Tag Archives: ebooks

Even Better than the Real Thing?

“Information wants to be free.” Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Catalog

A couple of years ago, our library system began offering audiobooks and ebooks for downloads. We contracted with a company called Overdrive, who acts as the “middle man” between publishers and libraries. At no cost to our library users, they can download an ebook or an audiobook to their computer or mobile device (i.e. iPod touch, iPhone, Blackberry, iPad or Android) and also transfer it to most ebook readers (Sony Reader, Kobo, Nook, etc). Kindle is the main hold-out to this for now, although I understand Amazon is doing tests with American libraries, and if Amazon deems it worthwhile for them, they will expand access to Canadian libraries.

“Access” is the key word here.

Downloadable ebooks and audiobooks differ from print books in many ways, but the most important and probably least understood is what you actually get for your troubles. With regards to ebooks, not a whole lot.

With paper books, or what I curmudgeonly refer to as “real” books, thanks to the right of first sale, you can do whatever the hell you want with it once you’ve bought it. You can give it as a gift, resell it, donate it, use it for kindling, or hollow the inside out and keep a nice bottle of Bushmills safe from harm’s way. If it wasn’t for the right of first sale, the wonderful world of musty old used book shops wouldn’t even exist:

"The pay's not great, but the work is hard". Bernard, Black Books.


Contrast this with the soulless sensation of downloading a title to your device. You don’t actually own it, even if you think you’ve bought it. You’ve just bought ACCESS to an idea. Just try reselling, or giving away your digital copy of the latest James Patterson. It’s difficult, isn’t it? And don’t even try to store whiskey in there. Welcome to the wonderful world of  Digital Rights Management (DRM). Cory Doctorow’s presentation to Microsoft’s Research Group back in 2004 makes a very compelling case against DRM, and I’ll let his words speak for themselves. Boom!

There have been some strides made in the fight against DRM. Apple’s iTunes Store has sold DRM free music since 2007, although they still attach a watermark on each file containing user account info, and they still have heavy DRM restrictions on movies, ringtones, tv shows and audiobooks.

But for the most part, libraries (right alongside consumers) are held ransom by the whims of publishers. I wrote about Harper Collins’ decision back in March to limit libraries to 26 downloads of any given title. DRM restrictions on audiobooks seem even more random and arbitrary. Telling customers, “Yes, you can put it on an iPod, but no, it won’t work on a Mac. It works on Windows only, but for some reason you can’t put in on an mp3 player. And you’re right, I don’t know why you can burn book 1 of a series to a CD, but books 2 and 3 of the same series won’t” gets really tiring. My shorthand answer for all this is that “Publishers set up the borrowing rules, not us”, and it saves time and breath.

I haven’t even got to the aesthetic differences between holding a physical book in your hands versus an ebook or other device. Perhaps I’ll save my own personal experiences with ebooks for a future post. One faithful member of the fanbase has been toying with the idea of getting an iPad. Perhaps if she does, I will get a chance to try it out for myself. I promise to keep my mind open, even though the system is not.


I love the Gonzo aesthetic in the logo. I have a t-shirt.



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I’ve got 26 problems but a book ain’t one.

Last week, Harper Collins sent a letter out to Overdrive, a company that acts as a vendor of ebooks for libraries. The letter stated that starting in March, any ebook purchased from Harper Collins will be set up so that it will only work 26 times. After 26 checkouts, the file is no longer active and a new “copy” of the title must be purchased to replace the old one. Harper Collins’ reasoning is that since ebooks never ever wear out, once a library buys a title, it never has to buy that title again. This differs from paper copies that libraries have traditionally purchased. Paper copies are physical objects that get stolen, go missing, get dropped in bathtubs, get eaten by pets and just plain wear out after a while. Libraries order replacement copies of popular and classic titles all the time, goes the Harper Collins’ argument, and assures a constant reliable customer that is self-perpetuating. Harper Collins’ further argues that since many smaller libraries join up with other smaller libraries, pool their resources and “go in together” to share ebook collections, publishers are further missing out on an increasingly smaller and smaller revenue stream.

Does this sound reasonable to you?

Before I give my thoughts on this issue, I must preface my remarks by saying that my views are not necessarily the views of my employer, nor are they the views of a particularly well-informed or connected mind. I’m just a dude temporarily entrusted with a medium-sized public library working under the impending threat of a potential strike.

