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Would you continue to purchase a product whose price has been arbitrarily hiked up 300%?

I am not a public librarian but I am a public library patron. Particularly for ebooks. I have a Kindle (and an iPad but I read books on the Kindle, I find it kinder on the eyes for long stretches). Not that I am a big fan of the way Amazon has handled their entry into the public library arena but that is another story.

As a patron of ebooks through my public library system I have often been annoyed at: 1) the lack of titles available and 2) the long waiting list for popular titles. Both reasons have, on occasion, forced me to purchase the book online so I could read it in a timely manner (frequently because I needed to read it before my next book club, but I digress again, as is my habit).

Early this month it was reported by many blogger that Random House has decided to raise it’s prices to libraries for ebooks as much as 300% (see David Lee King’s post for a comprehensive review from a public library perspective). Why would they do such a thing? Conventional wisdom seems to be that the publisher is trying to see how much they can get away with charging. Or rather, what is the threshold that libraries can stand to pay for ebooks?…with your tax dollars…mostly for people who can’t afford to buy the books they want to read.

I have a more sinister take on the situation. After the Amazon deal with public libraries. I was clearly left with the impression that Amazon is trying to get the public library patron to purchase their books instead of lending them by using the public library as its mule. In this same vein Random House has given me the sinking feeling that they actually are not interested in doing business with public libraries any longer. Although they may want to appear as if they are working on a new pricing structure that is more in line with their other models I am unconvinced. We are talking 300%! Lest we forget the public library is not buying the rights to own this book as they would a paper version they are buying the right to rent or “access” this book from the publisher.

Does Random House truly think that the public libraries, particularly in this economy, have the funding to purchase many of their books at these prices? Doubtful. It is more likely that they are hoping the patron who will not be finding his/her Random House title at their public library will go to their favorite online retail establishment and purchase it. As I would undoubtedly do. More money in their pocket. I feel preemptively duped.

As a librarian the one question I get asked more than any other regarding the Kindle is “can you check out library books with it?” Before September 21st the answer was no. Overdrive, the software that handles public library ebooks, did not support the file format that Kindle uses. Now that’s all changed . Kindle has arrived on the seen in a big way. They have a 3 minute and 53 second video  that explains just how easy their multi-step process is. The non-Kindle download is basically a three step process: choose it, put a hold on it, download it. The Kindle check-out process goes something like this: choose it, put a hold on the book, choose the Kindle option, it automatically sends you to the Amazon website,  choose “Get Library Book”, sign in to Amazon, choose your device (that’s right if you are savvy enough to figure out that the Amazon app that you have on your PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, Android, Blackberry or Windows Phone will work you can choose one of those options), click continue, click download…phew. Perhaps a small price to pay to get library books on the Kindle.

What’s good:

  • You can make notes in the book and it will save them for your next check-out or if you decide to purchase the book.
  • Amazon sends you an e-mail when you have 3 days left on your check-out.
  • Amazon sends you an e-mail when your book has expired
  • You can publish your reading info to your social networks (because everybody cares)
  • Amazon will have a better profile of you when suggesting books because your lending library habits will go in their system
  • You can finally get a public library book on the Kindle

What’s sketchy:

  • The multi-click check-out process is created to get you to buy the book from Amazon
  • Hold times at public libraries are already very long for popular ebook titles, the addition of Kindle users could make this additionally frustrating. (I have been waiting at least 3 months for 5 different e-titles through my public library)
  • Due to the fact that renewing is not possible and you have to get to the back of the line if you don’t finish your book you may very well purchase the book from Amazon just to finish it.
  • Amazon will have a better profile of you when suggesting books because your lending library habits will go in their system

What about that Amazon Tablet?

Don’t go out and buy that Kindle you’ve been holding off on just yet. The rumor is that the Amazon’s tablet will be announced this coming Wednesday. With that announcement, the relatively reliable rumors say, they will also announce the Amazon lending library. Basically, if you are an Amazon Prime customer (that will cost you $79 a year) you will have free reign to lend certain titles from Amazon. Specific information like: Which title? Will there be holds placed on books that are already checked out? How long can a book be checked out for? How many books can be check ed out at one time? Are all unknown. Could it run circles around the current public library e-lending system? Quite possibly. However, you still need a digital device to read the book on and you still need to shell out an additional fee to be a Prime member.
Is it a coincidence that Amazon announces their partnership with OverDrive and public libraries right before they announce their tablet and lending service? I think not.

