Friday, April 9th, 2010

Reading alone: How ebooks will kill the smallest libraries

A shelf at a church library catalogued by LibraryThing members. (See other flash-mob cataloging events.)

I’ve argued before (1, 2) that ebooks will hurt or even kill traditional libraries. I’d like to present the even stronger case that ebooks will kill off the small “community” libraries all around us–the shelves and rooms at churches, health centers and many other similar places.

These little, informal lending libraries grow like weeds all around us and contribute to the fabric of social life and community identity. It will be a shame to lose them, but it is probably inevitable.

Ebooks hurt traditional libraries. In brief, the argument is that paper-book libraries made economic sense because libraries owned books like anyone else, but could efficiently organize them to be lent out many times.

This “First Sale Doctrine” falls before the licensed-usage model of contemporary ebooks. It’s not in publishers’ or writers’ interests to allow libraries to buy an item once at a consumer or near-consumer price and lend it out to many people, even serially, forever. Libraries will be forced to pay something closer to the true value of their lending activity, which will cost much more. It will convert libraries from an almost magical value multiplier, into a “simple” book subsidy.

Why are they dead? Ebooks kill small community libraries for the same basic reason—ebooks are and will remain a licensed good, not a freely owned one. The smallest libraries rely on the rights implicit in physical ownership. eBooks change—take back—many of those rights.

This boils down a little differently:
  • Small libraries depend to a large degree on cast-offs and donations. But consumers can’t give their ebooks to anyone when they’re done with them. They’re technically and/or legally locked to a device or personal account.
  • Small collections grow organically and lazily without a “librarian.” It’s unlikely they will be able to negotiate and organize whatever “institutional subscriptions” will be available for public libraries.
  • If community libraries often can’t pay for new paper books, it’s unlikely they will have the funds to engage in high-priced site- or multi-use licensing of books.
  • Public libraries have market power. Even if they can’t preserve first-sale value, they can use their collective and even individual scale to negotiate deals. Small community libraries are too fragmented and casual for market power.
  • Public libraries are connected to real moral and political power, and it pays dividends. For example, although public libraries weren’t even involved in the infamous Google deal, the parties thought it politic to grant public libraries free access to copyrighted books at one terminal per building. This power may come in handy if publishers put the squeeze on them, but the smallest community have neither market or political power.

Counter-arguments. The argument could be made that ebooks will eventually revert to a more traditional “ownership” model. But why? Consumers have already made it clear that they will trade convenience and price to give up traditional rights of resale, lending, donation and inheritance. There has been no large-scale clamor for such rights, and I don’t see one emerging. Rather, as ebooks advance, the personal, non-transferable nature of the medium will become increasingly accepted.

It has also been suggested that, although ebook DRM and contracts will stiffle lending, rampant piracy can function as a sort of rough substitute. If ebook piracy reaches music-piracy levels, this may come about–together with a sharp decline in quality writing which, unlike music, can’t fall back on concert tickets and t-shirts to make ends meet. But either way, small communities will not be involved. Private citizens may trade ebooks, but a church or a senior center will not put its legal neck on the line to engage in a secondary activity like book lending.

What will we lose? At lot more than you might think, particularly if you’re healthy, young and not much of a joiner. But here’s a partial inventory of some the small lending libraries within a mile of two of my home:

  • A dozen churches, some with significant libraries
  • Two synagogues
  • A muslim community center
  • A natural birthing and parenting center
  • An Irish heritage center
  • A handful of exclusive private clubs
  • A Masonic temple
  • An arts and theatre center
  • A welter of general health centers
  • A cancer center
  • A center for grieving children
  • A hospice
  • A homeless shelter
  • A left-wing political action center
  • An advocacy group for Maine children
  • A center for transgender youth
  • A fiber-arts group
  • An Audubon Society
  • The YMCA
  • Semi-ornamental collections in a legion of coffee shops, hotels, restaurants, bars and so forth
  • Two “Bookcrossing zones,” where strangers leave and grab used books
  • A tiny, poor, seldom-open private library that’s been around since 1815 but mostly stocks recent bestsellers

Gloom and Doom? There is another side, of course. We shouldn’t forget that ebooks may well turn out to be an overall boon. Convenience, universal selection and writer-reader disintermediation are powerful, largely positive forces.

It may also turn out that, all things being equal, the “ownership premium”—the extra that books cost because they could be transferred to others—was an unnecessary drag on our lives. If we aren’t paying for true ownership, we can perhaps rent—and read—more. Maybe with books, as with tuxedos, most people are better off renting.(1) Or, to take another example, where we once dug wells, and “owned our own water supply,” we eventually found it was more efficient to socialize the cost of the infrastructure, and pay for usage.

I even expect we don’t even know all the good things ebooks will bring about. I’m not even being sarcastic.

But if something is gained, something will definitely be lost. The list of ebook “externalities” is long: the death of physical bookstores, the wounding or death of traditional public libraries, the concentration of retail power in a few hands, surrendering your reading history to corporations, privacy and censorship issues in undemocratic states, leaving your books to your kids, lending books to friends, showing off, subway voyeurism, etc.

So, to that list, add the death of the smallest libraries.