A week ago Friday, news of the Harper Collins decision spread like wildfire throughout the world-wide library community. My twitter feed lit up with the hashtag #hcod (harpercollinsoverdrive, I’m assuming), and if you want to get more informed commentary on the issue, I encourage you to click on this hashtag and read for yourselves. Opinions ranged from supporting the publishers from the sneaky librarians, to an overall boycott of Harper Collins ebooks. My feeling from the informal number of tweets and blogs that I read, the overwhelming majority of authors, readers and librarians feel that this is not the way to go.

A quick aside: what is the proper way to write “ebooks”? Its one of those newly minted english words that takes a traditional word “book” and sticks an “e” in front of it to represent “electronic”. This site has a good discussion on the differing usages. It seems “e-book” is becoming the most accepted, but I’m lazy and stubborn and Irish and I find ebook quicker to write so I’m sticking with that until told I can’t.

Right, let’s crack on with the blog, shall we?

The most obvious result of the Harper Collins decision is that libraries will have to designate a larger % of their collection development budget to ebooks, at the detriment of other formats, primarily paper. At a time when library budgets are shrinking and we must justify every purchase, the end-user (i.e. all of us) ultimately loses out.

It will be interesting to see if an organized boycott of Harper Collins’ ebooks bears fruit. To Overdrive’s credit, they are making it easy for libraries to decide for themselves. They have separated out all the Harper Collins’ titles from all the other ones, so that when you go to purchase ebooks, you consciously have to go to the Harper Collins’ pool to get Harper Collins’ books. I know many library systems, including my own, have decided to NOT order any Harper Collins ebooks until the policy get changed.

This whole thing raises a wider fundamental issue: ebooks are not paper books. They really are different creatures and have to be thought of in a different way. When you buy a paper book, you OWN that book. The first sale doctrine says that once you own a book, you can do whatever the hell you want with it. You can sell it, loan it, burn it, eat it. This idea allows used bookstores and libraries to exist. When you buy an ebook, you don’t actually OWN anything. You’re renting access to a digital file. Not many people realize this, and would be surprised to find out that their Kindle downloads are exactly that: downloads. This site goes into way more detail about Digital Rights Management than I am qualified or prepared to talk about today.

Which brings us all back to Harper Collins’ decision to limit the number of checkouts on library ebooks. It got me thinking about the life cycle of an ebook vs. a paper book. In my library, we have a collection of approximately 70,000 physical items. I say “approximately” because unless I run a report, I have no idea how many items are here. First of all, as a rule of thumb, a third of our collection is always checked out, leaving two-thirds on the shelves at any one time. Also, we have a finite number of shelves to store things, and we get thousands of items added every year. This means its essential to get rid of older material to make way for the newer stuff. In library jargon, we call this “weeding”. Everyone learns in library school the CREW method of weeding. I’ve taken up enough time today for me to go into much detail about the CREW method, but when done properly, it revitalizes a library collection by removing material based on a comprehensive set of criteria. (Known as MUSTIE: librarians love acronyms like everyone else, apparently).

When a physical item is in need of withdrawing, we make a decision. Is it worth repairing? If the answer is no, then it is withdrawn and put into booksale, or if it’s in really rough shape, recycled. If it is worth repairing, we must ask “Is it repairable?” Will it cost more in staff time to repair it than to buy a replacement copy?

When space is an issue, we use different criteria. When a bestseller comes out, libraries order multiple copies to meet the huge initial demand. As little as a year later, when interest has waned, libraries are stuck with 5 or 6 copies of a formerly popular title. We need to weed all but one of these to make room. Often you can get wonderful deals on newish material in library booksales for this very reason.

My point with these two small weeding examples is that a lot of thought goes into managing a paper collection, but how much thought goes into managing a digital collection? Space is not an issue, except for maybe server space. Condition is not an issue: digital copies don’t get lost, stolen or wear out. This leaves only content as a relevant weeding criteria, and I honestly don’t know how much this is done. I have a feeling that digital ebooks are purchased, added to the database and then forgotten about. Perhaps the only upside of Harper Collins’ policy is that it will force public libraries to think about their digital collections as intelligently as they do with their paper collections. I suppose time will tell.

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