Eager For Better E-Book Deals

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I’m eager to start reading more e-books. I rarely re-read books (except for work), and my friends rarely borrow paper ones from me, so I have little reason to hang on to paper books. E-books would be just the thing. But the prices aren’t any good. I either have to pay more for an e-book than what it costs me to order a paperback from England, or I can get it for free through illegal file sharing. It’s amazingly easy: just try googling a book’s title, your preferred file format and the name of a file sharing service like Hotfile or Megaupload.

I am well aware that I wouldn’t be supporting the authors I like if I downloaded pirated copies of their books. But on the other hand I can’t see why on-line book stores should expect me to pay more when they give me less. Ease and speed of access is a fine thing, but I am actually capable of ordering paper copies in advance to avoid finding myself bookless. If I do end up without anything to read, I can always get a public domain e-book from Feedbooks piped straight into my smartphone over wifi. In this manner, for instance, I recently enjoyed Mark Twain’s youth memoir, Roughing It.

An issue that I find weird and intriguing is how libraries should deal with e-books. Buying an e-book is legal, copying it for free from someone you don’t know is illegal, but copying it as a protected file with a library as intermediary is legal. Of course, you’re not actually “borrowing” anything as there is no limit to the number of copies of a file that a library can hand out. And Swedish libraries, though they were quick to begin “lending” e-books, don’t offer files for any of the most popular platforms on which people read them.

There’s also the issue of how public libraries should get at the files. Currently, in Sweden, they have an exclusive deal with an intermediary named Elib, which is owned by four major publishing houses. So instead of finding files promiscuously, wherever they may reside, for library users, libraries can only offer whatever Elib has. And only with copy protection. And only for not-very-popular platforms. When librarians could actually provide customers with much better service by simply asking “Have you googled the book’s title, your preferred file format and the name of a file sharing service like Hotfile or Megaupload?” I don’t understand why they would want to have an exclusive arrangement with anybody for e-books when they’ve never done so for paper books.

Now that books are no longer stuck in their paper medium, I can’t really see why I should involve a library, a physical repository, in getting books. Actually, come to think of it, I haven’t asked a librarian for help with selecting a book since I was a kid. My frequent interactions with librarians are always either to help me register a loan, or to get a book that I want out of the stacks, or for them to receive a book that I am donating to the library. It’s all about the low-level administration of paper books. I would never ask a librarian what I should read unless it was one of my friends whose taste I’m familiar with.

I want to buy unprotected e-books from on-line book stores for about half of what a paperback copy costs on-line. I don’t want to “borrow” the files, and I don’t want to pirate them. But nor do I want to get ripped off.

Here’s an interesting article in Swedish about e-books and public libraries. Thanks to Ellen Follin, librarian and chanteuse

And here‘s what sf writer Charlie Stross had to say about the future of e-books in May 2010. Thanks to Dear Reader SM for the tip-off.

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Comments

  1. #1 William
    December 20, 2010

    Exactly how I feel about it. Except that I buy used books, since new books don’t fit in my budget. But for ease of use and access in convenient formats, pirated ebooks beat or equal every other marketplace.

  2. #2 Nick
    December 20, 2010

    I can only talk for university libraries and not public ones, but since I spend my days buying books for a large university library, I might have some insights here.

    Publishers know that eBooks are going to kill off their print trade, so they don’t produce their whole catalogue in electronic format. If you appreciate that an ebook costs only twice or three times what a print copy does, but has unlimited distribution potential, you can see their dilemma.

    For a large economics, law or medicine module with say 400 students I’ll buy one copy of a core text in print format, at say £70.00, for every 15 students (£1050 for the whole module). So only 26 of these students can borrow the book at any one time. For the eBook, if it is available, which costs £140 or £210, all 400 students can access it. So capitalism rules and the publisher doesn’t want to lose £800 by going electronic.

    This year my team and I have ordered about 1,500 core texts for modules at the university, and we have to buy eBooks where they are available (so shelf space can be reduced and more study places crammed into the library) but I would guess only 300 have been eBooks.

    If you compare books to journals, books don’t earn publishers much at all.

    Our library’s bill for journals, both print and electronic, increases by about 4 % a year, whereas our book costs are decreasing. Even though the cost of the journals keeps rising we only get about 10 new titles a year. The number of journal titles stays more or less constant, yet we buy 25,000 new books each year …

    We’ve got about 1,000,000 print books of which 25,000 get added and relegated each year. If they were all electronic, the physical processing would be greatly reduced. However, if my guess is right and only 20% are eBooks, we’ve got a long way to go.

    It’s not the libraries who get to decide if they go electronic or not. Publishers are incredibly powerful and resistant to change.