1. I own my own tuxedo, however, and I wear it whenever I can, dammit.

Labels: ebooks, future of the book, small libraries


  1. Blue Tyson says:

    Ok, so questions :-

    What percentage of your book market is sales to public libraries?

    Is the usage pattern for digital library borrowing (assuming survival) going to converge to the same approximate point as the consumer purchasing pattern/percentage?

  2. jjmcgaffey says:

    Personally, I do object to the limitations of most ebooks. I read quite a few ebooks, but 90% of them come either from Project Gutenberg or from Baen Books. They're available in multiple formats (I usually get HTML or RTF and clean it up into a simple Palm doc .pdb), there are absolutely no limitations on passing them on, lending them, or reading them on various devices. There are limitations on resale, but that's a minor point if the books can move freely. I own…let's see. Two Adobe books with DRM, a dozen from Embiid (now dead) which have actually mostly been supplanted by Baen editions, and…I've borrowed some ebooks from the library and found the time-limitation such a pain I don't think I'll do that again. Admittedly the books available to me with my insistence on open books are limited – but they're limited to two of the major groups I read (old books, and good SF) so it's not too much of a pain.

    There's no knowing, now, what the future market will look like. Right now the trends are going in every possible direction, and each new device sends them scattering again. I _hope_ that open ebooks will become a more major part of the market…can't say they will, can't say they won't. But there are a good many people like me, who haven't bought an ereader because of the DRM and similar limitations on (effectively) everything that's available today. I read on my computer(s) and on my Palm, and that works for me for now.

  3. Anonymous says:

    The "ownership premium" has contributed to building a great archive of books that, currently, can be accessed through InterLibrary Loan. Your library may not have the Greek text you want, but somewhere, a university probably does and you can borrow it. Without ILL, we are limited to available local collections, or, most importantly, books that are in print. As ebooks and rights to it are limited, we may lose access to older, more esoteric titles.

  4. Tim says:

    I agree that the ownership premium is good for culture. It throws off positive effects, and I don't think cost is really much of a factor in how much we read.

    To your example, my Greek and Latin library—which is certainly much better than any public library near me!—is mostly composed of books I bought at Classics department sales at the University of Michigan. The books were mostly donated by professors, often at their death. They were technically auctions, but the Department was mostly trying to get them into happy, deserving hands. If all those professors had only ebooks, I would have been reduced to buying my Greek and Latin books from stores. When you're a grad student, you don't have a lot of money for recently-published and very expensive modern editions.

  5. Blue Tyson says:

    That's not necessarily true at all.

    Hi, American University library. This is General Public Australia here.

    Can I borrow your esoteric Greek text through interlibrary loan?

    "Not a chance in hell."

    Hi, Sydney University library. This is General Public Brisbane here.

    Can I borrow your esoteric Greek text through interlibrary loan?

    "Not a chance in hell."

    These are the far more likely answers.

  6. Tim says:

    Blue, you're missing the point. Libraries who purchase ebooks do not have any ILL rights whatsoever. It's not that they wouldn't lend them, it's that they cannot.

  7. Blue Tyson says:

    That's purely contractual though, is it not?

    Nothing stopping negotiating that ability.

    Your post talks about publishers wanting to charge more than retail for books that don't wear out in effect – if you remove the interlibrary loan possibility then clearly those titles are worth less than they would be with it, and that should be factored in during such discussions.

    (and not borrowable is still not borrowable, whatever the format)

    You should also lay the blame correctly – it isn't _ebooks_ killing libraries in that case, it is _publishers_ and assorted henchwomen killing libraries.

  8. Anonymous says:

    My concern is more focused on how many years a library will retain rights to use a title. In many instances libraries are not holding ebooks, they are sharing download rights with patrons. It is one thing to purchase a book, hold it indefinitely and have the right to lend it locally or thru ILL. It is another to purchase rights for patron downloads, have the vendor lose its contract, and then library loses access. That is already happening with electronic journals. As we purchase ebook downloads, we take a similar risk.

  9. Morphidae says:

    I think the "threat" of ebooks is heavily exaggerated. I read an article which made a lot of sense, I think it was in Newsweek, where "they" said that tv would kill radio then that tv would kill movies. None of this happened. Ebooks are not going to "kill" anything.

  10. Blue Tyson says:

    Yes, for anyone alive for any reasonable amount of time they will have heard multiple media organisations cry wolf so much they should all be permanently called 'Boy'.

    The American variety often getting particularly ludicrous, like comparing videotapes to serial killers, etc.

    Publishing industry is pointing at their toes and giving it to them with both barrels currently – reducing the size of their markets, restricting formats and usability, making the retailers despise them and their customers hate them, raising their prices…

    Plotting to remove libraries and reducing their market permanently is shouting we really don't want to survive, isn't it?

  11. Anonymous says:

    In order for ebooks to kill paper books a number of things have to happen first.

    1. The price for readers will need to fall below 100 dollars to make them affordable to the larger public. Right now they are too expensive for most users given their limited use (even the vaunted ipad is over priced for its market).

    2. The price for individual new releases of ebooks will need to drop. If they are one use/one owner books, the average consumer will need to be educated on value for use.

    3. Print on demand (pod)services will have to be non-existent. Assuming all print bookstores disappear, rather than reducing pod demand, I would guess it would grow.

