hopefully this will leave them wanting more and better and cheaper. Which is good for writers who are getting into epublishing.

I suspect there are numerous mags aimed at library staff. Informational advertisements "Where to refer people if they want to buy ebooks or find (legally) free ebooks" might be useful.

I mostly dislike that they are so expensive. Libraries are feeling the squeeze badly, just now. I think they'll either pass on this, or try it and squeeze other book purchases.

Ori Pomerantz said...

I'm on the Internet. The author and publisher are on the Internet. Why do I need the public library? There is plenty of reading material available for free already.

Amanda Green said...

Ori, sorry, that ranks right up there with the argument "I don't use the library so why should I pay taxes to support it?" or "My kids don't use the park, so why should I pay for it?". Yes, there are free books online. But not everyone has online access. Libraries serve many purposes, not the least of which is providing books those who can't afford them can check out and read.

Then there are those rare books and documents that haven't been digitized but are available through inter-library loan. I don't know many authors or students who haven't found themselves searching the internet for a primary source only to finally find it through their local library.

Research, tutoring, mentoring, literacy classes, story time to help expose and socialize little children...shall I go on? ESL classes -- for free. The same with computer classes for seniors. Computer access for those who, for whatever reason, don't have computers or the internet at home. Teen activities. Book clubs. Do you want more?

This is a topic very near and dear to my heart. Especially in this day and age when libraries are among the first things cut by cities and counties when budgets get tight. If you want to know the value of a library, talk to any educator who has had the misfortune to live in a town where the library has closed. Or any student who has taken advantage of free, reliable tutoring in a safe setting.

From a writer's point of view, libraries are also like bookstores. They are a place for readers to browse the stacks and discover new books to read. I don't want to lose that potential reader. He might not buy my book, but someone he tells about it might.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, the issue our public library has seen with the digital "revolution" is the cost of offering e-books. Right now, they are part of a group of local libraries that have contracted with OverDrive and still pay a small fortune for a relatively few e-books. Worse, the ebooks are heavily drm'd and only readable on devices that can read epub files. So no one with kindles can read them.

Which means that even though the demand is there from the patrons, it can't be met for the vast majority of them. However, because the library uses OverDrive for audiobooks as well, it is unlikely they will look elsewhere for digital downloads in the near future.

What our community learned several years ago when, for a short period of time, our library was closed is that the library is an integral part of the community. People rallied to save the library and, in the three years or so since, community support and participation has exploded. I don't see it easing any time soon and neither does our city council or library board and we have a wonderful new library to prove it.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Amanda, I didn't explain myself properly. I'm not arguing that we don't need public libraries at all. I am making the much more restricted argument that we don't need the local public library model for ebooks. And therefore, the whole attempt of Public Library Online makes no sense.

Dave Freer said...

Matapam - for many people that will be the access they have for years. And the choice of material they have for years. It's likely to lose more readers, rather than encourage online reading.

Hopefully a cheaper, better alternative will be offered.

Dave Freer said...

Ori - because libraries are gateways. They introduce people to new authors and to new habits. The publishing industry refer to themselves as gatekeepers. I'm fine with them keeping their own gates. Not the public's gate.

Dave Freer said...

Amanda: how practical is donating e-books - including in e-pub, but in other formats too?

Amanda Green said...

Dave, right now it's not practical because most libraries -- at least the ones around here -- aren't set up to allow patron downloads. That's why they use services like OverDrive. I'll touch base with you offline about it. I've done some research for NRP on this matter.

Kate Paulk said...

Ori,

I am making the much more restricted argument that we don't need the local public library model for ebooks.

Apart from you completely failing to make that distinction in your first post, I'd suggest you try that argument with someone who is disabled and has a cheap, maybe second-hand device like a PDA that they can load ebooks onto and read that way. I'm pretty sure what you'll get told, and no, it won't be polite.

Take an avid reader who happens to be wheelchair-bound. There's a physical limit to how many trips they can make, and to how much they can carry - maybe 3 - 4 library books, and getting to the library means 4 transfers from chair to car and vice versa. Minimum.

Now, offer that same person the ability to browse library offerings from their computer, and borrow them in electronic form to load to their PDA and read that way. You bet your anatomy they're going to want that.

So will... oh, parents with very young children. Anyone who lives too far from their library to make frequent trips viable. And a bunch of others, including me.

