What happens to your iTunes library when you die?

This turned out to be a hoax, but yesterday Bruce Willis was supposedly going to sue Apple for the right to leave his iTunes music to family in his will.

Again, it was a hoax. But the story still highlights some very important questions. It’s all very grey: the lack of DRM on most music purchases means I can in practice give my mp3s to someone else, but the license I agreed to when I purchased those files still says I can’t. That was the first red flag to me that this might be a haox – why would someone sue over this when it would make no practical difference?

It would make more sense to go after Amazon for similar rights for ebooks (they’ve still got DRM preventing an easy transfer) or iTunes for movies.

(This also highlights just how weird internet rumors can be.)

Status Check: Public Library Ebook Friction

I’ve been asked to speak later today on a panel about ebooks in public libraries. Thanks to the Orange County Public Library in Hillsborough for the opportunity! While my day-to-day work is in an academic library, not public, I still try and keep current on the issues faced in our sibling institutions. If we learned nothing else from a recent ebook survey on campus, it’s that our students bring their perceptions of popular-fiction ebooks and apply them equally to academic ebooks.

I’ve been asked if my talk would be recorded or streamed, and I don’t think it will be. But here’s my slides:

I admit many of them don’t make much sense without my accompanying narration. So here’s a summary:

-Popular Fiction publishers love the word ‘Friction’ when applied to ebooks. They’re terrified that if it becomes too easy to get an ebook from a library, customers won’t have any motivation to spend money to actually buy ebooks individually anymore. So they want to introduce friction into the process. I can understand this fear to a point. But major publishers’ reactions is so swift and violent that they don’t seem willing to even experiment and see if their fears are justified. They’re shutting libraries out without a second thought. There’s also other arguments like the idea that libraries create lifelong readers, who turn into publishsers’ best customers. But others have made that argument much more coherently than I can.

-Why are libraries different? Why can’t we just buy a Kindle book like anyone else and then lend it out, the same way we do with print copies?
For one thing, when someone buys an ebook they’re not purchasing the book itself. We’re purchasing a license to use that title for personal use only. The terms of Amazon’s license, for example, specifically note that “…you may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense, or otherwise assign any rights to the Digital Content or any portion of it to any third party.” So, no library lending is allowed. Barnes & Noble and other ebook vendors all have similar language in their licenses.
Even if we could negotiate a better license for library use, we’re still limited by Digital Rights Management in the books. DRM is programming which restricts each purchased ebook title to use on the original purchaser’s device. I could email you a Kindle book I bought, but you couldn’t open it on your own device. Some publishers like TOR are toying with DRM-free ebooks, but their licenses still prohibit library-style lending.

-What’s left for libraries? We have to rely on vendors like Overdrive and 3M. These are companies who act as middlemen; they negotiate with publishers for a license which allows lending, then sell a license to the books (laden with DRM) to libraries. But even that isn’t simple. Let’s look at six of the major publishers and how they sell to libraries through middlemen:

  • Penguin used to sell ebooks to libraries, but stopped in February. If a library previously bought an ebook from them, they can keep lending it. But Penguin disabled the option which allows a Kindle to directly download the title. They introduced the ‘friction’ of requiring a user to download the book and move it to their Kindle with a USB cable.
  • HarperCollins sells ebooks to libraries, but limits them to 26 checkouts. After that milestone is hit, the ebook evaporates and must be re-purchased. I think this is crazy. HarperCollins argues that no print book lasts forever, so why should a library be able to lend an ebook in perpetuity? This is true, but most print titles last much much longer than 26 checkouts. A popular HarperCollins ebook will expire in just one year.
  • Random House sells ebooks to libraries, but at significantly higher prices than individual users pay. Titles average a 35% increase in price, and some go as high as 300%.
  • Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and MacMillan won’t sell ebooks to libraries at all. This is why you won’t ever find Walter Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs in ebook form in a library, among many other titles.