    My biggest concern with ebooks is not their ability to kill print or libraries, but their exclusive nature. With print, a library was able to loan books out to the poor who cannot afford new or used books.

  12. Barbara says:

    Wonderful, thought-provoking post, Tim. If e-books ruled, these are the unintended consequences. I think because those are unacceptable (and there are other affordances of paper that remain useful in various ways) there will be still paper copies that can collect in small lending libraries. One possible future is that printing can become more spontaneous and distributed. Fewer copies will be printed at one time, but those that are, as needed, will become the floating world of books.

    Shame about unis not loaning books through public library interlibrary arrangements. That probably could be changed with some noise and some people in the right places. In Minnesota we all share books among libraries regardless of type because we have a canny lobbyist and legislators who think the investments made in all kinds of libraries need to be shared among all citizens.

    I work at a private liberal arts college library. Anyone with a current public library card from a Minnesota library can walk in the door and check out a book. It works because way up the chain public libraries and academic libraries said "we'll cover whatever problems arise by working together." So far, it's working just fine.

    As Raganathan wrote in 1931 (? I think): Books are for use. Not for sitting on library shelves.

  13. Amanda French says:

    But surely your scenario of future doom will come true only when and if most or all books are published and purchased *only* in e-form. Right now, most e-books have a print counterpart that can still be discarded and donated. It could be wishful thinking on my part, but I do really believe that it's going to be a long long time before anyone comes up with an e-reader that can replace the book, an e-reader that's as common as, say, the television. I don't think it'll happen in five years, or ten, or twenty.

    I do think that the physical book will never go away, but I admit that e-books will probably do to books what TV and movies did to live theater. You've still got your Broadway and your West End and your community children's theater, but it's no longer the common recourse. And though I think it's too early to be quite this worried about small libraries, I do agree that it's well worth working NOW to make sure whenever we can that e-book licenses have some kind of provision for lending and donation.

  14. A Library Girl says:

    Although I have had several ebook converts tell me that ebooks are going to soon completely replace print books, I'm not convinced that will ever happen, unless publishers take the extremely unfortunate step of refusing to produce any more print books. Even if publishers unbent enough to produce only ebooks that could be read by any reader, and even if they allowed libraries to share them, I still can't see ebooks replacing print books. As a consumer, I like print books and am willing to pay a higher price for a print book even if I see that the ebook is cheaper. 1) I like knowing that my print books will still be around and readable years from now, while I seriously doubt the same could be said for an ebook file, and 2) I like being able to read my books anytime, anywhere, without having to use a piece of technology that could get broken or lose power.

  15. A Library Girl says:

    @Barbara – Where did you get the bit about universities not loaning books through "public library interlibrary arrangements"? As far as I know, many universities in the US loan out books to libraries regardless of the kind of library they are. They may choose not to lend out certain types of items (i.e., special collections materials, or DVDs), but I haven't heard of any universities explicitly not lending materials to public libraries.

  16. fontgoddess says:

    I agree with @Morphidae, except I think a better analogy is digital downloads of music vs. vinyl. It's more of a format shift than a shift in actual media, but the most successful ebooks will probably be closer to websites than physical books. Ebooks will be the mass-market paperback, not the nice hard-cover edition.
    Plus, there still is no good digital equivalent to the coffee table book. I also doubt that ebooks will effectively replace children's picture books anytime soon. And things like artist's books and pop-up books have attributes that cannot be replicated on a screen.

  17. Kristen says:

    I expect Barbara was mostly responding to Blue Tyson's "not a chance in hell" illustration but we certainly have academic libraries tell us that they will only send us books if we keep them here. Ie, the patron can come in and read the book at the library (only open M-F, 8-5) and pay to make photocopies but cannot take it home. Frequently that's the equivalent of simply saying no.

  18. Becca says:

    On the ILL issue… I'm not sure if you've just used the system or been more intimately involved. ILL Systems are prohibitively expensive. So much so that my university is looking into to the possibility of purchasing requested texts instead of getting them from another institution, because in the majority of cases that would be cheaper than shipping and handling costs. Of course this would not apply to rare texts, but don't get me started on the extra costs of handling *those* types of books. Even with licensing fees, a widespread transfer to ebooks could VASTLY reduce costs for scholarly libraries.

  19. Tim says:

    "Even with licensing fees, a widespread transfer to ebooks could VASTLY reduce costs for scholarly libraries."

    Why? Ebooks don't mean that one library can lend its books to another. On the contrary, it destroys the ability to ILL.

    More generally, anyone who thinks ebooks will reduce prices is just not look at the evidence. Academic libraries have already seen this shift—in periodicals. Have periodicals prices gone down since most access became digital? Hardly. Journal prices have been going nothing but up for two decades. It's possible that free models will eventually depress these prices, but it sure hasn't happened yet.

  20. Becca says:

    I'm sorry I wasn't clear. What I'm suggesting is that the digital licensing fee the university would incur for a particular ebook would most likely be *cheaper* than the cost of obtaining the same book from another university through the postal system.

    As I mentioned, I am basing this on the fact that costs are high enough that in many cases it would cheaper for a library to purchase a book if possible, than to obtain and return it through the postal system on loan. And that isn't even getting into late fees…

  21. Tim says:

    Oh, I get you. Sorry about that.

