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.
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.