E-books and E-wolves

E-book sales are rising: Amazon, the largest bookseller in the U.S. has been reporting since 2011 that it sells more e-books than print books. In fact, book readership is also rising, partially because of the spread of e-books. The Pew Research Center published a report in April 2012 that the average e-book reader reads more books a year than the average non-e-book reader.  In the U.K., The Guardian reported in August 2012 that Kindle users there were buying four times as many books as they were before becoming a Kindle-owner. In a more recent Pew study published October 2012, younger readers are actually reading even more than adults. E-books haven’t completely replaced print books in the lives of readers, but usage is growing and we may see them dominate someday soon, given the sale trends in the book market. Regardless, people are starting to agree that we are seeing a true “renaissance of reading.” With change and opportunity, however, come the wolves; in this case, the “digital” wolves.

Librarians, both public and school, have been wise to respond to the popularity of e-reading. Many libraries are experimenting with lending out e-readers pre-loaded with digital books. It is becoming more common for public libraries to subscribe to services like OverDrive, so that patrons can check out e-books from the library for free on their personal e-readers. Similarly, some schools are using Follett Shelf to provide e-book access to students and teachers.

Unfortunately, there is often a sticker-shock attached to the transition to e-books. These are definitely not cheap services—and the Digital Rights Management (DRM) policies of these e-book providers leave consumers at the mercy of the publishers’ whims. On the surface, it appears DRM policies are used to combat piracy so that e-book files will not be set loose to be copied and distributed freely on the Internet. However, DRM is much more powerful than that; it ties e-books to specific distributers and devices. That is, if you buy an Amazon e-book, their intention is that you can only read it on an Amazon device, likewise with Barnes and Noble Nook e-books, etc.

If a library decides to go with a service like OverDrive, they pay for an annual subscription to a finite number of copies. If they stop paying for the subscription, they lose the e-books. A base subscription might cost a school library $4000 a year, with $2000 of that available for selecting the actual e-books. An elementary school librarian that I know in the Madison Metropolitan School District told me that this would represent about 75% of his entire budget for library materials—for most school librarians, this would be a non-option. With Follett, a library purchases the e-books indefinitely for a higher cost than a print book, but with limitations on which books are available or how a book can be accessed. Price inflation and price setting among these publishers and suppliers has meant that the e-book purchasing power for a library is probably shrinking.

Is this simple supply-and-demand, where the publishers and suppliers know that consumers are willing to pay exorbitant prices because of the uniqueness or convenience of the product? Or are they simply taking advantage because no one has stepped in to stop them? Anti-trust laws were put into place at the turn of the century so as to protect consumers from unfair price controls and business practices. While there have been some minor challenges to content providers like Amazon and Apple, it seems that, as far as the law is concerned, digital content is still in its infancy and consumers are not the ones in control. The proverbial wolves are in the henhouse.

When you purchase a DRM e-book, the book is never truly yours. Unlike most purchases, once the money changes hands, the product is not totally in the consumer’s possession; publishers or distributors have control over where and if you can access it. Strings are always attached. Case in point: Media commentator Martin Bekkelund wrote a blog post in October 2012 about an Amazon customer, Linn Jordet Nygaard, whose Kindle was remotely wiped and her entire Kindle library deleted with no proper explanation from Amazon, other than that they reserve this right and that she is hereby black-listed. (Update: after a lot of bad press and general uproar from the web community, Linn’s Kindle library was mysteriously reactivated.) While this has not been my experience with Amazon Customer Service and my Kindle account—I have always found them to be exemplary, fair and honest—it is an important reminder not to take your rights as a consumer for granted. In this case, it’s probably best to think of e-books not as owned, but rented.

What are libraries to do if they want to be fiscally responsible while responding to their patrons’ demands? It seems pretty risky to go all-in and make an investment that could be negated at the whim of a content provider. Furthermore, vendors that provide viable options with a decent amount of content seem to have priced themselves at a level that is out-of-reach for many libraries.

