Sunday, February 27, 2011

Digital Library Madness: 26 and You Are Out

In being able to potentially offer ebooks for free and from anywhere, against the retail model of payment, the digital public library now challenges the wider book market's pricing, revenues and licensing models.

Some would suggest that the recent statements by the UK Publishers Association which declared new restrictions and rules for digital lending in UK public libraries were misguided and naive. We now read that the leading public library digital service, Overdrive, has now issued a letter to their library customers in which their CEO, Steve Potash claims, ‘several trade publishers are re-evaluating eBook licensing terms for library lending services. Publishers are expressing concern and debating their digital future where a single eBook license to a library may never expire, never wear out, and never need replacement.’

Apparently, a group of trade publishers now wish to change the commercials based on ebooks being different! However, they appear to want to still align them to the physical product's commercials. It is claimed that HarperCollins has already revised its terms for new e-book loans, limiting the number of times an e-book can be licensed for checkout to 26. The revised terms, which will apply only to new titles come with a short statement from HarperCollins that they are , " committed to the library channel. We believe this change balances the value libraries get from our titles with the need to protect our authors and ensure a presence in public libraries and the communities they serve for years to come."

There is nothing wrong with the realisation that digital is about licensing titles within a perpetual collection. However tying a digital licence to the commercials of an outright purchase makes little sense. The notional '26' license is not based on a annual rental value, but on the average lifespan of a print book, the wear and tear on circulating copies and what is seen as a lifetime of one year for a popular e-book title based on a lending period of two weeks.

Apparently today Macmillan or Simon and Shuster are not even permitting any library circulation of their e-books.

Digital books are digital full stop. Mixing them with physical books does not make sense as one is purchase and the other clear licence. eBooks don’t wear out so claiming that as the pricing model is naive. The lending of digital media can be controlled effectively in terms of concurrent lending, territorial rights and removal of access. They don’t sit in huge library repositories, but often with aggregators and libraries merely access their own collection. So why can’t all parties sort this out properly and create a proper digital framework and avoid what some would see as posturing and ill thought out strategy? Instead of imposing one after another restriction and shoehorning digital terms into physical ones, why not look at a new model and avoid the mixed messages and alienating a major channel and consumer interface?

Players such as Bloomsbury licence their innovative library shelf and European services such as eBog have clearly separated the digital from the physical. A group of libraries led by the Internet Archive have announced a new, cooperative 80,000+ eBook lending collection of mostly 20th century books., today offers over 1 million eBooks.

Overdrive may dominate today, but we have yet to see Google’s reach and Amazon and others are all champing at the bit to get into rentals and lending. All services are capable of integrating with library management systems to ensure registration and community catchment are valid and it is easy to ensure that the number of copies available at any time relates to the licence.

Why not make the ‘licence’ tiered to offer a range of lending rights and terms? At the basic level we could have a restriction to allow a single concurrent loan on an annual licence. We then could allow the concurrency of access to increase in bands based on licence fee, effectively buying bands of access at title level. We could permit ‘on demand lending’ based not on individual collection but the whole repository and where the charge is retrospective based on actual loans and on usage not on filling virtual shelves with ebooks which may not move. On demand could be a charged premium service. The institutional and academic markets have long risen to the flexible approaches to collection licensing but its as if the trade is either na├»ve to these options, or seek to reinvent the wheel.

As we increasingly move towards on demand streaming. digital loans and rental for ebooks we have to recognise that common licensing models make sense. The digital options are many and the opportunity to engage and invigorate the public library channel is significant.


Mike Perry said...

There is a solution that's simple and practical. Publishers' digital titles go into a central depository. Any library, however small, can lend any title in that depository as many times as it wants and to as many people as it chooses by paying a reasonable per-checkout fee.

* Patrons, even in small towns, would get access to a huge collection.

* Libraries, even in rural areas, wouldn't have to decide whether to buy a title that might be used only once or figure out how track those 26 uses, stop distribution, and then decide whether to repurchase. (Which in most cases they won't do.) They'd pay for each use rather than try to guess at future uses.

* Big city libraries would also save the cost of shelving physical books, of tracking holds, and of transferring copies between branches. That cost might be higher than the entire cost of a digital loan.

* Both authors and publishers would earn what they want most: a stable and growing income spread over many decades. Even the end of copyright wouldn't end the income stream. There's would still be the definitive copy.

* Marketing of backlists to libraries would also be easier and more effective. Libraries would not have to be persuaded to buy a digital copy of a 20-year-old title. All an author or publisher would need to do is draw the public's attention to a book. Sales could ramp up overnight, while the marketing impact is still fresh.

Yes, this approach would take a bit more time, since the depository would have to be designed and agreements made between authors, publishers, libraries and the depository. But the result would be an effective system that takes full advantage of digital books rather than simply attempting to graft a printed book model on to a digital one.

It's certainly something to think about and discuss.

--Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books, Seattle

Martyn Daniels said...

Mike your thinking is very similar to mine but the there doesn't have to be a central depository just a central clearing house where all content is indexed. The request then hits the clearing house and the content request is forwarded to the authoritative source to 'drop ship' to the appropriate member. The elibraries control the centre the aggregaters and publishers the source. On the question of commercials they could be pay as you go and the members can be charged. The central clearing could also help with royalties such as PLR. Interestingly libraries could be charged for what they use as opposed to what merely sits on a virtual shelf.

The point is that there are many workable solutions which bring the supply chain together and can benefit all from author to reader. What is wrong with the 26 and out rule is that only apply to some, is confrontational and doesn't move the libraries into a partnership but further alienats them in a digital world.

Anonymous said...

Libraries:"Let's all hold hands and sing Kumbaya".

Publishers:"We come to bury libraries, not to praise them".

What we've got here is a failure to communicate

Most authors don't care much for libraries either, though they won't dare say so in public.

Anonymous said...

Apple/Google/Amazon: "We're gonna wipe the whole value chain off the earth. Publishers, agents, booksellers, libraries... all will be grist to the mill."

@Anonymous -- it's a little parochial to focus on publishers vs libraries, booksellers vs publishers, booksellers vs libraries, and whatever permutation we care to focus on this week. The bigger picture has them (us) all doomed! Long live Apazoogle.

Anonymous said...

Apple/Google/Amazon: "We're gonna wipe the whole value chain off the earth. Publishers, agents, booksellers, libraries... all will be grist to the mill."

@Anonymous -- it's a little parochial to focus on publishers vs libraries, booksellers vs publishers, booksellers vs libraries, and whatever permutation we care to focus on this week. The bigger picture has them (us) all doomed! Long live Apazoogle.