Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Opening the eBook Market

It is fashionable to declared Digital Rights Management (DRM) dead. And maybe in the world of music it is. For eBooks in the library marketplace, however, DRM is alive and well. The book publishers who may be more conservative than the music industry in trying to protect their intellectual property are willing to stymie sales in electronic formats to maximize their sense of security.

In the ideal open-yet-market-driven eBook environment there won't be DRM, but regardless of whether DRM lives on, the closed vertically integrated world of eBooks sales to libraries presents a bigger problem; it is that environment that needs to change. For libraries to both offer electronic collections and maintain their role of building collections for the long term we need a layered environment where the purchase of materials is separated from the where those purchased materials are hosted. Further, library patrons deserve distinct choices for the programs and devices they use for readings.

eBooks buying

“Purchasing” eBooks may be overstating the actual relationship to the materials we select and offer our patrons. The concept that libraries buy-to-own eBooks is more conceptual than factual. We select titles; we pay different prices for titles that seem to have a relationship to the hardcopy price of the title. However, marketing materials and licenses agreements we sign don't give one that warm and fuzzy feeling. It might be better to refer to these as titles we have licensed access for our patrons.

Libraries spending upward and beyond $100,000 per year for these collections and the cumulative investment in eBooks and downloadable audio books with our vendors may only last as long as the vendor stays in business and as long as we are willing and able to pay the annual hosting fees of that vendor. With that being the case vendors are building a captive environment, making it difficult if not impossible for us to walk away from.

Libraries should be able to select eBook vendors in an open environment, separate from other considerations such as where those titles are hosted and how patrons might access them. In an open environment libraries might buy books directly from individual authors or publishers, but more likely from brokers such as Overdrive, B&T and Ebsco. Libraries should find these vendors competing for my business by offering low prices but also by offering better tools to aid in the acquisition, cataloging and management of digital content. We should be able to buy my eBooks from one or all of these sources.

The one title per simultaneous user model is something the publishers feel comfortable, particularly with the most popular titles. This model is a strong carry over from the hard copy world and may be difficult for publishers to deviate from when granting licenses. However, other options should be available. Similar to rental collections, licenses for selected copies of best sellers might be limited to only a six month period. They get loaned out just like those that are licensed indefinitely, but the library will pay marginally less to have access to them for just six months. Naturally the hosting servers will know when those copies expire and adjust the number of copies available to a library's patrons as the rental copies expire.

Hosting eBooks for posterity

In licensing books a library has the responsibility to ensure that for titles it selects it will ensure that appropriate restrictions (i.e. DRM) are in place. We currently rely on our vendors to provide the secure environment so to meet our licensing agreements with the IP owners. There is a real convenience to that. However libraries may have greater needs to take ownership of that responsibility. In a truly open environment libraries should be able to make choices of which vendor(s) are choose to host eBook titles and collections independent of which vendors from which I choose to buy content. With the library taking responsibility for copyright and license enforcement, the library also has flexibility:

  • The library chooses which vendor will host its e-content. This might be a locally managed host or it might be a host operated by a consortium of libraries. The library might also choose a single vendor to host their eBook collections. Overdrive, Ebsco, OCLC, B&T and maybe even Amazon or Google might compete to host my collection.
  • The library could elect to move that content from one vendor's server to another as it see fit in the best interest of its patrons as long as it operates within the original restrictions of the license agreement with the IP owner.
  • Most importantly, by taking ownership of the decision of where and how to host all of its eBooks, the library has a better chance of integrating the various collections it has chosen to license from individual authors, publishers and brokers. Currently eBooks from one vendor are intellectually organized in a completely different context from that of other vendors. With the mechanics of downloading of materials differ we are creating unacceptable confusion on the part of library users.

Freeing our patrons

For libraries to compete with Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Google and other eBook stores they must offer the best possible user experience to their patrons. We can help achieve this by offering the end user a level playing field when it comes to e-readers. Additionally libraries shouldn't be penalized for offering choices of formats for the same title.

Library patrons should have choices of eBook reader hardware and software. As users check out copies from the library the eBook server should automatically offer them the format they want. Libraries should never have to make a priori decisions to buy x number of copies in one format and x number of copies in another format from the same vendor. We had to do it with DVDs vs. videotape copies, and with large print vs. standard print copies, but with digital content this should not be necessary.

Within the server software the file format it produces would be decided upon request of the client hardware/software. As users check out a copy of a title, they (or their client hardware/software preferences) will select the format and an appropriate DRM for that device. It would be applied on the fly. Never again should a patron see an available copy encoded for a specific format sit on the electronic book shelf while all available copies for their device are checked out. The mix of formats checked out to patrons might change from day to day, but the hosting server would ensure the total copies on loan would not exceed what is licensed.

Library patrons shouldn't be forced to use just the client e-reader provided by the hosting service. In fact, as e-readers devices become more intelligent, users may have many different choices. Today ePub-formatted books hosted by Overdrive can be opened by Adobe's Digital Editions and by Overdrive's iOS and Android Media Console clients. But other client software exists. BlueFire is an example. Seeing such choices emerge is a step in the right direction, but currently it takes a pretty sophisticated user to elect alternative clients. Selecting a different client should be as simple as selecting from a dialog box. For instance, as long as the original licensing and DRM requirements are satisfied, then a patron could choose one client for daytime reading and another for nighttime reading – even on the same device.

New yet-to-be-developed public domain or commercial clients that integrate an e-reader with social networking features such as Facebook and Twitter updates might be the preferred client by some, while consistency with previously purchased eBooks might make it a better choice for other library patrons.

Moving Forward

The current vendors in the library eBook marketplace may cringe at some of the above suggestions. They may see profits erode as they are forced to compete more aggressively where they haven't had to before. However, these recommendations are not offered to drive them out of business. Publishers may have to charge more per title if libraries will never have to buy replacement copies. They may also have to pay more per title if they buy fewer copies because they doesn't have to buy different versions just to accommodate the odd eBook reader. Hosting fees may have to rise substantially if a library wants a vendor to host all of their eBooks not just the eBooks they buy from that vendor. Individual library patrons may actually want to pay for a superior e-reader client or it may choose to make due with a free or shareware reader. Certainly how various players make money may change but ultimately more eBooks will be purchased and more revenues and profits will ensue.

Libraries want book authors, publishers, and brokers to succeed. If they cannot make appropriate revenues libraries won't have an opportunity to offer eBooks to their patrons. Opening up each segment of this market to competition will foster better products, better support and a better user experience. Libraries will probably have to pay more, but their collections will be better integrated into their service model and libraries will have a longer more secure future for the collections they are investing in today.


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