Are eBooks microfiche all over again?

27 April 2011

Something has been troubling me about the swirling hype and skirmishing over libraries lending ebooks.  Something about the failure of the book publishing industry to learn anything from the music publishing industry’s attempts to lock down electronic content, but also something about the very idea of lending electronic files as if they were physical items.

Down at (fast becoming a ‘must read’ for me), Hugh McGuire has absolutely nailed what I could only vaguely articulate.  The book is dead, long live the library.

McGuire hits upon the problem publishers have created for themselves with eBooks:

We live in a world where the supply of books is growing exponentially, and the demand for books is relatively static, and certainly under fire. The result must be a decline in price.

Chris Anderson wrote about the economics of a zero price in Free: the future of a radical price. Anderson has ten ‘Free Rules’ at the end of his book, but three are of particular relevance here:

  1. If it’s digital, sooner or later it’s going to be free.
  2. You can’t stop Free
  3. Free makes other things more valuable.

The problem for publishers (both book and newspaper) is that the first two of these are rapidly bearing down upon them, but they haven’t worked out how to make rule 9 work for them.  If they give away their product for free, what becomes more valuable, and how can they harness that value?

Reading McGuire, and also Thomas Frey’s paper on the future of libraries, leads to the inescapable conclusion that libraries may well be walking down the wrong road when it comes to eBooks.  eBooks can be a free, non-excludable good - my word processing program allows me to create an ePUB file with one click and I can then distribute it for free by posting to a website, or if I’m feeling old-school, by using the sneakernet.  Under Anderson’s first rule of Free, that means sooner or later the standard price for eBooks is going to be $0.00.  So if eBooks are all going to be free in a few years anyway, why are libraries getting sucked into expensive and complicated lending contracts with eBook distributers?

McGuire answers this with his observation that labels thought they sold CDs to people; newspapers think they get writers to make news articles and get people to read them; libraries think they give people access to books and computers. But they are all wrong, to a lesser or greater extent..

If you read the Mission Statement/Statement of Purpose/this week’s term for what the hell the point of it al is of most public libraries it will be a variation on “To serve the information, recreational and cultural needs of xyz community through the provision of abc services”.  It doesn’t take much tweaking to keep it up to date, but the problem is that in the heat of the moment it’s easy to focus on the last bit (what your services currently look like) instead of the first bit (why you’re providing them).  Just in case you’re still not sure where this is going, here’s McGuire putting it a little more bluntly:

I don’t think disseminating free books will be a sustainable core function for libraries.

When you think about the economics and technological possibilities of eBooks, it starts to look more and more like a bad bet.  If I was in publishing, I’d be very worried.  Luckily, I’m not in publishing, I’m in libraries, and we’ve got a bit more flexibility if we keep our wits about us.  It’s not difficult to see DRM’d eBooks becoming microfiche all over again.  Microfiche was a brilliant technology when it first appeared, and it revolutionised libraries and archives.  But in the grand scheme it was merely a short-lived precursor to digitised, networked records.  After all, who needs microfiche when you have  eBooks with DRM will shake up libraries and publishing, but only as a precursor to the real revolution - the free eBook.

So will the pBook die?  I suspect not, but it’s hard to see a future for cheap paperbacks.  In that respect it may be a simple case of coming full-circle for publishers, returning to a pre-Penguin market, with eBooks cannibalising the paperback market.  But the economics of publishing is for another post.

For libraries, the near future looks like it may well be a holding pattern, as publishers sort themselves out, readers decide how eagerly they want to embrace eBooks, and library managers develop strategies for convincing their funders not to pull the plug.  The smart managers will be looking further, to a future where the service they provide is about enabling citizens to find information, entertainment and contemplation in buildings that don't have any shelves.