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On February 24th it was announced that the publisher Harper Collins was going to put a cap on how many times an e-book could be distributed through a library system. The magic number is 26. After the magic 26th time the book will vanish and the library will need to purchase it again if they wish to continue circulating that title. And the uproar in library land is quite visible but will that change anything?

Harper Collins comes to this magic number by deciding that after 26 check-outs of a print library book another needs to be purchased. According to the uproar this is often not the case. And what say we about the ancient library book? On occasion we will purchase a new one because the current print book has gotten rather…musty. Will the next move be to vanish books after they have been owned for a certain period of time? Nothing has yet been mentioned regarding that matter but it is certainly going to be a consideration for publishers in the future.

So what’s the big deal? Software has licensing agreements that change depending on the institution that purchases them, right? Yes but usually it is only the trials that self destruct. In fact, what electronic media do you know of that self destructs after you have legitimately purchased it? I understand that the publishers need to make money and they feel that this will be an added revenue stream but you would think that they would know by now that libraries have limited budgets with which to buy books. A more diverse collection of Harper Collins books will not be purchased if the library has to keep re-ordering the most popular ones. If I was in charge of collection development this would steer me away from Harper Collins except when absolutely necessary. I would actively search for comparable titles from other publishers. And frankly, as a consumer I become fond of certain publishers formats particularly in the non-fiction arena, so if I have less accessibility to a publisher I have less knowledge of their style and when I make my next purchase this renders me likely to purchase with someone else.

Let it be known that not all publishers are on the library e-book bandwagon. Macmillan and Simon & Schuster do not sell e-books to libraries. Why? They are “searching for a legitimate business model”  which in my eyes means that they do not see the financial value in allowing people to check-out their books on-line. Although they obviously see the value in allowing people to check out their paper books because they are available in libraries. I would contend that  those who download library books are much more likely to browse off and purchase a book that they would rather not “wait in electronic line” for or electronically “turn back in” (the DRM’d library e-book can only be used for a certain period of time, like checking out a physical book). Additionally those that have readers like the Kindle that are not compatible with the library e-book software are also likely to wander off to purchase an e-book from the library site that they can read on their device instead of their computer.

In the meantime there is talk of boycotting Harper Collins e-books. But I wonder, are libraries boycotting Macmillan and Simon & Schuster paper books because they are not selling their e-books to libraries? I don’t think so. If hurting their bottom-line is the tactic should it not be some kind of united front? Or, perhaps would it be useful for those publishers to sit down with the innovators of library land and explain the problem and work out a way to make things feel reasonable. Some kind of tiered pricing perhaps.

Just like the software, music and movie business, we will see how this shakes out.

The iPad launch caught me scrutinizing it from the perspective of an e- reader. I have an iPhone, I have a laptop, I have a desktop, I have not yet purchased an e-reader. Is the iPad just a big iPhone? Or is it a netbook without a keyboard? Like the iPhone, there is no flash support, no multitasking, no SD card slot, no e-ink and additionally no HDMI, no USB,  no camera, no 16:9 video support and oddly no way to hold the darn thing up on a table! But okay, it’s generation 1 let’s give it a break (I’ll even give the ridiculous name a break, women did any of you NOT go there?).

At some point we have all wanted our iPhones to have a little larger format, no? So for now I’ll just consider it a big ol’ expensive iPhone without calling or camera capability. Somebody wants that, right Apple?

My problem is with LCD and LED backlighting for reading on all of these multi-ability devices. The nice thing about e-ink is that it is easy on the eyes for reading at extended intervals. Why the e-book market does not take that information and use it in their marketing is a mystery to me.  How many of us enjoy reading a backlit display for hours? Not me. Granted, it would be nice to have the addition of color for my reading pleasure and it would be especially desirable in the textbook market but the iPad solution is still backlit and is rather expensive for a student considering they still need to purchase a laptop for classwork. I’m just not getting it and I am devoted to my Apple products (even with the AT&T service on my iPhone…Verizon where are you already!).

In actuality the iPad has no market with me (who is their demographic on this one anyway?). Frankly, I am waiting for Qualcomm’s Mirasol technology . It has no backlighting, it has video support and color. It’s a reflective technology which means it uses the light in the area which also means it has less need for battery power. I believe there is hope for me in the e-book world yet, just not now.