A grassroots movement called ReadersFirst.org is encouraging libraries to band together and advocate for their e-book users. However, it’s high time that we as consumers and taxpayers also band together for our libraries to demand that e-book publishers and suppliers stop taking advantage of our public money and provide a fair service at a fair price. Perhaps the government needs to invoke anti-trust laws against the monopolistic, monopsonistic and oligopolistic behaviors that prey on our library and school budgets.

finding each other

Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations by Clay Shirky for me was a lesson in economics and sociology. I know a little about sociology–well if taking one college class as an 18 year-old counts, but almost nothing about econ. While econ fascinates me to some degree, there are some things in life that are just best left to your financial advisor (or whoever else works/cares about that stuff). Truthfully, there was so much in this book that just made me think, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense!” that I’m really not sure how to tie it together at this point.

First of all, on the power of organizing in a Web 2.0 era, consider Evan Guttman and his StolenSidekick webpage. This was a guy who got fired up about an injustice and mobilized people to get his way. Our author poses the following question:

Do we also want a world where, whenever someone with this kind of leverage gets riled up, they can unilaterally reset the priorities of the local police department? (I wish I could cite the page number here, but I read from a Kindle so the best I can do is offer a location: 261)

When you think of it that way, suddenly the internet seems like a pawn of the well-connected and well-spoken to serve their own agendas. (Talk about the digital divide!) Now I can honestly say that I have thrown that kind of tantrum (maybe not of the caliber that involves millions of New Yorkers) and haven’t relented until I saw some action–my venue of choice has always been customer service phone calls–but I have never drawn in other people to support my cause, so it was novel for me to consider this. I thought it was a little ridiculous of the guy to go that far just to deliver a “spanking” to that Sasha character, but impressive none the less.

Then, I read the stories of the Catholic abuse scandals and the airline complaints and I really started thinking about how powerful it was for people who felt strongly about a cause to be able to find each other and unite. It wasn’t that the second incident in either of these cases was any less infuriating (the case in the 1990s versus the one in the 2000s), it was that, finally, for something that is truly serious, the malefactor couldn’t just depend on the odd adage, “This too shall pass.” It’s like in the past, people would be able to do enough damage control that as long as it was out of the papers, they were in the clear. Trent Lott’s comments about Mississippi’s voting history and Strom Thurmann are another example–the papers missed the first story and couldn’t publish “old news” when they picked up on it later. However, the internet community can buzz and buzz and buzz until a critical mass is reached and the world pays attention.

While I was troubled by the idea of the “Pro-Ana” girls using the YM message boards to unite (and then migrating to other online locations once YM shut them down), some people need to find “their own communities”:

Much of the way we talk about identity assumes it is a personal attitude, but society maintains control over the use of identity as an associational tool. A recovering addict would find it very risky to ask coworkers for help finding a support group, as might someone looking for the local gay community. Whether society offers or withholds this support, however, matters less with each passing year. (location 2525)

The marginalized (provided they have online access) have the opportunity to be a little less marginalized. I like that.

There’s another beauty to this. It’s not about hiding out and talking to other online hermits who don’t have any friends in the real world (I’m exaggerating here–for awhile, there was a fear of that). People still want to be with people:

In the developed world, the experience of the average twenty-five-year-old is one of substantial overlap between online and offline friends and colleagues. The overlap is so great, in fact, that both the word and the concept of “cyberspace” have fallen into disuse. The internet augments real-world social life rather than providing an alternative to it. Instead of becoming a separate cyberspace, out electronic networks are becoming deeply embedded in real life. (location 2421)


This is what the end of cyberspace looks like: the popularity of these Meetup groups suggests that meeting online isn’t enough and that after communicating with one another using these various services, the members become convinced that they share enough to want to get together in the real world. (location 2449)

Between Meetup groups, political actions and flash mobs (I still want to know how flash mobs coordinate dance numbers though. That seems bigger to me than a mass email…), with transformations this large due to social tools, we each have to consider our role and our participation level in it all. I’m starting to think that none of those levels matter too much, as long as we’re all still aware of our place in the world. (Is that too touchy-feely or cliche?)