E-books at Libraries: Worth the cost?


It all starts with a question: How come whenever
I want to check out an e-book from the local library, there always seems to be tons of
holds on it? Can’t they just press control+C a bunch of
times? My name’s Peter, and this is stacks and facts. [intro music] So. I like reading books. I like getting lost in a good story, and I
like how when I’m reading, the world just kind of vanishes for a bit and time gets a
little… flexible — like when I’m on a flight from one place to another, and the
experience is otherwise not great. And to be honest, I’m not super fussed about
the book’s form, as much as I am about having access to the book in the first place. So while I — obviously — enjoy experiencing
a physical, printed book, in a pinch e-book is fine. Sometimes, it’s actually what I prefer. But. E-Books — that is, books that are stored
and delivered electronically — present some unique challenges to how you and I
experience them. And it all comes down to the fact that e-books
are digital objects, not physical. Sure, we may read an e-book on a device of
some sort, but the e-book itself is just a series of bits: ones and zeros encoded onto
a hard drive or into memory, and converted with software to an image, sound, or tactile
input and presented to us through an interface. E-Books, like most digital objects — think
apps, music, and movies — have a few constraints that tend to not apply to *physical* objects. I already mentioned the big one: that the
user has to have access to a device if they’re going to consume it. But they’re also subject to different laws. That’s because rather than being your physical
property that you can hold with your hands and *do with what you please*, they are the
intellectual property of the authors and publishers who create them. This is is not so different from a physical
book — while you may own *the object* that is the book, the words contained within it
are still the intellectual property of the author or publisher. That’s why you can’t just go around photocopying
your books and then selling the photocopies to your friends, without infringing on copyright. But, you *can* take your physical book, and lend or give it to whomever you want. This is thanks to what’s known as the “First
Sale doctrine” in the United States, or the concept of “exhaustion” in other places. The general idea is that when a *copyright
holder* sells a copy of their work, the buyer is buying the object, and the rights, to sell,
display, or otherwise dispose of it however they see fit. The original copyright holder has thus exhausted
their rights to the book. Not to the *intellectual* property — the
story or contents that are printed in the book — but the *physical* property — the
paper, ink, and other materials that the book is made of. This concept is the backbone of how libraries
work. Once a book is given or sold to a library,
the library owns it, and can do whatever it wants with it (within the bounds of copyright
law, of course) without having to pay royalties or fees to the publisher or author. Now, since e-books aren’t physical objects,
you might be starting to see why they’re a little bit stickier. And because governments have been generally
terrible at understanding and legislating technology, there is no “first sale” equivalent,
exactly, for digital information — which is a disservice to consumers, and to publishers
and authors. I don’t want to veer too much off topic,
but many of us first saw this manifest in a big way in the late 90’s and early 2000’s
when the Recording Industry Association of America sued literally thousands of people,
and Napster, for illegally distributing MP3’s. But that’s a whole ‘nother video. Once I make it, I’ll put a link to it here
so you can find it if you’re watching this video after I’ve uploaded it! But if you don’t see a link to it, now is
a great opportunity for you to click the subscribe button below if you’re pickin’ up what
I’m puttin’ down. And you can click the bell right next to it,
to get notifications whenever I upload a new video! So, go ahead. Make my day. Please? So, how do e-books work? When you buy an e-book from Amazon, you aren’t
actually buying the book, but a license *to use* the book. You’re paying for access, but that access
is tightly controlled: you can only view it by logging into your Amazon account on a device
that runs Kindle Software. That software is responsible for 1) downloading
the book, 2) verifying that you are who you are, 3) verifying that you are a licensee
for that book, and 4) decoding and presenting the file that has the book’s content. This is all known as Digital Rights Management,
or DRM, and it’s how copyright holders maintain control over their intellectual property in
an environment where it’s otherwise really easy to make a copy of something. And y’know, it makes a lot of sense that
this is how Amazon manages their e-books. At the end of the day, it’s in their best
interest financially to control their intellectual property. Although I couldn’t find numbers (corporate
secrets being what they are), I feel confident enough saying this because they make enough
money from e-books that they release a new physical Kindle device almost yearly. This is mainly because once they’re written
and the file is created, e-books have almost no overhead compared to printed books. But. The way that they, and other publishers, license
e-books makes it difficult and incredibly expensive for libraries to acquire them. And it’s important to note that the terms
of *my* license with Amazon are very different from the terms of a library’s license with
publishers. Now, *my* license specifically says that it’s
for my personal use only, and that I’m not allowed to give it to anyone else, unless
I loan it through Kindle to other Kindle users, then my access is temporarily taken
away and granted to them instead. This is okay, but it limits who I can loan
my books to: Namely, I can only loan them to folks who use Kindle, but not to folks
who use any of the other e-reader platforms out there. And I can’t choose to give the license away
for good — say, to my local library, or a friend, or a school — if I decide that I
just don’t want it anymore. So when libraries license e-books from publishers,
they buy their own license that *allows* for loaning out — and these tend to look very
different from the licenses that folks like you and me get. The biggest difference is that I presumably
get to keep the license for as long as Amazon is in business and can provide it to me. But when libraries buy licenses from publishers,
oftentimes they have some form of expiration built in, which is automatically enforced
with DRM. Once the license expires, the library loses
access to the book and can’t loan it out anymore, without buying a new licence. So after a specified period of time has passed,
or after a book has been loaned out a certain number of times, the license is exhausted
and the library either buys it again — or gives up access. And the thing about the licenses that publishers
sell to libraries is that they’re… expensive. Like, really, really expensive. While you and I might be able to buy an e-book
for 8.99 off of Amazon, a library might pay nearly 10 times that amount, especially if
it’s a new book or a best seller. This, my friends, is why the library never
seems to have the e-book (or audiobook) version of what I want available when I want it: They’re
way more expensive, and they expire. And it’s not because it’s more expensive
to make an e-book for a library than it is for an individual; it’s because publishers
are worried that if libraries offered e-books more readily, people would stop buying them. Not unlike how the RIAA was afraid that illegally
shared MP3’s would be the downfall of record labels everywhere. They weren’t. Spoilers Now, I understand where the fear comes from…
kind of. It makes sense to think that given the choice
between getting something for free and paying for something, folks would opt for the free
option. And a lot of people do — e-books are incredibly
popular with library patrons. But the thing is, people like owning stuff,
too. I love owning stuff! See for example: [capitalism ditty] After peaking in popularity around 2014/2015,
e-book sales have been down while print book sales have been going up. So what if publishers *re-imagined* the purpose
of e-books in libraries? Instead of seeing them as competition to sales
of e-books, what if they were seen more as marketing tools? Publishers could get creative with how they
license e-books, getting more eyeballs on pages before the books come out, and generating
buzz. Maybe they could work with libraries to offer
something like, “enjoyed this book? Use this link on the last page to buy your
own copy for $4!” as a way to both increase sales for those who want a copy to keep, AND
to drive folks to go to the library and build some goodwill with the folks who know their
community’s wants and needs the best. The Libraries. I’m talking about libraries. Wouldn’t that be great? Now of course I’m just spitballing ideas here, y’all–
but it’s because I want to get across the idea that, if publishers take the time and
think about how they could work WITH libraries to serve communities, rather than seeing them
as a competitor — they might end up doing some good for themselves, too. Libraries create readers, readers make more
money over their lifetimes, and that money gets spent on books, so publishers have
something to gain from getting creative. But enough from me — what ideas do you have? How do you think publishers can change their
pricing model in a way that’s good for them, and for libraries? If you’re a librarian, how would you feel
about libraries facilitating something like discount codes at the end of e-books? And if you’re a publisher or work for one, or maybe if you’re an author, what would make you feel more comfortable working with libraries directly? Let me know in the comments below, or tweet
at me — @StacksEtFacts. As always, thanks very much for watching my
video! Be sure to subscribe if you haven’t and you like what I’m putting down, and until next time — don’t forget to ask questions. Ok bye! [outro music]