In the meantime I squint at my iPhone for electronic books and I remain faithful to the still-not-antiquated paper book.

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A news release came out from the Justice Department  on January the 13th regarding e-readers and their use in university classrooms.

This is an excerpt: “Under the agreements reached today, the universities generally will not purchase, recommend or promote use of the Kindle DX, or any other dedicated electronic book reader, unless the devices are fully accessible to students who are blind and have low vision. The universities agree that if they use dedicated electronic book readers, they will ensure that students with vision disabilities are able to access and acquire the same materials and information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as sighted students with substantially equivalent ease of use. The agreements that the Justice Department reached with these universities extend beyond the Kindle DX to any dedicated electronic reading device.”

I think this is a good thing. Like all electronic items (e.g. e-books, screencasts) provided by educational institutions we must remember those who are not fully “abled” so they can have a fair chance at the same educational opportunities being provided to the rest of the students. But it does give me pause. An e-reader is an electronic way to read a book, how good have we really been at providing physical books to those who have poor vision. Large print library books are rarely, if ever, found at the K-16 levels. I vividly remember the hoops I had to jump through to get large print textbooks for students in the K-12 system for the few that needed them.

Perhaps the switch to e-readers, slow as it will be, brings some of the best opportunities yet for access to those who have visual difficulties.

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Verizon is coming out with a new e-reader, time to watch the market forces work their magic! First, allow me to digress.

I have written about my underwhelmed reaction to the Amazon Kindle 2. With hope in my heart I went to my nearest Sony store in August to take a gander at the new Sony e-readers, they have come out with a “pocket”, “touch” and “digital reader daily” (that would be three e-reader offerings to Amazon’s two, but who’s counting). What they have done with the three separate e-readers is allow you to pick and choose the features you want and the price you want to pay, not that you “want” to pay $200 for a digital reader that you have to pay to put books on but you know what I mean. They have added the “innovation” of a touch screen which is a handy upgrade to Kindle’s offering. Like good citizens of the world Sony decided to use the epub format which is far more open than the proprietariness of the Amazon Kindle (although they have done a very nice mea culpa the whole 1984 ebook debacle will not leave my memory any time soon).They are even e-library book friendly as they have partnered with the same company that provides e-books for many public libraries. All in all a bit of an improvement to the Kindle. Take that overpriced, proprietary, silliness!

Now to welcome in the Irex DR800SG (can we not just call it the Irex 1, honestly!). It, sadly, does not have a touchscreen it has reached back to the days of Palm and uses a stylus. However, it does offer the joys of epub (with a promise to stick with the DRM free market) and wireless 3G through Verizon. It even boasts a radio, there’s a novel idea. The screen is 8.1 inches and it actually comes with a case, who would have thought consumers would want that?…not Amazon or Sony. The big downside for me is that it is not compatible with the Mac and I have not heard if public library e-books will be downloadable. And sadly, yes, it will cost $399 through selected Best Buy locations in October. Overpriced, less-than-proprietary, silliness continues but I remain hopeful.

Popular Library

I have written previously about the studies that have been done regarding a well-staffed and funded school library raising achievement . That was in my response to Governor Schwarzennegar’s call to change all textbooks to an electronic format. Now an administrator at a school in Boston has decided that paper books are absolutely unnecessary.

This reminds of the “heated debates” I used to have with a technology teacher in the mid 90’s who fought against teaching students keyboarding because we would all be using speech-to-text technology within the next few years. We see how well that prediction panned out.

As an academic librarian I see students all day who can not write and have no clue how to start a research paper. We know that the more you read the better writer you become. We know that the more you read in sustained periods the easier it is to work for sustained periods. And we know that when reading is electronic, particularly off of our laptops, that have constant visual updates and reminders we do not read for sustained periods of time, we attempt to multitask. We know there is still a digital divide.  We know that students and schools (including the one in this article) can not afford enough e-readers to supply their students. We know that e-readers are relatively fragile (the polar opposite of anything you want to give a child). We know that strong school libraries have high book check-out numbers and higher test scores than the norm. But who needs facts, right? Out with the proven and in with the shiny shiny.

They will be sorry. In the meantime I am sorry for them and mourn the loss of learning for their students.

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