    Most ILL cost isn't actually the *postage*, though. It's the maintenance of the system—the tracking of it and etc., right?

  22. Anonymous says:

    better analogy is digital downloads of music vs. vinyl

    Are you saying that ebooks are an easy way to do things poorly? That they'll fail to kill off a technology that's three or four generations old?

  23. Amanda French says:

    On e-book cost, I totally agree with Tim — I scoff at the notion that they'll be cheaper. However, the Council on Library and Information Resources is coming out with a report soon that will, reportedly (that's like a Swiftie!), make the case that moving to e-books will be cheaper for libraries. Here's the page about the report: Here's the news article about it:

    On public libraries & university ILL — I'm working now as an indpendent scholar in upstate New York, and I got a "Capital District" library card through my public library that allows me, as a member of the unwashed masses, to check out up to 10 books at a time from nearby Union College library, which is a very good university library. I don't get all the privileges that university faculty do by any means, and I think Skidmore and U of Albany have even more restrictions than Union, but so far I can get the books that I want. Though granted I'm still accessing scholarly databases through NYU, where I worked last year, because for some reason they haven't turned off my account yet. (Don't turn me off, NYU! Please!)

    There was once an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that told retiring faculty that they should retire to a college town so that they wouldn't go into withdrawal from access to a college library.

  24. Becca says:

    Re Tim: You know, I'd have to ask my fiance for more specifics (he works in the ILL for his university), but I believe the postage is actually a large part of it. Surprisingly so, but it's probably because we're spoiled media rates (which universities do not use because it would take too long) or online bookstores who can afford to lower rates because of their bulk.

    For example, my fiance's complained many times about Trade Paperbacks, which generally costing the library around 25-40 dollars. In contrast buying them new it would only cost 15-20 dollars!

  25. Jon Ericson says:

    Surely the problem is not with ebooks, but with publisher's licencing of ebooks. Ebooks are actually far easier to share than paper books since they do not require people to be at the right place at the right time. When I take my church's paper copy of Augustine's Confessions, nobody else can read it until I put it back. On the other hand, I can send an email to my Bible study with a link to an ebook version on the internet and we can all read it at the same time. The ebook library can be far more flexible and useful than the physical library.

    Of course the trouble is with editions that are not yet in the public domain (such as a recent translation of The Confessions). Publishers rightly want to control distribution of those works in order to recoup expenses and make a profit. As long as they continue to publish paper copies, ebooks can't really be a threat to anything. It's only when books are exclusively published electronically that a problem exists and then only as long as the work is covered by copyright laws.

    Oddly, I believe books have far more secondary revenue sources than music–especially for the less prominent talents. For instance, many non-fiction books are written less for the money and more for getting ideas into the hands (minds?) of others. The benefit to the author may be primarily in their non-writing career. And fiction has the potential at least of being sold to film and television studios. Authors must, in part, take ownership of their works and insist that they be published in ways that meet their primary goals. If supporting ad hoc libraries is a goal, there are more ways than ever before to accomplish that.

  26. Tim says:

    The secondary-source argument doesn't work because:

    * Most serious writing–novels and nonfiction–is done by professionals because it requires undivided attention for a sustained period of time. Book prices pay for that time.
    * Free-writing models have been around for about a decade. There are virtually no novelists or serious non-fiction writers who've succeeded at this, except by "landing" a book deal.
    * Most writing is done by adults with real lives (kids, etc.) The "touring" model works to some extent for kids with guitars and no responsibilities, who like sleeping on couches, etc.
    * Compared to music you can scratch revenue from ASCAP radio and other performance, covers, sampling rights, playing in the background on some episode of Grey's Anatomy, touring, t-shirts.
    * The "you'll sell the movie rights" doesn't work because there's no indication this revenue stream will get larger for other "old media." On the contrary, movies are likely to suffer the same declines. As it is, few writers sell such rights, and, for thsoe who do, it's a small piece of most working writers' salary. My wife has sold rights to three of her books, so this is familiar territory. Sure, if a major movie gets made, there can be payoff equal to a year's salary, if you're luck. That happens maybe 10 times a year.

  27. Jon Ericson says:

    Academic journal pricing comes directly from the Twilight Zone. Demand for publishing outlets so far outruns supply that the market as a whole functions more like vanity press than traditional publishing. On the other end, readership levels can be so low that some journals might as well be considered a write-only medium. Literally the only customers for these journals are university libraries. It doesn't matter if the articles are published on bits of paper or computer bits: publishing costs must be paid and there exist no economy of scale.

    Consumer publishing has vastly different economics.

  28. Jon Ericson says:

    Obviously you know better than I. Authors deserve to be compensated for their time and effort and if that means restricted rights on ebooks, so be it. Secondary revenue doesn't work out so well for smaller musical acts either. (And suppose I shouldn't have mentioned movie rights at all since so few authors actually make real money that way.)

    But all of this is a sidenote to the ebook issue. Without ebooks, authors have the same set of problems and fewer potential solutions. At no point in history has it been easier to publish and distribute works, which seems likely to be a boon to society in the long run. As a reader, I'm already seeing benefits. Hopefully authors and publishers will find ways to be properly compensated soon.

