Silencing the Cynic

Traditionally, I am distrustful of business-types who primarily appear to be only interested in profit to the detriment of their customer and competition. Survival of the fittest may be reasonable to expect, but so is ethical behavior. I want to believe that there is more good in these deals than I think.

It doesn’t seem right to me to encourage publishers to prey on the scholarly clientele, many of whom are partially funded by public tax dollars (as with public schools or universities). Good business practices thrive from win-win situations, so the optimist in me hopes that there is more to the “Big Deal” business model for delivering digital academic content to libraries. What truly goes on behind the scenes?

Zac Rolnik’s article in the Serial Librarian in 2009 suggests that content selection has been taken away from the library (i.e. the bibliographer) and given to the Big Deal publisher, who has the power to pad the subscription with unsolicited content. These freebies are potentially wasteful, so it would seem better for libraries to choose what they want–if they could actually afford to do it this way. If I shush the cynic in me for a moment, I then consider that, since they have taken on the role of the bibliographer, it is in the publisher’s best interest to do a good job of matching content to the needs of the library because if not, at some point they risk losing the client. I would be interested in knowing HOW they approach this–what content gets selected for inclusion in a bundle and how does it vary from institution to institution?

Hopefully content does vary from institution to institution based on needs/focus, but we know that pricing definitely does. This is where I put my cynic cap back on. In 2012, Strieb and Blixrud discussed the rates of nondisclosure clauses in contracts between libraries and publishers. Knowing that libraries tend to believe in the idea that “information wants to be free” and are often subject to open records laws, it is curious to me that a publisher would ask them not to share the pricing they have agreed to, unless they are concerned with protecting a profit margin. It is a lot harder for a vendor to extract extra money out of a rookie negotiator if it is common knowledge what everyone else is paying.

To me, the refusal of three of the Big Seven publishers to sell e-books to libraries also points to greed. Why should they let libraries lend their e-books out if they can force more readers to purchase (instead of borrow) the books they want? Perhaps libraries aren’t going to get 5s across the board on their ALA Ebook Business Model Scorecards, but it would be nice if publishers would start negotiating in good faith with libraries soon.

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.

My Self-Published eBook (TRY ME!)

Here is my eBook Publishing handout.

As part of my Director’s Brief, I tried my hand at digital self-publishing. This is a multi-media guide with text, pictures and videos. (So if you have a black-and-white eReader, the content will be limited.) Here is one of my attempts, created on Apple’s iWork Pages:

http://tinyurl.com/knitbook08092012

Please try it out! It’s a little buggy yet with line return formatting (and I suspect that all of the video clips are showing the same thing somehow, at least on my device), but I’m moving on for now. You have a couple of options for access:

  • download the file (39.6MB) and load it to your device manually
  • open the link in a browser on a device enabled to read EPUBs
  • download it and use something like www.magicscroll.net or the Firefox add-on called EPUBReader

If you have an Apple device, this is easy…
a) import it into your iTunes library and then sync it with your books.
b) open the link in a Safari browser and iBooks will take care of the rest!

It is published as an EPUB, which according to Wikipedia, can be read on the following platforms (pretty much everything, except Amazon devices):

Unfortunately if you are a Kindle user, as I am, you are out of luck for the moment. Amazon’s eReaders do not support the EPUB format quite yet. (There are rumors that they will someday…)

So, what do you think…?

Brain Dump on eBook Publishing

In December of 2011, I attended the SLATE Conference (School Leaders Advancing Technology in Education) at the Kalahari in the Wisconsin Dells. One of the sessions I attended was by Keith Schroeder, a school library media specialist in Green Bay. The name of his presentation was, “Creating ePub Books for Customized Learning.” At the time, I was intrigued and definitely saw how school librarians might bring eTextbooks to their staff, especially in a coming age of one-to-one computing in school and tablet computers.

I plan to [attempt to] make an eBook–probably out of an old classmate’s Master’s Thesis (with permission of course, on the caveat that I don’t publish it anywhere online and ruin her current academic pursuits. Kyle [or anyone], if you’d like to offer up one of your longer pieces that I can post online as an eBook, I’d be happy to play with it… I simply have  never written anything long enough in my opinion to be useful for this project (I took comp exams for my Master’s.)

Keith gave us a lot of tips on what worked best for ePublishing (which I serendipitously took notes on!)  In my investigation for my Director’s Brief for this class, I’ve come across some developments that make me wonder how things have evolved since December. This morning, I emailed Keith to pick his brain a little and see what his thoughts are now. I also emailed an old college friend who has been publishing and selling her eBooks on gluten-free recipes.

Among my first findings on eBook publishing:

  • EPUB is probably the format you want to use. PDF is okay, but it can’t really be manipulated in an eReader. Kindles don’t read EPUBs, however, so you would need something different for the Kindle Fire. Multimedia eBooks that include videos and color pictures probably aren’t ideal if the target it is black and white eReaders.
  • Start with an EPUB template. If you don’t, you will struggle with things like Table of Contents and formatting. I have a eBook template that I got from Keith at SLATE for Apple’s iWork Pages 4.0.5 program. HOWEVER, now Apple has iBook Author, which I’m guessing is the next big thing, at least coming from them. Also, I saw this blogpost that said “book templates are dead.”
  • For an interactive textbook, collect videos, pictures, links, passages, sources, etc. first. Videos need to be converted to m4v files, under 15MB and 320×240 resolution.
  • Calibre is a great program for converting eBooks to different formats for different eReaders. I’ve used this program in the past (back in 2010 when I attempted–and failed–at making an eBook) and it worked pretty slick. This article gives a nice overview.
  • Other apps worth considering: Book Creator, Creative Book Builder.
  • Digital Book World is a pretty handy site with lots of news, interviews, reviews for the digital publishing world, hence the name.
  • Lulu.com is a popular self-publishing platform. I really need to look into this, because I’ve seen it cited in several places, including our reading for today, The Long Tail. They even have a section dedicated to educators. More from the self-publishing industry: SourceBooks, Smashwords, Booktango, FastPencil, Author Solutions, Your Ebook Team
  • AcademicPub makes eTextbooks for educators. Looks good, but I want to find out if you send away for content and they make it, or if you can do it yourself. At first glance, it sounds like they are selling a service.
  • The Digital Shift, part of Library Journal and School Library Journal, posted an article, A Guide to Publishers in the Library Ebook Market.
  • No Shelf Required is a blog about eBooks I am going to take a closer look at too.
  • I used to read Penelope Trunk’s blog pretty regularly. Apparently she had a run-in with her eBook publisher that I would like read more about, especially since she went through the process of publishing this way–what were the hang-ups?

So, that’s what I’ve got so far. I’m kind of excited about where it’s going to take me!