Think this is wrong? The San Rafael Public Library has a great webpage with contact info for all the publishers mentioned here. Let them know how you feel.

Other restrictions further impact how easy it is for libraries to lend ebooks. When an ebook is purchased from Overdrive, it won’t appear in the library’s catalog. Borrowers must know to go to a whole separate catalog to browse ebooks. Libraries also can’t re-sell ebooks, a fact which could impact fundraising efforts down the road. Overdrive and other library ebook vendors also limit checkouts to a two-week period with no renewals. That simply isn’t long enough to read many ebooks, such as the 1000+ page sequels to A Game of Thrones. Alternatively, if you finish a short ebook quickly there’s no way to return it early. The next person in line has to wait for those two weeks to be up before they can get the ebook. More friction.

So that’s the state of things. I don’t claim to know what the solution is, or where we go from here. Some libraries boycott ebooks under these limitations, and others want to provide any limited service they can. I go back and forth on that debate. But at the very least I think library users should be informed about the issues. I think public libraries of 20 years from now will be almost unrecognizable from today’s branches in a number of ways. Ebooks represent only one of those changes, but it’s a big one.

Maxing out the curve on ebook adoption

Last week Melissa and I visited the Wake County Public Library’s annual fundraiser book sale. I’d heard the legends, but never actually attended: 400,000+ books laid out on tables in a giant warehouse at the state fairgrounds. It’s pictured here. Think of the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Now fill it with books instead of crates. That’s what it was like.

We went on day 1, with prices at a relatively high $4/hardcover and $2/paperback. We came away with a good haul of 15-20 books, all stuff we’ve legitimately wanted to read. Things were orderly and dignified in the warehouse, with staffers calmly directing shoppers to their preferred genre. I took my time and pieced together William Gibson’s entire Bridge trilogy, among other finds. We left feeling happy and encouraged. But then, based on that encouragement, we foolishly returned on the final day of the sale. By that point everything drops to $5 per box (and it’s a big box).

A certain kind of madness had set in. I witnessed shoppers indiscriminately shove whole rows of books into a box. It didn’t matter what kind of book, who the author was, or even what condition it was in – they wanted them all. Others jealously guarded a stack of empty boxes, keeping watch while a partner filled them one by one. The Children’s section looked like the aftermath of a bomb, and the sci-fi tables in particular were picked to the bone. Only the sad Reference section remained quiet (and if you ever wanted a copy of the 1997 NC Statutes, boy was that your chance). Trying to browse was chaotic at best, and we came away with only another half dozen books that we really truly wanted to read and own. Still a deal, but I’m not sure it was worth the ordeal.

The whole experience popped back into my head this morning when I saw Pew’s new report on ebook adoption and use in the US. Between PDF journal articles at work and my Kindle at home, I spend most of my reading life in the e-book world. But Pew reminds me that my habits aren’t yet normal at all. Just 21% of adults have read an ebook in the past year. Granted, Pew also found that the number of people who read an ebook each day has increased four times in just the last two years. But as noted in the summary:

“The prevalence of e-book reading is markedly growing, but printed books still dominate the world of book readers.”

Now I’m thinking back to the hardcore book grabbers at the sale: what will convince them to adopt e-books? Or would anything at all conceivably push them past the tipping point? Will they give up their feeding frenzy sales and packed bookshelves for a little convenience? Personally, I could see myself hitting that point someday. But the sale truly reminded me that I’m not the normal here.

I think what Pew left off at the end of that sentence above is “…for now.” That 21% will certainly continue to grow, but not forever. At what point will it eventually level off? At what point will we max out on the adoption curve? Will we be left with a few book-preferring holdouts, or will it be a more equal division? What will fundraiser book sales of the future look like, if they exist at all?

And, as always: Where do libraries fit into this picture?

Are we leaving the Gutenberg Parenthesis?

The news that Penguin is ending its relationship with Overdrive (which in turns stops library purchasing of Penguin ebooks for now) has me thinking about the idea of the Gutenberg Parenthesis again.