  29. Anonymous says:

    There's still more. Already, specialty interest books—finance, law, engineering—highly technical texts in many cases but not only those, also texts of literary theory, all sorts of obscure fields studied by relatively small professions, are now less and less available other than as "on demand" printed copies direct from the (usually academic) presses.

    Have a look at Cambridge (UK) or Oxford University's catalogues and notice the number of texts which now cost well more than 100$,£,€ and notice how often a note reads: "printed on demand".

    More and more publishers are going to reason that they have little interest in filling physical bookstores with printed copies which may never sell. So, they cease to print in advance of firm orders. So long to picking up a book and having a look inside before buying. Those who don't understand how and why that privilege is important probably lost a bundle in the latest bubble collapse.

  30. Anonymous says:

    AF : "I do think that the physical book will never go away, but I admit that e-books will probably do to books what TV and movies did to live theater."

    That's known as the "additive" theory of technological evolution; by that view, one thinks of technologies as simply being "added" to an environment which otherwise remains for most or all practical purposes the "same" as it was before the "addition". That is to misunderstand the key characteristic of the impact of technologies–they are not "additive" they are "ecological", that is, they alter, often permananently and irreversibly, the "environment" itself making it something that hadn't existed prior to the technology's advent.

    In other words, there is simply no reason to suppose that the highly complicated set of facts (too numerous to exhaustively detail here) which were entailed in the advent of television and the impact it has had over time on playhouse or movie theatres is in any useful sense 'transferable' or analagous to some imagined set of circumstances occuring as a consequence of e-books' advent and their impact on libraries and bookstores.

    In the same way that bringing a new species into an environment in which it is not a naturally-occuring "native" changes fundamentally the environment–meaning the potential loss of entire existing native species, for example—bringing a new technology into a social system will inevitably alter that society and its members' habits in ways which are mixed in their positive or negative characteristics.

    Every environmental "insult" is a unique event with far-reaching and usually unpredictable consequences in chain. It's only after the fact, and with no usefully reliable chance to predict in advance, that one might say, in retrospect, that "such-and-such a technological innovation has had certain effects which resemble anecdotally those of some other previous technological innovation." But that would be strictly coincidental and of no predictive value.

  31. Brett says:


    "tv would kill radio then that tv would kill movies"

    You're comparing comics to fiction novels to non-fiction novels, or in other words different types of content instead of different media of the exact same content. Of course those aren't going to kill each other off.

    On the other hand DVDs killed off VHS, cassettes killed off vinyl (mostly), CDs killed off cassettes, and mp3s are having a major effect on CDs.

    In all fairness only time will tell what kind of impact ebooks will have on physical books. When listening to music, I don't care so much how it's stored as long as it reaches my speakers. When it comes to movies, I don't care so much how it's stored as long as it reaches my screen. But with books, there's a more direct physical interaction that some would romanticize as being ingrained in our DNA.

    I have read a couple of ebooks, will eventually get an ereader (more likely an iPad-type device), but I really doubt I'll ever stop buying physical books.

    To sum up… I think it's very possible that Tim is right, but it's also possible that he's wrong. As for me, I hope he turns out wrong.

  32. Tim says:

    I think I need to spend some time laying out thoughts about:

    1. Speed of transition to ebooks
    2. Completeness of transition

    My general feeling is that the transition "has a motor." There are vicious cycles here.

    For example, ebooks win on convenience now, and lose on serendipity and browsing. As escalating ebook sales start closing down new bookstores—a result so obvious that I won't argue it—the convenience gap will grow, and the possibility of browsing will fade.

    It's worth adding that routing-around publishers will have its consequences. Publishers exist in part because getting books printed and in most retail stores is hard project. As ebooks take off, publishers will become increasingly optional, and more and more books will be readily available online but without any chance of reaching the traditional printing and retail process.

    My bet is that in the near future—10 years?—ebooks become the "first" medium. Ebooks will be the medium in which everything is certainly published, and printed an option in some cases. Printed books will become specialty products, good for some uses, like super-cheap books that can be sold from supermarkets, not bookstores, and deluxe editions that can't be adequately represented in digital form.

  33. prosfilaes says:

    Blue, Harvard sent to my local public library via ILL a copy of the 1909 Irish translation of Alice in Wonderland; I don't think there's a single Latin or Greek work from antiquity that is that rare. I've had hundred-year-old Esperanto books sent to me, again, books that also are probably irreplaceable without serious searching.

  34. Tim says:

    "One hundred year old esperanto books"? Ladies and gentlemen, I shall now step down as geekiest book requester 🙂

  35. Silvernfire says:

    I must admit that when I buy a (paper) book, I'm not thinking much about my resale, lending, donation, and/or inheritance rights. Indeed, when I do find myself thinking, "Oh, I'll just read this and then sell it," that's a sign that I shouldn't be buying the book in the first place. I buy to keep. 🙂 So I'm guessing that the consumers who've shown that they'd prefer convenience to resale rights maybe weren't even thinking about the latter.

  36. marmot says:

    Are ebooks really becoming more popular than printed books? Is there a stronger demand from readers for ebooks than printed books, or is it driven by publishers and booksellers seeking to cut printing costs and increase profits?

    I've never purchased or read an ebook so maybe I don't understand the appeal.