And this is not counting access to rare books and research materials - which I would give pieces of my anatomy for.

Please remember a very simple rule of my father's. Engage brain before opening mouth. It's saved me SO much grief. It can save you plenty, too.

Dave Freer said...

Now Kate, chill. Ori didn't mean any harm. People tend to regard libraries like faucets. Un-noticed and undervalued until you really need them

Ori Pomerantz said...

From what I see, the local public library offers two services that can be applicable to e-books:

1. Recommendations. If the librarian knows I like funny science fiction books, s/he will recommend Rats, Bats, and Vats.

2. Free/cheap ability to borrow books.

Both types of functionality, however, can be better accommodated using other means. A general librarian might know what is good funny science fiction. But I bet I can ask the question in a science fiction board and get good answers.

For the ability to provide books for cheap or for free, wouldn't one world-wide library (or one per genre) be better? It would be able to do more than a small local one. Moving paper is expensive, moving bits is not.

T.M. Lunsford said...

This is the first time I've taken time to truly mull over the implications of having an e-book format for libraries. The part that really struck me was the shifting role of the librarian.

As a kid, I remember that my school and local librarians were the ones who shaped my interests. I was in there looking for books so much, they knew immediately where to direct me. They suggested books that I might not normally have read, but that I loved in the end(hmm...sounds like certain editors as well).

I think losing that direct personal connection would be the failing in an e-library. Sure, they could write a program similar to iTunes genius program or whatever, but that can only suggest, not explain why it's making a suggestion. And especially with young readers, that connection is necessary to encourage them to read. With all of the regimented learning expectations in place in school systems today, kids need people (besides parents and teachers) to remind them that reading can be fun and exciting.

Stephen Simmons said...

Amanda - public libraries originated as charitable ventures, not government projects. In fact, the library in my home town was bequeathed to the village by a distant relative of mine, building and books alike -- though his estate descended via a different branch of the family tree ... *sigh*

Please don't misunderstand. I spent a statistically-significant percentage of my formative years in the Stamford Village Library, PLUS carrying home my ten-book limit twice a week. I whole-heartedly agree with you on the value of libraries to the community. (Firmly exiting this topic before I get any closer to the edge ...)

Dave, the short answer is that I can't give you a short answer. At least, not yet. It's too complex a question, and I haven't really assimilated everything you wrote yet. I need to read more on it, and ponder ...

Mike said...

One thing that I noticed -- that "Public Library Online" appears to be continuing the policy of balkanizing ebook access, and outright denying it to those of us who happen to live in other places than expected.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Amanda,

If you've researched it, what is the possibility of a few writers getting together and making their books "available" under limited licensing. My problem there is that -- as libraries do -- we'd need to DRM THOSE. Or maybe not, but libraries do. And the level of theft from libraries ain't pretty...
But I was thinking something like "The Lending Bag" or something, and let writers put stuff up for lending out. DRM wouldn't be that hard either -- I mean, we had that in computer games in the eighties "will work x amount of times." (say 24 for a book.) Um. I'm thinking if authors themselves organize to do this, and just let libraries link to us for free we could do an end run around the nasties. Yeah, I'd prefer to be paid per "library copy" but what I'm getting right now is what? Six cents? Eh.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Sarah: DRM wouldn't be that hard either -- I mean, we had that in computer games in the eighties "will work x amount of times." (say 24 for a book.)

Ori: The reason we don't have DRM on computer games anymore is that it doesn't work. Sure, it can block 90% of the people from copying it, but the remaining 10% are perfectly able to make a non-DRM copy and put it on the web.

Library books are essentially loss leaders from an author's perspective. You don't get paid that much for them, but they get you readers who might buy books later. I think the e-book equivalent is something like the Baen free library.

"Sure, read books 1-2 of this series for free. You care about the characters now and you want to know what happened next? We have books 3-6 for pay." This is bad for people who can't afford to buy books, but how do you distinguish between people who can't afford books, and those who just don't want to pay?

voradams said...

Local Libraries in Australia are adopting Overdirve for the e-book library service.

I know nothing on the business side, but the range is limited (no surprise there. Every time you talk e-books, you take as read that the Aussies have limited range), and the DRM is Adobe and time limited.

