Friday, April 23rd, 2010

The Brigadoon Library!

Techcrunch just reported an interesting development with Barnes and Noble’s Nook eReader, a feature called “Read in Store.”

The idea is simple. If you’ve got a Nook and you’re in a physical Barnes and Noble store, you can read any ebook they carry. When you leave the store, the book goes away. As TechCrunch writes, “It’s the Brigadoon of ebook reading.” (allusion explanation)

There are limitations, of course. Just as the Nook’s “lending” feature only works once per book, and then never again, Read in Store is only good for an hour of book reading per day, plus another 20 minutes for magazine and newspaper content.

Retail sense. It certainly makes retail sense. There was always something risky about the Nook. Was Barnes and Noble preparing for a future without stores or just speeding its own demise? Many ereader owners give up on physical bookstores.(1) Read in Store is designed to keep them there. As the press release puts it, “Our digital customers will feel at home in our stores” where they can read books on their Nook while “enjoying their favorite beverage in our café.”(2)

Best of all, this is territory Amazon and Apple can’t follow. Amazon has no stores, and will never add them. (As Indie Booksellers never tire of pointing out, Amazon’s success depends in part upon avoiding sales tax, which requires having no physical presence in a state.) Amazon has stores, but they’re not exactly set up for reading.

If I were Apple, I’d be talking to Borders right now. If I were Apple, there was no disease, and animals didn’t eat each other, I’d be talking to independent booksellers. Maybe it’s time indies got together, presumably through IndieBound, and tried to wring a similar deal with someone–Kobo, Sony, or the congruently social Copia.

An answer for libraries? What works for Barnes and Noble could also work for libraries. Indeed, since every Barnes and Noble has suddenly turned into a limitless library, real libraries risk losing a core value to a mere bookstore.

Fortunately, the change to a “Brigadoon Library” would be gentle. Libraries are already accustomed to in-library database access. This would be an extension of an established concept–very helpful in selling new ideas to institutions that are too often hostile to them. And it should be easy to set up–just submit your wifi’s IP address to an ereader’s website and you’re good to go.

Best of all, this is a library solution that makes sense to publishers and could therefore actually happen.(4) Publishers signed on with Barnes and Noble because they calculated that the sales they lost from free reading would be more than offset by the sales they gained from people who bought the book after tiring of the physical limitation–and by the extra word of mouth.(5) With libraries, the publisher incentive is less, but still significant. Readers cannot turn from an ereader to buy a physical copy, as they could at a Barnes and Noble store. But, as at a store, they can buy the ebook. There’s no reason publishers wouldn’t provide such a service for free, or, more probably, a low cost.(6)

What about outside the library? Will many in libraryland object to “read in the library for free but pay to take it home”? Certainly. But here’s where ebook rental comes in. The library will pay to have some books available for take-home rental.

As I’ve pointed out in the past, ebook rental is a serious down-elevator for libraries. Through the magic of the First Sale doctrine, libraries could extract a lot more value from paper books than “regular” buyers–something like nine times as much. This surplus value was to a large degree why libraries came about, and why they continue to make economic sense. But now that publishers aren’t bound by First Sale, they have no incentive whatsoever to allow libraries similarly generous terms. Libraries will have to pay full price for the value they deliver. Once that happens libraries will have little advantage over renting the book yourself.(7) Libraries become a “simple” book subsidy, not a magical one.

I don’t see this regime ending. Publishers will never allow libraries to circulate digital books under the older, physical terms. They will charge for it, and charge what it’s worth.(8) But in-library reading can augment necessarily restricted and circumscribed ebook lending. Thus, the library itself–the physical library–can serve as a limitless portal to the world. And, in addition, the library can allow paper books, and some digital books to be taken out.

Library dystopia. The Brigadoon Library holds out some hope that libraries can avoid “library dystopia”–a world in which the loss of First-Sale value and the virtualization of everything undermines public support for the library, and for the other enduring values libraries deliver. It’s a world without libraries, or a world with libraries that provide much less.

For me, these enduring values include helping patrons find and understand information, and providing a vibrant community space. Many would also include the provision of free computers, but I see this as a downward race against technology prices–a service that will disappear as the need disappears, much like the telephone service libraries in rural areas once provided.(9)

Instead of a library depleted of books–not to mention CDs and DVDs(10)–and of library patrons not there for babysitting or free computers, the Brigadoon Library would be a full library. It would be full of patrons browsing the entire world of books.

