Can’t We All Just Agree to Pretend that Ebooks are More Like Traditional Books?

I suppose I ought to weigh in with my two cents on a controversy that has held the professional library world enthralled for several days now.

Within three days of my library going live on our website with Overdrive, a company that helps libraries deliver Ebooks to library users, one major ebook publisher, HarperCollins, announced an agreement they had reached with Overdrive to delete library-purchased ebooks from library holdings after 26 circulations.

Reactions have ranged from calls for libraries to boycott HarperCollins, to the righteous issuance of Ebook Readers’ Bills of Rights, to a let’s-wait-and-see attitude.

Cory Doctorow, who has been writing and posting on these developments as insightfully as anyone over at Boing Boing, wrote a recent column for The Guardian titled, “Ebooks: durability is a feature, not a bug.

In the article, he makes the case that “the skilled gluepot ninjas working behind the counter at your local library can easily keep a book patched up and running around the course for a lot more than 26 circuits” but pivots to say that we shouldn’t need to argue about the durability of books anyway.

Money quote:

Whether a HarperCollins book has the circulatory vigour to cope with 26 checkouts or 200, it’s bizarre to argue that this finite durability is a feature that we should carefully import into new media. It would be like assuming the contractual obligation to attack the microfilm with nail-scissors every time someone looked up an old article, to simulate the damage that might have been done by our careless patrons to the newsprint that had once borne it.

It’s true: HarperCollins is asking us to pretend that the ebook titles we purchase dog-ear and yellow after a year or so of continual use in the same way traditional books might. But why is the silliness of artificially importing the features of the old media into the new only just now occurring to us? Libraries have already gone there. We have agreed to pretend that an ebook title in our holdings can’t be in more than one place at a time. We have asked our patrons to pretend that they need to “return” borrowed ebooks so that the next person waiting can get their hands on them. Why do we pretend? We have already acquiesced to these bits of imported old-media features because doing so agrees with our existing business model.

HarperCollins knows that digital transmission of books potentially threatens to undermine the monetary value of books. Traditional books involve a (reassuring from a business standpoint) fixed cost per individual (the paper, the binding, the ink, the shipping, etc.) which, for ebooks, could plummet almost indefinitely depending on the eventual size of the ebook market.

Kevin Kelly on his The Technium blog, recently speculated about the possibility of 99 cent ebooks.

Here’s a reason why they’ll be as inexpensive as music. The other day Joe Konrath, a genre writer, and avid self-publisher of ebooks, said:

Eighteen days ago, I dropped the price of my ebook, The List, from $2.99 to 99 cents on Amazon. I was selling 40 copies a day prior to that.

Currently, The List is #37 in the Top 100 Bestsellers on the Kindle. It’s selling 620 copies a day on Amazon.

Do the math:

2.99 x 40 = 119.60
.99 x 620 = 613.80

I don’t think publishers are ready for how low book prices will go. It seems insane, dangerous, life threatening, but inevitable.

Hat tip: Boing Boing.

He goes on to say that while this is excellent news for readers, it is not good news for authors. This news is also frightening for a publisher like HarperCollins which explains why they would like to artificially import over some of those old-media features. The news should also concern libraries. I think maybe it already does. Because, with a completely straight face, we manage to ask our patrons to place a hold and wait their turn for an ebook.

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