Monday, July 30, 2012

The Problems With E-Books

With five e-books (including two 'Nook' books) available in the commercial market I probably ought to be the last person to complain about how they are handled, especially in terms of library lending (alas, many people don't even know that e-books are available to borrow at public libraries).

What are some of the problems?

First, is probably the rationing of e-books for lending purposes by publishers. Let's face facts here, as noted in a recent issue of The Economist (July 28th, p. 60) publishers are "wise to be nervous" say if borrowing instead of purchasing becomes the norm, since "owners of e-books are exactly the customers they need: book lovers with money (neither the devices or broadband connections come cheap)"

Hence, a borrowing norm doesn't redound to the benefit of publisher profits, or to quote The Economist (ibid.):

"If these wonderful people switch to borrowing e-books instead of buying them, what then?"

Indeed, and so to try and postpone any such switch of reader habits, publishers normally ration e-books for lending at libraries. In most cases then, no more than 200 e-copies can be made available for lending at any one library. (Harper Collins limits libraries to lending its titles 26 times.) Also, unlike normal paper books, strict rules apply and an e-book borrower can't simply lend it to another.  This rationing problem came to the fore some weeks ago, when it was pointed out in the Sunday Denver Post Book Section that female borrowers were left stranded at Denver Public libraries: they were unable to find enough e-books to borrow of 'Fifty Shades of Gray'. (Hey, ladies! You can always borrow my e-books if you can't find that pot boiler! Mental edification also works!)

Now, before going on to more problems there's a big advantage: borrowing e-books is super convenient! Instead of having to actually physically travel to a public library to check out a paper book, the would be borrower can simply scan digital library catalogs from a sofa. Also, the e-books don't have to be physically returned like paper books, they simply disappear from the device when they are due. Hence, no late fees, fines etc.

On the other hand, as The Economist observes (and awkwardly for publishers):

"Buying an e-book costs more than renting one but offers little extra value. You cannot resell it. Lend it to a friend. ...or burn it to stay warm. Owning a book is useful if you want to savor it repeatedly, but who reads 'Fifty Shades of Grey' twice?"

In terms of e-book lending-borrowing, the 'fly in the ointment' in terms of the ease of process, is the interjection of a company called 'OverDrive'. This is a global distribution company that is in charge of securing the rights from publishers and providing e-books as well as audio books in different formats. In 2011, 35 million titles were checked out via OverDrive. Despite the company's essential monopoly, however, little has been done to rectify the varied and often incompatible e-book formats.

Some blog readers may (or may not) recall the not too long ago kerfuffle when OverDrive teamed up with Amazon, makers of the Kindle. (As The Economist article notes, Kindle readers who wished to borrow an e-book were first redirected to Amazon's website where they had to use their Amazon account to secure a loan.  When the book became due, Amazon notified borrowers they could "buy the book".)

This cozy relationship "nudged Penguin to end its deal with OverDrive earlier this year".

Penguin's new relationship is with 3M a distributor that doesn't support the Kindle.

Interestingly, none of these bothersome issues trouble me, since I remain a confirmed "real" book reader who prefers the feel and smell, not to mention page texture, of actual books. Plus, when I am finished I can always lend them to a friend, or sell them on Amazon if I wish.

No hot shot publisher, distributor or other wheeler-dealer can tell me that I don't really "own" the book, despite having paid a lot of good money for it!

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