Archive for the ‘kindle’ Category

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

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

Ebook economics: Are libraries screwed?

“Kindling” by Flickr user oskay

The advance of ebooks will no doubt bring much good. As often with technological change, we probably can’t even predict what wonderful new things will emerge! But we can see some serious dangers ahead, and try to deal with them. I see three major areas of concern: to libraries, to physical bookstores and to the freedom to read in unfree countries.

This post explores the first of these—the danger to libraries. There are, of course, arguments to be made about the viability of physical libraries in a digital age—that while libraries aren’t just buildings, the building still define much of what they do. That is not my point here.

Instead, I want to advance a pricing argument: that ebooks will end up costing libraries far more than paper books ever did.

Premise: Libraries will need a “library model” for ebooks.

A few libraries, such as NCSU have been experimenting with ebooks. Without exception, they are following a “consumer model,” buying a large pool of devices and then buying books locked to individual devices in the pool.

This model is great for experimentation—to test what patrons think of ebooks and figure out what to do with them—but it’s not a long-term solution. Digital books locked to individual physical devices are worse than physical books. That is, when you take out a physical book, one book is unavailable. When you take out a Kindle with 100 books on it, 100 books are unavailable. NCSU has bought extra copies when students need another copy in circulation. Obviously that’s not a long-term solution.

Because the “consumer model” won’t work, libraries will need—and publishers and ebook providers—will create a “library model.” The library model will involve a “site license” model—a pool of books, with rights to use them on X devices at a time. Publishers are already talking about this.

Thus, libraries and consumers will be using different models. The market will “split.” (I understand that Netlibrary and Ebrary, two library-centered ebook vendors, already used by many libraries, work this way now.)

Economic effect: Libraries are screwed.

  1. With regular books, libraries took advantage of the same deal regular people got, but extracted a lot more value of that deal. That is, a regular person mostly got a single use out of a book; libraries got many more uses. We didn’t think of it this way, but libraies had a “site license” of sorts—the so-called “first-sale doctrine.”

    With the first-sale doctrine sidelined by digital rights management (DRM), publishers will seek to extract the higher value of their books within a library context. This will cause prices to rise.

  2. With physical books, library price discrimination was impossible. Libraries and regular people bought the same stuff, and paid the same prices. If a given edition was pitched to libraries, its price was held in check by the availability of non-library editions. As a result, only purely academic titles had run-away libary prices—think Brill with its $300 monographs.

    Once the market is “split,” price discrimination is possible. Publishers will charge libraries more for the extra value they get because they can do so without hurting the consumer market. This will cause prices to rise.

  3. The cost of paper books have traditionally been held down by the existence of a secondary market. Copyright is, of course, a legal monopoly on the production of a given work, but once paper copies have been sold, new sales compete to some degree with the used copies out there. If you don’t want to pay $242 for Brill’s Collected Papers on Greek Colonization, BookFinder lists 25 used copies under $215.

    Because ebooks are non-transferable—and if such ability is added, it surely won’t allow a consumer to pass an ebook to a library under library terms—no secondary market will exist. Until copyright expires, libraries will have to go to a single source—the publishers who have the copyright monopoly. This will cause prices to rise.

  4. The “library model” will be inevitably pushed toward “rental” not “ownership.” As many have remarked, ebooks are already more like “renting” than “owning,” with no right of resale and at least the technical ability for the book to vanish at whim. Libraries, afraid of buying goods that a technological change or company bankruptcy will obliterate, will seek to avoid the “lock in” of ownership. Publishers will also see opportunity in offering large “packages” to libraries—packages that provide rental access to a collection that would take years to build up in a traditional buying-and-owning model.

    This logic is how libraries were pushed to renting their journals. It’s also at work in enterprise software, either de jure or—through regular version upgrade payments—de facto. Libraries will rent, not buy, their ebooks.

    The combination of monopoly and rental is dangerous. It’s how journal subscriptions have risen faster than inflation for 40 years, and spiked precipitously upward in the last decade. (The classic ARL graphic can be found here.)

    The logic of journals is the logic of the site-licensed ebook. Prices will rise unchecked. Some relief may come if the open-access movement goes past scholarly journals into other scholarly publishing—there’s really no reason Brill books need to cost $300! But this will take a while, and it will only affect scholarly titles.

    Rental means prices will rise.

  5. In the past, libraries could “coast.” Collection development was a long-term thing, and libraries could, if necessary, restrict their acquisitions budget in line with financial realities. When times are bad, you buy less. When times are good, you buy more. As long as you have both ups and downs, the library as a whole stays healthy.

    Rental will change this. Libraries will only be as good as their last subscription check. This will change the nature of collection development (in both good and bad ways), and give politicians new opportunities for both unsustainable budget growth and budget-cutting during crisis. This may not cost libraries more, but it will put their value on the knife-edge.

What do you think? I’ve started a discussion topic in the “Librarians who LibraryThing” group.


I’m sure there are lots of good arguments against this post. Here are two that came up as people read earlier drafts.