  3. #3 Martin R
    December 20, 2010

    It’s not the libraries who get to decide if they go electronic or not. Publishers are incredibly powerful and resistant to change.

    Well, the Swedish libraries have decided to go electronic. What I don’t understand is why they have accepted such restrictive terms.

  4. #4 D. C. Sessions
    December 20, 2010

    Can’t help you in general, but for anything in the public domain (and that’s a LOT) manybooks.net has reasonably copies of the Project Gutenberg collection.

    For science fiction and fantasy, Baen’s webscriptions.net has unlocked open format (including HTML)copies for about $5-6 and whole months for $15. Finally, Baen’s Free Library has free copies of quite a few books provided as samples to get you hooked.

    FWIW, I’m addicted to the 17th century alternate-history series that starts in 1632 [1] and sprawls all over Europe and across the Atlantic rapidly.

    [1] Free Library link provided.

  5. #5 Nick
    December 20, 2010

    Swedish public libraries were early to introduce self issue and return machines, so it doesn’t surprise me that they have also quickly embraced eBooks.

    Nick

  6. #6 William
    December 20, 2010

    Another source for free stuff that people might not know about is Librivox. Amateur audiobook versions of Project Gutenberg texts. Not all the readers are that great, but this can be a hazard of commercial audiobooks as well (I once tried to listen to a BBC reading of MASH where the British voice actor decided to attempt a variety of American accents for the characters’ dialogue). I recently listened to Librivox’s version of Scaramouche, and it was quite enjoyable.

  7. #7 William
    December 20, 2010

    Nick @2: In my field (mathematics), it seems like every undergraduate textbook you might imagine has been scanned and uploaded somewhere on the web. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same was true in economics, medicine, etc. I believe the Russians have been particularly good citizens in this regard. As Martin is saying, why not figure out how to find said editions and start telling students about them (off the record, of course).

  8. #8 islami sohbet
    December 20, 2010

    yes the end Nick @2: In my field (mathematics), it seems like every undergraduate textbook you might imagine has been scanned and uploaded somewhere on the web. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same was true in economics, medicine, etc. I believe the Russians have been particularly good citizens in this regard. As Martin is saying, why not figure out how to find said editions and start telling students about them (off the record, of course).

  9. #9 Masks of Eris
    December 21, 2010

    At William #7: Undergraduate textbooks, you say? Same’s true of the professional texts in mathematics, too. And in addition to the Russians, the Chinese are heart-warmingly active in this pdf-frontery. Given that all maths books seem to be either pants-bricking expensive or ludicrously long out of print, or both, I can kind of see the motivation. Especially when it’s one ruddy lemma you’re curious about. (“We use the same three-line proof as in the book of Arschschwein and Frust; such a trivial though not obvious trick does not need to be reproduced here.” — “Aaaargraaargh!”)

    And I’m pretty sure if the copyrights of research papers were rigorously enforced we’d have an impressively academic prison population at once. (Hey, that might be a distraction-free place to do research!) Who hasn’t asked a friend at a different institution (er, university) for a copy of a paper whose subscriptions one didn’t happen to have?

    And on the actual topic, agree 100% okay alright! The day I can buy ebooks DRM-free I’ll probably drop my papery buys to decorative and special items only. (Who knows, that day the price of an Espresso Book Machine analogue might be within a normal person’s mad hobby range anyway.)

  10. #10 Martin R
    December 21, 2010

    Arschschwein

    That’s it. I’m changing my name NOW.

  11. #11 Birger Johansson
    December 21, 2010

    An older kind of information transfer, sort of.
    “Mayan buildings may have operated as sound projectors”
    http://www.physorg.com/news/2010-12-mayan-projectors.html

    — — — —
    “Kraftwerk” spoof:
    “Achtung Xmas”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2A3kMTZwSQ8

    — — — —
    Hmm… if eBooks can be copied that easily, maybe enthusiasts might make a proper English translation of Stanislaw Lem’s “Solaris” (the current one is substandard) and put it on internet. The same reasoning would apply to many other non-anglo-saxon works of literature that find no interest among (big) publishers.
    — — — —

    “Arschschwein” ???

    Aard in arrdvark was dutch (Afrikaaner) for earth. But I suppose an entymologist might name some rectal parasite Arschschwein. Or “Bush”, if it was a really nasty parasite.

  12. #12 SM
    December 21, 2010

    You might want to read this series of articles by Charleys Stross about how the mainstream (not academic, not gaming, etc.) publishing industry works. He had good explanations about why (for example) eBooks are not much cheaper than paperbacks, and why publishers impose DRM which costs them sales and goodwill for little benefit.

    http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/04/common-misconceptions-about-pu-1.html

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