Electronic books–that still sounds strange to me, like electronic cigarettes or fast food. Almost an oxymoron–electronic books are two words strung together that have nothing to do with each other by themselves, but put them together and voila! But oxymoron or not, ebooks are here so we better get used to them. Here are some of the facts about the library’s relationship with ebooks and what we have seen thus far. Our circulation records show that out of all the items people check out at the Radford Public Library, ebooks comprise 3% of the total figure. Ebooks are mostly adult fiction and over 900 people or 5% of all of our patrons have signed up to use our ebook provider Overdrive. This service provides digital downloads for library patrons in audio and ebook formats.
So interest is there, albeit a small amount. It is likely to increase as people discover the benefits of ebooks. They’re convenient for travel and for people who prefer the relative ease and instant availability of books. Readers can increase the font of the books–a handy tool for those requiring glasses. Publishers have less money tied up with the printing of pages and shipping of physical books, so publishing new authors is a bit easier. The only space required to store ebooks is on your device. One Kindle, one Nook, one Ipod or one computer holds a wealth of information that used to take many shelves to handle.
But the drawback is that you don’t actually own the items in electronic format. Try moving your Kindle books to a Nook or vice versa. Digital Rights Management (DRM) locks these items so that the company can prevent you from converting the file, loaning the item or moving the file to a different device produced by a competitor. If the publishing world truly wanted people to read and authors to be read, they would drop DRM as the music industry has done in order to streamline purchases and make customers more likely to purchase again. Because of DRM, librarians have to select the popular formats so that most of our patrons can use the materials.
Libraries are doing what we can to help our patrons access ebooks. However, libraries can only buy titles our vendors can secure from publishers, and publishers are loath to sell to libraries whose collections will never need replacing. Since unlike physical books, ebooks do not require replacement because they never get lost or damaged. In this new business model, publishers hold back on allowing libraries to purchase new releases in ebook format, or they prevent the sale from happening at all. Some place a limit of how long libraries hold the titles or only allow a certain number of circulations to occur before requiring the title is bought again by the library. Some publishers charge a lot more for an ebook than a physical book would cost–up to three times as much.
The limited availability of titles for libraries to purchase and the fact that ebooks can only be used one at a time has frustrated library patrons. This is by design-these roadblocks are put there by companies in a transitioning industry. Not wanting to lose money, every book loaned out to a patron represents a book unsold to a consumer. These roadblocks sometimes drive readers to purchase ebooks rather than wait for them to be made available to check out.
Companies like Amazon are data mining every purchase you make. They can tell what items you’ve purchased, they can see the notes you’ve made and the passages you’ve highlighted. What will they do with this information? Use it to sell more books.
Before the advent of the ebook, libraries and booksellers existed together with few worries about publishers losing money over borrowed books. But the ease of downloading and the fact that digital books do not wear out have publishers worried about not having repeat business from libraries that do not have to replace physical books.
Libraries are in the business of connecting our communities to reading materials. Out of all the libraries in the country, 40% of us provide access to ereading devices. Libraries are a bridge for the digital divide. The day is coming when ebooks may be the majority of published works, depending in part, on readers and consumers. Now, more and more short stories and novellas are being released in eformat only. Academic textbooks and paperbacks make up the bulk of epublishing. Short stories and timely information in its digital format suit our faster lifestyles and screen reading sensibilities. Maybe novels will go the way of the concept album. Singles in music may lead to singles in stories.
We’ve been down this road before in the Victorian era when Charles Dickens released his books in serial format. Today they’ve been packaged as novels, but Pickwick Papers was first released a little at a time in Victorian England in an effort to reduce price and increase readership–a never-ending challenge for an industry and culture seeking to balance profit with art. Perhaps the physical book will go the way of the vinyl album—but wait! That’s making a comeback you say? Whatever the future holds, libraries will be there to agitate for removal of all barriers to literature.