The basic delivery system is ok, not great, but I would be interested in your view of Overdrive as a Library provider.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Ori,

Do your kids play games? Games are DRMed out the Wazoo (Quaint town in Australia, I'm assured.) They've just gotten better at DRM.

Now, for various reasons I'm SERIOUSLY against DRMing books people have bought. It would take an article to explain all the ways, but part of it is that it's such a pain to make it "portable." The other part is the assumption that the buyer is dishonest.

I am not however against DRMing "loaned" books. Yeah, I know, I know, there will be some on the torrents. But there are some on the torrents now.

Free library is a great idea for a publisher and perhaps even for a writer, (I have free stuff on my site, though not novels) but it will not prehempt the type of service moving shark-like onto this niche, as per Dave's article. Now, writers having their stuff available to libraries at no or ridiculously low fees WILL.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Sarah: Do your kids play games? Games are DRMed out the Wazoo (Quaint town in Australia, I'm assured.) They've just gotten better at DRM.

Ori: They mostly play flash games. However, when they play games that suffer from DRM, those games typically rely either on network access or on dedicated hardware, such as a disk.

If I can see the text on the screen, I can probably copy it.

Kate Paulk said...

Ori,

Flash games are DRM-by-definition. You can't access them without an internet connection and a browser - the right kind of browser, too.

And no, you can't assume you can copy it if you can see it on screen. It's pretty common for the uber-paranoid to disable copy/paste, browser view source, and assorted other common methods. I work in IT, and I guarandamntee you, you'd be doing well to capture 25% of the on-screen text on our applications without using a combination of screen capture and OCR.

This isn't even DRM. It's a simple function of the language our software is written in that you have to explicitly make labels copyable in order to do copy/paste with them - and it's quite normal.

Don't believe me? Try to copy the text in the title bar of any window. Firefox it's not copyable - the only way to get at it is to view the page source, and know where in the source you'll find that text. Some sites you don't even get that much.

Ori Pomerantz said...

I also work in IT. Cut and paste requires cooperation from the application, and is indeed easy to disable as you said.

Screen captures, on the other hand, rely on the operating system. They are a lot harder to disable. OCR is good enough with text that never went through an analog system.

Screen captures that do not rely on the operating system that runs the application, because of remote desktop or virtualization, are even harder to disable.

Stephen Simmons said...

I can spell "IT" ... and I'm pretty sure that "screen-capture" is a fishing technique ...

Kate Paulk said...

Stephen,

Sorry. I get called everything from a geek girl to a geek goddess and some unflattering variations as well.

When you can out-geek a rocket scientist accidentally, it's really easy to leave everyone else wondering how come I seem to be speaking English but it has to be a totally different language because the words are familiar but they just don't make sense in the way they're being put together.

(Yes, I really have out-geeked a rocket scientist. Talking quantum physics... In my defense, I was drawing a pretty long bow about some of the possibilities inherent in mixing quantum physics with holographic multiverse theory... Um. I think I'll just stop digging right now).

Mike said...

Actually, that's kind of fascinating. Let's go back to why we want to have a library -- basically, to make access easier for users, right? They can browse, get interested, and then decide to buy their own copies if they are really interested.

Now, doesn't the Baen Free Library fit that description extremely well? Should it bother us that people can easily make copies (in fact, are encouraged to make copies)? Or is that just part of the "new medium"? So... why do library ebooks need DRM again?

It seems as if there are real benefits in taking older volumes and such and making them available as a "Free Library" -- e.g. you get readers interested and give them an easy way to check out and learn these funny new ereaders and stuff. Once you've got their attention, point them at the "pay me" part of the site, and...

Interesting that "Public Library Online" seems to be taking exactly the opposite approach.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Mike,

Two things -- even I who am prolific as heck don't have enough books reverted to me to put up any significant number in a free library. (Significant number, see, more than one.) My other publishers will simply dig their heels in.

There are a lot of "free" offerings, mostly by newbies. Without the blessing of a publisher, it will be assumed it's "slush by any other name."

Oh, yeah, a third thing, for the price I got it, as it were (I don't know, my agen told me) my agent swears you get more coverage by putting things up on Amazon for ninety nine cents than by giving them away free on your site. As I said, it's what she told me.

Mike said...

This may be where short stories come back into their own? I see them offered various places for 99 cents (or free) and that seems to be another approach to getting readers interested. Give them a coherent taste?