Library utopia? This isn’t library utopia. The Brigadoon Library would be a sort of updated closed-stacks library, and closed stacks library are limited libraries. It isn’t the universal library, the expected future library where everything is available everywhere–and for free.

I didn’t get a shot of the reading room, but here’s my son, with the lions. No libraries, no lions. For God’s sake, think of the children!

But it’s a healthy one. It’s healthy for authors and publishers. It’s healthy for library budgets. And it’s healthy for patrons.

I got a sense of how healthy a closed-stacks library can be a recent trip to the Boston Public Library’s Research Library–the beautiful old building next to the ugly modern one. The reading room was full of people studying and browsing the web, but a core group was there because the “Research Collections” at the Boston Public Library are only available for use in-library. Kept from going elsewhere, they were truly limited.

But the limits had their benefits. Researchers and non-researchers enjoyed the air conditioning, the gorgeous room, and the company of others. The building and the people added something. And that’s not even mentioning all the restaurants and bookstores nearby, or the library-sponsored readings and music events. The “anywhere library” of solitary individuals in their underwear is not really a better library.

I’ll stop there. My blog posts all way to be essays, and my readers prefer they were Twitter posts.

To recap the Brigadoon Library is:

  • Technically easy, so doable.
  • Good for publishers, so possible.
  • Great for patrons, who get access to a world of books.
  • Not expensive.
  • Likely to produce full, vibrant physical spaces.
  • Likely to foster the connection between taxpayer and library.
  • Might save libraries.
  • Named after a Broadway Musical.

Come talk about it in the comments, or on Talk here.


1. Those that don’t often use them very cynically–soaking up the nice displays and friendly smiles of the booksellers without the least intention to buy. There is, I think, a special circle of hell for people who do this, alongside the people who browse stores in order to figure out what they’re going to buy on Amazon.

2. Does any human being not standing in front of a table with a pad of paper uses the word “beverage”?

3. In some cases, libraries would probably have to pay outright for a read-in-library feature. Few patrons are going to buy an encyclopedia, for example. But the payment would be minimized by the limitation.

4. Here and elsewhere I’m going to use “publisher” to mean whoever sells the book. “Publisher” may eventually mean author directly, or some intermediary with no editorial or curatorial role. I despise phrases like “content provider.”

5. This ignores the likelihood that publishers were also influenced by Barnes and Noble’s outside share of their own book sales.

6. In some cases, libraries would probably have to pay outright for a read-in-library feature. Few patrons are going to buy an encyclopedia, for example. But the payment would be minimized if the item could only be read while in the library.

7. The exception is market power and price discrimination. Libraries buy a lot of books, so they may be able to command moderate discounts. As for price discrimination, it only applies if you need to go to the library to get the book. Price discrimination works by targeting some type of consumer or by imposing some barrier that does the same; for example, paperbacks are price discrimination, big fans and people with money buy the hardback; lesser fans and the cost-conscious wait to buy the paperback.

8. The only real hope is legislation. If Congress passed a bill that forced publishers to sell to libraries at a certain cost, with certain rights, that would change everything. I don’t see that happening, and if it did, the costs and rights would be closer to real value extracted than to the First Sale price.

9. That doesn’t mean libraries will stop providing computers, just as many will still let you make a phone call. Computers may well be necessary for this or that library-related task. And since libraries will probably continue to be used for low-quality babysitting, computers will keep the children entertained. But the provision of free computers and internet cannot remain a core mission of libraries when the “free” part has become superfluous.

10. CDs and DVDs are going virtual much faster than books. And for all the interest in libraries providing ebook rental nobody is talking about libraries providing free music of video streaming. That will never happen.

Nook photo credit goes to jennifertomaloff on Flickr.

Labels: brigadoon library, ebooks, ereaders, future of the book, kindle, nook

30 Comments:

  1. Eric Hellman says:

    Somehow, I don't think "the Brigadoon Library" is a label that will catch on. I'm still placing my bets on the Starbucks Library.

    Either way, I think the read-everything-in-a-library deserves serious consideration. Should be easy to do on iPad, very hard on Kindle, and it may result in a special-purpose ultra-cheap ebook reader device.

    It's great to watch B&N do the marketing experiment for us. The BIG question is whether patrons want this or not, and if so, how many?

  2. Katya says:

    "Go home, go home, go home with Bridget Jones . . ."

  3. A Library Girl says:

    Nice, idea, I suppose, but…I'm still not an ebook convert. I still read print books, and, with print books, you've always been able to do what is apparently so groundbreaking for B&N to do with ebooks.