The Gutenberg Parenthesis is an idea that the printing press represented a massive shift in the recording and distribution of information. We rode that wave for about 500 years, but now digital distribution may represent an equally massive shift. The parenthesis opened with Gutenberg, but is it closing now? I’m afraid it may be for libraries.

Libraries were a major beneficiary of a printing press world. Information could be mass produced in an easily lendable book form, a form which was also difficult to restrict. Anybody who held the book could also access it, which provided a firm foundation for lending of material. There’s more to the parenthesis idea than just form of packaging, but it’s the part that I think most about.

The parenthesis and its inherent book-style packaging also represented a method for controlling content. We got lucky, and that control developed in a way benefitting libraries. Before the parenthesis opened, traditions were largely oral and couldn’t easily be stored in institutions. Inside the parenthesis, we got discrete objects without limitations that worked well for lending. Knowledge could be easily stored and accessed by many readers. But digital text may be the closing parenthesis, taking us back out of that easy and simple control.

In its easily copyable and non-permanent form, ebooks might be more akin to the earlier oral traditions than to physical printed copies. The potential loss of control over text, and its effect on their business model, is something publishers find terrifying. As a result they’re attempting to use DRM and other means to re-establish print levels of control over the digital world.

I think they’ve stumbled also on an unanticipated side effect of digital control – cutting libraries out of ebook lending. I have no idea where this quote originally came from, but I’ve repeatedly heard that “if libraries didn’t exist today, publishers would never let them be created.” I’ve also read repeatedly that publishers see it as essential to introduce ‘friction’ into the process of ebook lending. Digital text is trivially easy to send or copy, but borrowers might be required to go to a physical library to get the ebook or wait in line for a digital copy.

These restrictions strike me as particularly nonsensical. Publishers’ main competition for ebook sales is going to be the inevitable free pirated versions. Sellers have to be better than free to compete, a lesson the music industry took a long time to learn. Convenience and selection are the only ways to compete with a free product, but Penguin and others seem intent on putting up roadblocks to exactly those two elements when it comes to libraries.

Whether publishers can truly extend our time inside the Gutenberg Parenthesis remains to be seen. But they’re going to try their hardest. Will libraries match the effort to stay relevant and viable? We need to find a new model, because I don’t believe publishers will let the current one stand. It’s not too late yet, but it might be soon.

I hold out some small hope that Penguin’s withdrawl from Overdrive might be a good thing. Overdrive currently has an almost complete monopoly on popular fiction ebook lending for libraries. If Penguin goes to another vendor for library distribution instead, well then we’ve got competition. And that’s one force which applies equally both in and out of the parenthesis.

Kindle Fire: First impressions from a library perspective

We were lucky enough at work to buy a Kindle Fire for experimentation. It has a mostly decent UI, feels very solidly built, and if you structure your media-consumption habits around Amazon content there’s no better tablet choice for you. But there’s reviews of the Fire all over the web, so I won’t waste time and words by rehashing all that in any more detail. Instead I want to focus on how the Fire’s features can (or can’t) be used in libraries.