Jason Griffey argues (by Twitter) that prices will be kept in check by wide availability of pirated versions. This is a good argument. The counter-argument is corporate software. It’s not hard to get a free copy of InDesign or Photoshop, but corporations continue to shell out nearly $1,000 for each, because the penalties are so steep.

Another correspondent suggested the “dawning age of biblioplenty”—a world in which “millions of books will be available from almost anywhere”—will act to hold down prices, presumably through what economists call indirect competition.

Labels: ebooks, economics, kindle, sony reader

Sunday, February 15th, 2009

Can your Kindle read to you?

The new Kindle apparently can “read out loud”—that is speech-synthesize—its books. Paul Aiken, director of the Author’s Guild, told the Wall Street Journal they can’t do that:

“They don’t have the right to read a book out loud. … That’s an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law.”

Renowned (and Newbery) author Neil Gaiman begs to differ:

“When you buy a book, you’re also buying the right to read it aloud, have it read to you by anyone, read it to your children on long car trips, record yourself reading it and send that to your girlfriend etc. This is the same kind of thing, only without the ability to do the voices properly, and no-one’s going to confuse it with an audiobook.”

My opinion. Gaiman is right on the way it should work. The Kindle, with its DRM model, undermines what Gaiman got from “buying” a physical book, but it’s certainly strange to imagine people can own a piece of text free and clear, but not be allowed to run a program that reads it aloud.

On the legal grounds, however, I fear Aiken might be right. As a rule authors grant publishers highly specific rights. These limits generally include countries, copies, covers, formats and timeframes. That’s one reason eBooks took so long to take off—a million contracts needed to fly here and there before publishers could sell their books in the new format.

Anticipating future media is hard. My favorite passage in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (okay, the only passage I remember from that deeply weird work*), predicts a world of freedom in which

[L]ovely apparitions…
Shall visit us the progeny immortal
Of Painting, Sculpture, and rapt Poesy,
And arts, though unimagined, yet to be.

In the real world, I fear, “arts, though unimagined, yet to be,” require a contract addendum.


*The passage made it into the LibraryThing terms of use. I love my job.

Labels: drm, kindle, neil gaiman, rights

Friday, March 28th, 2008

Amazon deletes competition

Having bought bought second-tier Print-on-Demand (POD) publisher BookSurge, Amazon is now working to shut down its competition. According to Publishers Weekly:

“According to talks with several pod houses, BookSurge has told them that unless their titles are printed by BookSurge, the buy buttons on Amazon for their titles will be disabled.”
More at BookFinder Journal. The story broke on WritersWeekly.

Amazon’s move should concern all publishers, and indeed readers. Amazon has always had a lot of leverage, but they haven’t used it. That’s clearly changing. The Kindle is already a monopoly product. Will they remove books published on the Sony Reader too?

Coincidentally, I’ve had POD on the brain; see this post for more on POD and libraries. I guess Amazon may solve libraries’ problem with having too many POD publishers to follow.

UPDATE: Good, longer discussions and evidence of meme-spread can be found at BookTwo.org, TeleRead, The Wall Street Journal, Wired Epicenter Blog, Techcrunch, Eoin Purcell. I think it’s significant that the story has crossed the gap from the POD and general book trade to personal LJ pages and niche outlets like Christian Writers Marketplace and The Wild Hunt (“Will Amazon Hurt Small Pagan Publishers?”). For a continuous stream, check out this Google Blog Search for “Booksurge.” My survey found 90% of the posts had hostile titles with the remaining 10% being hostile only in their content.

For book-industry bloggers, and particularly the POD people, this has become something of an I-am-Spartacus moment. (Of course, those guys all died.) The manager of Dashbooks, a POD publisher that makes most of its money off Amazon, writes of the “liquid courage” (margaritas) that led to their post on the topic. Certainly I hesitated a moment before posting. Let’s see what our Amazon-funded competitor has to say about Amazon’s move…

Labels: Amazon, booksurge, kindle, monopoly

Monday, January 28th, 2008

Kindles in libraries? Amazon says “get lost.”

Amazon prohibits libraries from lending out Kindles. It’s unclear if you can let your spouse use it.

(Hat tip Jessamyn West).


I’ve refrained from posting about the Kindle because everyone else is talking about it and I don’t have strong feelings, except on the licensing issue.

There are cultural plusses from the fact that books are objects people can sell, loan, swap and pass onto your children, and that their continued functioning does not depend on the good will and financial stability of a company. There are cultural plusses from some of the extra things Kindle could do too, but those are the things we could lose.

I’m worried that, for most people, these plusses aren’t that important. Shocked as I am by the practice, most people throw away books after they read them. But it’s only books for me. I’ve somehow managed to accept that, when my father dies, his fabulous classical music collection will go to his heirs, but my son won’t be getting my music.

Maybe this aspect of the issue won’t be noticed until people see how DRM-based solutions cut libraries out of the equation. Then again, Amazon will probably move to allow libraries to provide short-term rentals, and libraries will accept that.

What does the library of the future do? I worry it won’t do much more than aggregate rights-managed subscription services. It’s already going that way with databases and journals. Yuck.

Think I’m cantankerous? You haven’t heard David Lynch on the iPhone.

Labels: kindle