    I'm not sure the vinyl to CD to mp3 or the VHS to DVD comparisons are appropriate, since each of these changes has not significantly altered the listener or viewer's end experience of music or movies, only the source media. Switching from printed books to ebook readers, however, represents a complete change of technology and experience of reading.

  37. Bowdoin says:

    @Marmot: VHS > DVD or LP > CD >MP3 "has not significantly altered the listener or viewer's end experience"

    Ah, but I'd argue that it has:

    CDs allow the listener to access the tracks in any order, and MP3s allow the listener to acquire individual tracks and group them in any configuration desired. The "album"–a fixed grouping of songs meant to be played in a certain order–is an artifact of LP technology.

    DVDs offer users similar control over the pacing and even the sequencing of a movie's scenes: skip the boring bits, re-view the good bits, or freeze-frame the *really* good bits instantly with the touch of a button. You can do that with VHS the way you can change track order on an LP: Laboriously, slowly, and with lots of missteps.

    And that's not even getting into what DVDs (far more data-dense than VHS tapes) have done to make it commercially viable to manufacture (and own) complete-season or complete-series sets of long-form video entertainment, returning them from pop-culture limbo.

  38. Kathy Lou says:

    What troubles me most about the possible demise of the public library is the fact that libraries cater to people of all incomes. You can find beautiful libraries in all parts of the city of Chicago, with equal access to books, regardless of income, race, age, sex, religion, etc. E-books are not so equal. You must purchase an ebook, maintain it, purchase books for it, buy a new one when yours is lost, stolen or broken. How are we, as a society, going to make sure ebooks are available to every man, woman and child? The digital divide is HUGE, and ebooks will make it that much bigger.

  39. Barbara says:

    I just wrote about this discussion over at Library Journal. The "almost magical value multiplier" effect of libraries is an almost magical phrase that I will use again and again. I also found the list of small libraries near you a wonderful way to demonstrate the unintended consequences of metering the use of books instead of selling them and letting them live on, independent of the first sale.

  40. khms says:

    There's so much wrong here I don't quite know where to start, and this medium doesn't exactly support long explanations either.

    So I'll just explain how some things look from where I sit.

    I'm reading ebooks all the time, these days. Well, electronic text in book forms, and in other forms published somewhere in the net. I can't imagine stopping to buy paper books, even though I probably read three or four times as much electronically as from paper.

    I pretty much gave up on libraries long before I got my first ebook. Too inconvenient, and simply not enough of the books I wanted to read. Good for before you make enough money to buy for yourself – which in today's Internet matters much less than when I was young. So much text available for free!

    As for your community comments – that's something I, frankly, never experienced. For me, libraries did absolutely nothing to improve my social isolation – didn't even try. The net, on the other hand, did quite a bit. Such as this text I'm writing just now – pretty much impossible back then.

    While I own a ton of ebooks, none that I care about – NONE – are DRM'd. I don't see that changing.

    And as for the market being in ever less hands … well, maybe the paying market. On the other hand, the nonpaying market is growing rapidly. It costs between nothing and very little to publish electronically without involving the publishing industry, and while there's a lot of junk published that way, I find that finding the good stuff isn't harder (and may in fact be easier) than finding the good stuff among official books – where there's also an incredible amout of junk. A lot of what I read these days didn't pass through the publishing industry. (And some of the better authors in that area tell of extremely frustrating experiences interesting publishers for their work, and have either given up on them or offer their stuff via Lulu. AND freely.)

    Ebooks might kill libraries (I can't tell), but you'll have a hard time convincing me that what we got to replace them isn't worth more.

    Oh, and for the people who are afraid their ebooks will stop working and their paper books won't – you seem to live on a different planet from me. My ebooks have documented formats – unencrypted MobiPocket, HTML, PDF, plain text mostly – and I see no reason whatsoever I won't be able to read them until I die, or go blind – no, if I go blind, there's text-to-speech software … which doesn't work on paper books.) On the other hand, I've already lost a number of paper books – not coincidentally some of those I liked most – because they were destroyed one way or another. Binding kaput, ripped, cat hurled on them, even just plain lost … all of which just can't happen to ebooks if you know what a backup is, or can just re-download. Ebooks are forever, paper books not.

    Oh, and ebooks are the solution to the out-of-print problem, too. There's no reason for an ebook to go out pof print, ever.

  41. Tim says:

    I don't really understand what sort of ebooks you care about, if everything you own and care about is without DRM. Unless I'm mistaken that means:

    1. You only buy books published before 1923/1956, together with a few modern books by Cory Doctorow and some government reports.

    2. You read only pirated editions.

    Either way, the world of books you've confined yourself to is very very small. You're not a book lover, you're a book* lover. And the asterisk has little to do with anything anyone cared about before DRM came about—an arbitrary and somewhat stale slice of the world of books.

    I don't get a book love that's more about the format than the content.

  42. Tim says:

    I don't really understand what sort of ebooks you care about, if everything you own and care about is without DRM. Unless I'm mistaken that means:

    1. You only buy books published before 1923/1956, together with a few modern books by Cory Doctorow and some government reports.

    2. You read only pirated editions.

    Either way, the world of books you've confined yourself to is very very small. You're not a book lover, you're a book* lover. And the asterisk has little to do with anything anyone cared about before DRM came about—an arbitrary and somewhat stale slice of the world of books.