  • First and foremost, the Kindle Fire’s PDF reading capabilities are what I’d call bare bones at best. PDFs can be sideloaded via a USB cable like any other Kindle, but the built-in PDF reader doesn’t allow highlighting, notes, or even bookmarks. Previous Kindle models did allow all of those features. Of course you can install and use a better PDF reader app to get around those restrictions, but that’s a clunky solution. As for loading PDFs in the browser from a website, I couldn’t get JSTOR or any EBSCO product to load a PDF article at all. Anybody planning to read journal articles on a Fire will be pretty disappointed.
  • For libraries which have chosen to circulate Kindle hardware, there may be new disappointment with the Fire. I know some libraries use their Amazon/Kindle account to purchase and load ebooks on the device, then remove the account and check the device out to users. This allowed users to read the loaded books, but not to purchase any new titles under the library’s account. Unfortunately the Fire does away with that. When removing an account, all ebooks are deleted without warning.
  • Not only are all Amazon-purchased ebooks removed, but any sideloaded content in the books folder is wiped as well. I find this baffling. I sideloaded my own (legit purchased from another site with no DRM) book via a USB cable. Why does that need to be deleted? Again, there’s no warning that this will happen.
  • After removing an account you can still play locally stored music and access some apps. But which apps still work is wildly inconsistent, and I can’t find any rhyme or reason to it. Some work fine, others demand the original account log back in before proceeding, and a third category just don’t work at all.
  • The Fire is a nice video player, but the limited storage space (6.54gb usable space) means relatively few movies or tv episodes can be stored for offline viewing.
  • If purchasing an app directly on the Fire, you must first link your account to a mobile phone number. Even for ‘buying’ a free app. I can’t think of a reason why this would be necessary other than to gather more personal info. This is also an annoyance, as the library I work at doesn’t have a mobile number to link it to. In addition, purchasing an app on the Amazon.com website from a PC requires no phone number. It’s a weird inconsistency.
  • We don’t have Overdrive books, and neither does my local public library, so I’ve been unable to test loading one of them on the Fire. Can anyone confirm that it works?

It’s possible I’m wrong on some of these points – I only experimented with the Fire for about an hour today. But I think these are a number of issues important to library use of a Kindle Fire. Is there anything I’ve missed?

The case for home-grown, sustainable next generation library services


I was recently honored to be asked to write a technology column for an upcoming special issue of Public Services Quarterly. The issue’s theme is next generation public services, and I went with a title of “The case for home-grown, sustainable next generation library services”. While the column won’t be published until December, I feel it relates to a lot of discussion going on in libraryland right now and wanted to make it available as soon as possible.

The journal is usually limited to subscriber-only access. But the journal’s publisher, Taylor & Francis, allows me to post a preprint version online for free access. ‘Preprint’ means the article as it existed before undergoing peer review. But being essentially an opinion piece, peer review didn’t end up changing much. Only a few cosmetic changes were made, and so the actual content of this version is about 99% identical to what will be published in the December issue.

I’d like to give special thanks to Chris Guder, the journal’s technology column editor. His guidance helped craft this from a very (very) rough first draft into something I’m quite proud of. I think of it as my manifesto.

The links:

It’s a bit lengthy at 4400 words, so I converted the column into a PDF and formats for various ebook readers if you so desire:


Here’s an informal abstract:

I have grave concerns about libraries’ reliance on third party vendors in some areas. We gain the ability to provide new and cutting edge services to our users, but at what cost to sustainability? If a vendor disappears we’re suddenly out the service and the money we paid along the way. And sometimes we place the library in a very dangerous position as a precarious middleman. I talk about mobile services, ebook lending, terms of use issues, and potential new models for next generation public services. We can build services both by libraries and for libraries to provide a sustainable future of services.

Note that I wrote this column before Amazon introduced their Kindle library lending feature through Overdrive, and I’ll probably write a follow-up post about that soon.

Amazon adds Whispersync for personal ebooks

Last Friday I received an email from Amazon with a fairly innocuous subject line: “New Kindle Personal Documents Features”.

I’ll put the full text of the email at the end of this post, because I can’t seem to find it anywhere in Amazon’s online Kindle documentation. Which is weird, because I think the new features have broad implications.

To sum up, Amazon now applies their ‘whispersync’ functionality to personal documents. What does that mean in detail? Well there’s two necessary bits of background here.

1. Amazon has always allowed users to email their personal documents to their Kindle, that’s nothing new. A personal document might be a Word document, ebook file in a variety of formats, raw text, a pdf, or just about anything.

2. Whispersync is Amazon’s name for the feature that syncs your reading across devices. Leave off on a Kindle, open the Kindle app on your phone, and you can pick up reading where you left off. Highlights and notes taken in the book get moved between devices as well. It’s a powerful feature that I’ve used often to read a few pages while waiting in a long line somewhere.

