More thoughts on a workable library ebook business model

A while back I posted some semi-coherent ramblings inspired by the HarperCollins/Overdrive mess concerning how libraries were able to license ebook collections for their patrons.

I'm not sure my ideas have changed or solidified or evolved or what, but I've certainly come to a slightly different way of articulating them.

Here goes.

At a certain level, libraries -- public, academic, institutional, special, whatever -- lending ebooks makes no sense at all.

If a library acquires a digital copy of a book there is no good reason why every person in that library's community (school, town, city, province, country, planet) couldn't all read that book at the exact same time. Bandwidth is really the only limitation.

That's what makes sense. Any attempt to limit that access is really just an attempt to impose an artificial scarcity on an abundant digital object.

And we all know how well it works when you try and impose an artificial scarcity on abundant digital objects. Just ask the music business. And it's something I think the nascent ebook business is starting to get a handle on.

As Aaron Saenz says,

Which brings us to the 600 pound gorilla in the room - why are people going to pay for something that is free to copy?

If people really don't want to pay for ebooks, ultimately, they won't. Just like if people really don't want to pay for recorded music, they won't.

But that doesn't mean it's free to the creators to record that music or write those books. Far from it. And those creators have bills to pay, both incurred in the act of creation and just in living life.

Libraries always have been and always will be willing to pay a fair price for access or ownership of quality content. But why should we pay scarcity prices for stuff that should be abundant? The whole structure is artificial, isn't it?

The incremental cost of each person in a large community getting access to a digital object is effectively zero.

The cost of getting that first copy to the first person in that first community isn't zero, of course, far from it. The creator wants to be paid as do publicists, editors, copy editors, technical support and HR and finance to look after making sure everyone gets paid and hired and such.

But how do you bridge the one to the million? How do you convince the millionth to chip in a little, just like the first? Publishers (and authors?) certainly would like to monetize each reading transaction but libraries would greatly resist that plan. We want something that's predictable from a budgetary point of view.

Cory Doctorow's recent Guardian article, In the digital era free is easy, so how do you persuade people to pay?, gives some insights into motivations for paying scarcity prices for abundant digital content, and some of those motivations that might just apply to libraries more than individuals.

In this article, I take a first cut at a taxonomy of "value propositions for the purchase of digital goods" - that is, reasons you should spend money on digital files that you can get for free - and of the market strategies that enhance or undermine each strategy. Different companies and products need different value propositions, but whatever your strategy is, your stated case for buying your products should be supported by those products. And if your sales strategy actively militates against your value proposition, you're doing it wrong.

Although Doctorow is skeptical about how these have played out in the mainstream media business of getting consumers to pay directly for content, a couple of them apply to the business of why libraries would want to pay for content for their communities

  • Buy this because it's the right thing to do. Paying creators for the work that they put into their creations is the right thing to do. And creators is broadly defined here to include not just the artists and scholars who directly create the work but the broader ecosystem that supports their endeavours.
  • Buy this because you're supporting something worthwhile. The artistic, cultural and scholarly discourse ecosystems deserve to exist and it's worthwhile for libraries to support those ecosystems.
  • Buy this because it is convenient. It's a good thing for libraries to mutualize their communities' resources to pay for content because it's not possible or convenient for the members to do so individually.

Which gives us a structure around why libraries should be willing to pay for ebooks: to connect being able to pay for that first community access to not having to pay for the millionth.

But what are some of the nuts and bolts of the situation. How to actually make it work for everybody involved: creators, libraries, publishers, readers. What are some possibilities for the mechanics of the business models we'll all agree on? That'll be for next time, I guess.

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It seems that on more than one level, the publishing business is unwilling to update its practices to fit the technologies. And unfortunately, at the end of each of these problems is the author or the contributor of actual content, getting screwed. So how can this possibly form a sustainable model, even (or especially!) for the next five to ten years, while the consumer at the other end has just as high a demand?

I do think you're right, that if you make it convenient and low priced, and appeal to people's conscience, you WILL get more people paying a fee for access to an ebook. But it has to be something that publishers will pass on to authors, as well (not something I would have pegged as a problem in the past, but, well, there you go), and something which the publishsers recognise as being a practiceable option in the first instance, which does not appear to be finding fertile ground either.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 03 May 2011 #permalink

This is an interesting issue to me and one for which I really don't see any easy answers. Having spent some time dealing with DRM issues in regards to Audiobooks that I own, but found I couldn't play on an mp3 player I bought. I bought it because it was on Audible's list, but apparently it was on the list as a legacy and they were no longer compatible. I liked the player a lot and so I set off on a quest to find ways to convert the files. I learned a whole lot during that (ultimately successful) quest.

It is really easy to convert pretty much any file format. My local public library provides access to an audiobook download system - you "borrow" the book and it can't be used by anyone else until you return it. Except that all you have to do is load it on a player and "return" it. If you want, you can then plug it into your computer and rip it from your player into whatever format.

I have also discovered that it is (or at least was) possible to convert Kindle files and most everything else. Trying to be as reasonably honest about things as I can be, I buy e-books, or sometimes even a hard copy - then I find them on usenet or in a torrent in PDF format. It isn't even so much a problem of not being able to read them on various machines, I generally read them on my tablet. It's just an issue of wanting everything in an easily indexed format. I will admit though, that I have permanently borrowed a few ebooks from the library - though as a general rule, usually on accident.

What frustrates me is that I already have a lot of mixed feelings about e-books. I love hard copy books and shelves full of books, but can't help but absolutely love the utility of having most of my textbooks, journal articles and reference materials on a machine that weighs just over four ounces - not to mention the ease of cutting and pasting quotations into papers. Nothing rocks quite so much as hauling my tiny netbook for taking notes and my tablet for the texts. Throw in my aluminum water bottles and it comes out to the weight of a single large textbook. My other issue, is that I intend to do a fair amount of writing for publication after I've gotten through a bit more of my education and would love to actually, you know, get paid for my work.

Meh, like so many things dealing with communication and information technologies, it's just really bloody complicated.