    I don't get a book love that's more about the format than the content.

  43. Blue Tyson says:

    "I don't get a book love that's more about the format than the content."

    So publishers that restrict access by format clearly hate books then? 🙂

    There is another possibility of course, Tim. Bought books that khms has removed the odious book-hater technology from. Which many people will of course say you are foolish not to do for long-term usability purposes.

    Or even short-term as seen in multiple cases recently, when Northern hemisphere corporate clowns have hissy fits which turns off downloads and access to validation servers, et. al.

  44. Anonymous says:

    khms said…

    There's so much wrong here I don't quite know where to start, and this medium doesn't exactly support long explanations either.

    Too inconvenient, and simply not enough of the books I wanted to read. Good for before you make enough money to buy for yourself – which in today's Internet matters much less than when I was young. So much text available for free!

    As for your community comments – that's something I, frankly, never experienced. For me, libraries did absolutely nothing to improve my social isolation – didn't even try. The net, on the other hand, did quite a bit. Such as this text I'm writing just now – pretty much impossible back then.

    While I own a ton of ebooks, none that I care about – NONE – are DRM'd. I don't see that changing.

    I wonder what, for you, qualifies as "a book" and, with that, what it is precisely that you read—fiction? non-fiction? Nothing you've written here offers other than the vaguest idea of what topics you read most. If your reading is freely available from the internt, why not cite some examples of the sort of writing that you prize so highly but which is difficult or impossible to find in printed, bound, books?

  45. Anonymous says:

    I personally have no interest in, or plans to own, an ebook, but the few people I know who have bought one will have no effect on small libraries….Neither have read a book in an actual library for years. I think library aficionados will be less likely to buy ebooks and stay home with them, for precisely the same reasons you discuss in your post. I hope so.

  46. Anonymous says:

    a correction and an addition to my post above, where I cited "khms"

    this, too, was a part of his (or her) post, though it escaped the italics in which the rest of the citation appeared,

    While I own a ton of ebooks, none that I care about – NONE – are DRM'd. I don't see that changing.

    the above, his words, not mine.

    Now, an addition which I'd meant to include:

    There's a special class of readers for whom I agree that e-books are the answer to their prayers; they are readers whose suffer from vision imparments such as macular degeneration which rob them of normal sight. For many of them, an e-book means they can again enjoy reading under conditions far less onerous than they would otherwise have to endure.

    For the rest, there are a few but really very few excuses for resorting to e-books. A travelling scholar might take advantage of them to travel with dozens of texts which would be too impractical to carry along in their bound, printed editions.

    Other than travelers, however, I'm hard-pressed to come up with examples of people who couldn't do better with a bound, printed edition.

    Finally, I note that in a report carried in the New York Times today, as though it were some sort of "discovery", some contemporaries have renewed the interest in Mark Twain's library wherein is found a wealth of his spontaneous thoughts as he noted them in the books' margins while reading.

    E-book readers, where do you put your marginal notes while reading? I suspect the answer is something like, "What marginal notes?"

  47. prosfilaes says:

    Who are you to tell another person whether they have enough reasons to choose ebooks over paper books? I can see many reasons to use ebooks; ebook readers are lighter than many of my books, for one. I never have just one book with me, and they're certainly lighter than a group of books, especially if you want to carry along a dictionary. You can search in ebooks.

    Another issue is that I'm considering putting up one more bookcase, double-layering paperbacks, and exiling anything I can't fit on my shelves. This over a mere 1,300 books. At the same time, I have Gutenberg DVD with 10,000 books on it hidden away somewhere. Even with each full-scans of each book taking up a half GB of space, I'd have no problem storing a million books on DVD in my apartment.

    As for writing in ebooks, some systems let you add notes. I, and a lot of other people, don't write in physical books. The one book I go to town with notes in, I actually photocopy each page so I can carry it around and write on it without damaging the original book. (As it's not in English, it's a little slow going.)

  48. josephpoisso says:

    I just did a quick look at my ebooks and audio books; I have about 13-1400. Frankly that is probably close to my parish (county for those outside Louisiana) library holdings. Most of the books I read/listen to are from the 1500’s to the early 1900’s. They can’t be found at bookstores, library (state, university or local) certainly not at my parish library. Today I finished two books by Frances Hodgson Burnett and did a quick tour through the art world from 1500 to 1900 in about 6 volumes. The volumes are on my harddrive so I can go back anytime I choose. With my eyes, I can’t even read a book anymore…but ebooks and audio books? I am in my home country. Further, I am not tied to what some whinny, snotty nosed very superior local decides is good for me. Is that why the newspaper and television news is dying? The local library? Will I miss them? Why? If the local library goes, what harm is it to me? Will I miss it? Probably not. That, my friends is liberty.