By combining these features, Amazon is extending their cloud-based prowess to house users’ ebook libraries. I have a large quantity of ebooks that I’ve downloaded from non-Amazon sources. Project Gutenberg, Fictionwise, and freebies from authors are three sources that come to mind. I can now add them all to my cloud-based Kindle library, which I find pretty exciting.

Via Whispersync Amazon will now back up the books for me on their servers, and also sync any notes or highlights across reading platforms (or will soon anyway, it doesn’t work quite yet on Kindle apps). Each user has 5gb of space for their personal ebook library, which is enough storage for a library of staggering size.

There’s privacy implications to Amazon storing your personal documents, but the feature can be disabled.

Amazon is declaring that they don’t care where your ebook comes from, they just want you to read it on their platform (as long as it doesn’t have DRM mucking things up anyway). I’m not sure what their motivation is to open the doors like that, but as a consumer I’m not going to complain.

As a bonus, if libraries can get DRM-free ebooks from our vendors then those copies will suddenly be very useful on Kindles.

Continue reading

Dear Amazon: We just want changelogs!

After pulling Neal Stephenson’s new book Reamde from the Kindle store, Amazon replaced it with an updated version yesterday. The whole saga is detailed at Teleread.

While perhaps not as disturbing as the time Amazon infamously pulled copies of 1984 from users’ Kindles, I would still have been annoyed if my copy of Reamde suddenly changed.

The issue here is a lack of transparency. Amazon informed customers that the book had been replaced, but only cited the changes as: “the version you received had Missing Content that have (sic) been corrected.”

As it turns out, most of the fixes were relatively minor. But users were not provided with that information up-front. They had to blindly make a choice to either lose all their accumulated bookmarks and annotations when switching to the new version, or keep a potentially fatally flawed copy.

Amazon seems to have an odd aversion to changelogs in general. They don’t provide them for updates in their app store either. If I’m going to trust Amazon to provide me with access to content, they need to trust me in return with the information I need to make informed decisions.

Take ebrary’s survey… please.

Last week I ran across a link (via Paul Pival) to ebrary’s current survey about the future of their platform. If you have any experience with ebrary, you’re likely as frustrated with their UI and limitations as I am. So you should go take it. I’ll wait.

Good, you’re back! When I first saw this survey I was very excited. Ebrary as it stands right now is an awful user experience and interface, to the point that I often order a print copy of a book for work instead of an ebrary copy. And while I’m excited that they want to improve, even this survey itself shows how far they have to go: it uses terminology (“tethered systems”) that I’ve never encountered in this context before, and honestly the whole thing doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. One question seems to imply that mobile apps can be used on desktop machines. If such a major provider of academic library ebooks thinks that’s true… well they genuinely need our help.

So take the survey, if you haven’t already. It sounds like they’re at least considering some sort of offline reading ability, which is a step in the right direction and should be encouraged.

Death of a Middleman

Related to the HarperCollins/Overdrive fiasco*, Jason Griffey makes a couple of ominous points over at Library Renewal. I want to focus on one bit in particular:

“It is vital that libraries find a way to move out of the middle-man between vendor and patron, and even out from between publishers and patrons. In the world of the digital, disintermediation is the rule.”

This is something I’ve wrestled with for a while now, and almost been afraid to articulate. Heretical statement time: In the Overdrive->Library->User chain of loaning library ebooks, why does the library have to be part of that deal?

Overdrive has the potential to be the Netflix streaming option of ebooks. What happens when they decide to offer a direct subscription option to individual users? And what if that individual subscription cost is less than an individual’s library-related tax burden? Which option is more appealing to support?

Jason’s right – we need to step out of the middleman role in this equation. And we need to do it fast, before it’s too late. I don’t have the answers about how to redefine ourselves in regard to the new reality. But if any good comes out of the HarperCollins nonsense, it can at least start the conversation.

*(Sarah Houghton-Jan has analyzed the situation far more insightfully than I ever could.)