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.