    "Indeed, since every Barnes and Noble has suddeny turned into a limitless library, real libraries risk losing a core value to a mere bookstore."

    A limitless library for an hour a day, if you're in a B&N store, and if you own a Nook. That's a lot of ifs. With a library, you can still walk in, pick up a stack of print books, read them in the library if you want or even take them home for several weeks or more. True, it's print books, which have apparently already been consigned to the Land of the Dead and Obsolete, but, like I said, I'm not an ebook convert, and I know I'm not the only print-only reader out there.

    As far as ebooks go, I've used a public library that let people check out ebooks, but, since it was never a service I used, I can't really compare. With the way publishers are acting right now, I have a hard time wrapping my brain around what they'll allow libraries to do.

  4. Sol Rosenberg says:

    TechCrunch raised an interesting question… would like to hear your response.

    They said:
    "…when is the last time you stood in a store, in front of a book, and then said to yourself “Hey, I’d like to see this on a screen” ?

  5. Craig Scarberry says:

    Could libraries buy rights that would allow them to only have out a limited number of copies out at any given time? For example: library buys digital rights for one hundred copies. Via the libraries website patrons sign in and check out a copy using their account/IP address (whatever) when all one hundred copies are out no more can be loaned until current users time expires. In other words, why can't we just mimic the current arrangement? Patrons would be thrilled to get books on loan from the library without leaving home via e reader or computer, and the publishers would be protected from the potential of millions of free copies flooding their market. Would this work, or am I missing something?

  6. MatthewDBA says:

    @Craig,

    That's essentially what businesses do when buying software – they buy license packs or have volume licensing arrangements.

  7. waltc says:

    Re #10: Never is a very long time. Naxos, at least, has been licensing streaming-music services to libraries for quite a few years now.

  8. John Mark Ockerbloom says:

    One note: I think where you say "closed stacks" library, you mean "noncirculating" library. Closed stacks collections have shelves you can't browse. (You have to order a specific item, and then the staff get it for you.) Noncirculating collections have books you can't take from the premises.

    Both are restricted, but in different ways, and both can be the result of somewhat different technological and policy choices. (For instance, an e-library with the sorts of full text search and preview that Google Books offers for its titles can be a lot more like "open stacks" than an e-library that is only accessible through a dumb traditional OPAC.)

  9. Anonymous says:

    I don't understand the American hysteria over ebooks. I have a Kindle and it's at most a toy. There aren't that many books available for it. It's not sturdy. It's not as comfortable as reading a book. Books aren't easily "browsable". And the price of ebooks is armed robbery.

    Stop pretending this piece of crap is the future.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I don't claim to know anything about library finances and am too uniformed to make any prediction about their future, but I'm impressed that you've managed to describe a library I have no interest in visiting. And I say that as someone who is in a public library at least once a week and has no problem with ebooks.

  11. jjmcgaffey says:

    Sol – actually, I've done that. Baen puts out an ebook the same month or the month after a hardback comes out – so I've gone to a store, seen a new hardback from Baen that I wanted, gone home and bought the ebook. Then a year later I will probably buy the paperback, but in the meantime I've got the ebook…and the two together are cheaper (and fit better on my shelves) than the single hardback.

  12. Tim says:

    I'm one of the minority who think books are really cheap. Alternately, I rate my time very highly. Anyway, I'd gladly pay 1/3 more to get an ebook together with my paper book. I can't see why publishers would dislike that insofar as the resale value of a paper book is very low. So, why not pick up some extra money and not lose a single customer?

  13. Jason says:

    Tim,

    I just wanted to let you know that I used part of this post in my own blog post over here:

    http://www.thedeanfiles.com/The_Dean_Files/Jasons_Blog/Entries/2010/4/26_New_Yorker_iPad_Article_Comments.html

    Thanks!

    Jason Dean

  14. Quasar says:

    I can't say I see the nook and this feature as a concern for libraries given how limited the reading is. Bookshops where you can sit down and read a get a coffee are probably more a concern.

    As for digital books themselves, i can't say I'll be very interested till libraries are part of the whole process. But then 95% of my book reading is from libraries.

  15. laydonstorm says:

    I’m interested in seeing how the whole ereader nook will play out. I like the thought of being able to browse a book or articles electronically for about an hour and decide if it is the item I want to purchase. Yes, I know there will be people hanging around who will refuse to purchase a hard copy, but let it be…they are interested in reading and what is a great problem to have (education).

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