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10 thoughts on “E-books at Libraries: Worth the cost?”

  1. Haley Euphemia Praesent says:

    There is a paradox that DRM increases illegal copying because people are more likely to find the same media with DRM removed to have some more freedom. Amazon's Ebooks are in AZW or Mobipocket but if someone has a device that requires Epub, or other format the DRM can mess with conversion so this gives people more incentive to buy DRM free, or pirate it.

  2. Jay Shulamith says:

    If anyone is interested in reading more about DRM and intellectual property, I highly recommend 'Information doesn't want to be free' by Cory Doctorow. It's SUPER interesting, and available for pay what you want from his website (or check your local library!).

  3. AlthenaLuna says:

    Complicated is…certainly an accurate way to put it. I got my MPS in Publishing, so I had courses that brought up these issues in a couple different ways, and gave us opportunities to look at and discuss alternatives to the status quo. This video sits right in the middle of a Venn diagram of a number of conversations about technologies and different aspects of copyright across a few semesters and courses…because libraries themselves sit in a very strange and strained position in the middle of it. The frustration and drive to find a way to fix it I saw in my cohort of library-loving publishers-to-be was encouraging and motivating at the time. I hope they don't lose that amidst resistance to change. I wish I had bright ideas on solutions, but being able to recognize the complexities going into a situation – sadly – doesn't necessarily yield insight on how to change it. Doesn't help that I'm also ~3 years out from school and some of the particulars are…fuzzy.

  4. Thessalin says:

    What the? You just! Omgoodness! You say spoilers BEFORE you spoil! I just popped in from 1998 Terminator style! You ruined it! Augh!

  5. Daniela Osegueda says:

    Great video. I never realized the complexities around libraries being able to offer ebooks. You made some excellent points about ways publishers can work with libraries. I agree that they shouldn’t see libraries as competitors but rather as allies.

  6. 12tone says:

    Drawings? On paper!? That's it, Peter, you've left me with no choice but to sue for infringement.

  7. wowman542 says:

    If there were an option to donate the rest of my licensed access to an ebook to my local library then I'd happily go for it since it'd clear up my amazon library and give someone else access to a book I enjoyed. The only other way I imagine to help the library build up it's catalog of ebooks is to just donate money to them directly and hope it's used to buy more ebooks.

  8. quentinfool says:

    I agree that publishers and libraries need to connect in a healthier way. As a librarian, I have to lay down a strong "no" to the library promotion of purchasing an ebook. While I'm sure Amazon could easily make such a feature available in overdrive apps, , the library should not be promoting sales through a specific vendor. That creates a whole mess of its own that could connect corruptness to the public service purpose of public libraries.

    Publishers also have ridiculous expectations for the acceptable retail price of ebooks, as well as library license agreements. Cory Doctorow brings interesting ebook and copyright ideas to the table.

    Tor books recently made a radical ebook/library policy change that I found in this podcast : [Beyond the Book] An E-books Embargo For Libraries

  9. sexplanations says:

    I watched this video over multiple sittings so that I wouldn't get saturated and it was/is great! Thank you for putting so much thought into what you teach us and for making this knowledge available. I learn a lot every time I see an episode and feel happy that my teacher is so smart and cool!

  10. wowman542 says:

    Just want to give a shoutout the website which compiled a list of publishers that sell drm free ebooks and sources to find classical texts in the public domain. Link:

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