    I haven’t even met someone who has read, Elizabeth von Arnim, Angela Thirkell, Anne Bronte, Maria Edgeworth, Fanny Burney D’Arblay, George Eliot(Mary Ann Evans)…and the list goes on and I haven’t even got to the guys like Thomas Harding, Anthony Trollope, George Gissing, Oliver Goldsmith and so forth. I don’t expect to meet anyone who has read any of these authors and I don’t expect to find any of their books in the bookstores or libraries. I love the internet. I love my computer; I love ebooks; I love audio books…my private library. If the local library goes away; well, I haven’t been inside for years. What are they doing wrong? Why can’t they get me to come inside? I love books. So, what is the problem? Maybe they are making buggy whips. Put something up against these writers then talk to me about the death of the buggy whip industry. I am not impressed.

    I think I will probably add another 4-5 thousand a/ebooks to my collection over the next year. It will take me a couple years to get through them all. I am not worried about rights and charges. Most of what I see in contemporary bookstores is frankly boring. I haven’t bought anything from the 21th Century publishing world except from that lovely British woman who writes big blobs of sweet pink bubblegum: the Shopaholic girl. Everyone else, take your publishing century and shove it.

  49. Bibliobella says:

    I remember being very upset that someone came into the independent bookstore I worked at, and threatened to go straight to as I didn’t have the book the person needed right on the shelf. I could have ordered it, and had it in a day, and the person would not have paid shipping costs (maybe an online discount instead?) I talked with my dad, and he said, “Well, did he get the book?” I guess that’s the bottom line, eh? Will a person who needs a book get it.

    I think it’s great that more people have different ways to access books. We all don’t fit the same mold. I hope this would mean that more people would find a love of reading. I can’t see an ebook at the beach just yet; it’s easier to remove sand from paper, eh? I’m a huge physical book fan as I like the physical feel, I LOVE to browse in bookstores or libraries (my happy places), and I can share books with others or give them to my local library.

    I haven’t tried eBooks, and it’s sad to think the local libraries are under threat (more) because of them. Libraries fill a need for those that can’t afford books, or those with limited space. I don’t see libraries and publishers completing going away. I understand that they may need different business models to continue.

  50. M.R. says:

    Nothing in this wide world is EVER going to turn me on to eBooks and away from real ones.
    Naah… It’s simple: I love BOOKS. I love my shelves and shelves of them. I love to hold them and turn the pages and know that I can flick back to check in a split second.
    eBooks are – well, for other people. Such a small amount of text on ‘a page’. So impersonal. So HARD.
    Thank all the gods that I’ll be long dead by the time new generations have forgotten the joy to be found in real books.

  51. Alison says:

    I really don’t think so.

    We have so many people here in Brooklyn without even computer/internet access. Our computers at the libraries are always full with waiting lists. These people aren’t going to buy e-readers and/or ebooks. We do have some ebooks that are free to “borrow” but the use is not high.
    Our circulation for the last 3 months has been RECORD. We have never circulated as many items as in the last 3 months. And for the record, yes, about 25% of the circulation is DVDs. But that means that 75% of the circulation is still print!

    I have read similar articles and none of them take into account the FREE nature of libraries. I do have well-off friends who don’t use libraries at all. They buy books, and some of them now buy ebooks instead of paper books. But since they didn’t use libraries before ebooks, I don’t see how this affects library usage.

    Maybe ebooks will kill off regular bookstores. That seems more likely to me since the user base is more similar.

  52. Tim Spalding says:

    Quite honestly, I think you missed the whole point. The point isn’t that people will stop going to libraries or stop wanting library stuff. The point is that, as things transition to ebooks, libraries will find themselves at a significant disadvantage with respect to pricing and licensing.

    Now, it MIGHT be that libraries survive by simply not moving to ebooks. This requires:

    1. Patrons don’t start demanding it. I suspect that won’t last. How’s your vinyl collection going? Free access to typewriters?
    2. Paper publishing can retain the same pricing and availability as the demand for paper books falls. This is highly unlikely. Books “work” because of scale and sunk, fixed production and distribution costs. Prices will go up, and availability with decline, as ebooks take hold.

  53. Libraries will be forced to pay something closer to the true value of their lending activity, which will cost much more. It will convert libraries from an almost magical value multiplier, into a “simple” book subsidy.

  54. We have so many people here in Brooklyn without even computer/internet access. Our computers at the libraries are always full with waiting lists. These people aren’t going to buy e-readers and/or ebooks. We do have some ebooks that are free to “borrow” but the use is not high.

  55. Chase says:

    Regarding this point:

    “Libraries will be forced to pay something closer to the true value of their lending activity, which will cost much more. It will convert libraries from an almost magical value multiplier, into a “simple” book subsidy.”

    Would it not be possible that low cost e-readers (or “e-paper”) will allow libraries to continue lending a single digital copy of a book over and over to preserve the value multiplier?

    Also, I wonder if authors and publishers will want to support the shared book library model for both philosophical and practical reasons?

  56. ebooks says:

    An eBook is an electronic version of a traditional print book that can be read by using a personal computer or by using an eBook reader. (An eBook reader can be a software application for use on a computer, such as Microsoft’s free Reader application, or a book-sized computer that is used solely as a reading device.
    Demin Martin

  57. PrisonLib says:

    E-books would be a great solution for prison libraries. E-books could drastically increase prison collections, along the way to free spaces for learning and reduce contraband flow.
    Unfortunately, there are no companies to develop no-wi-fi/internet-access–see-trough e-reader. This device could make a revolution in prison libraries.
    But community libraries need physical books because majority people prefer them, especially children and elders.