Thursday, 26 February 2009

The Times. Are They A Changing?

the Book of ChangesChange is good and I think that we are starting to see some change in the way that publishers are thinking about eBooks. I've been thinking alot about O'Reilly's adoption of Bookworm and promotion of the ePub format. O'Reilly have also started to make eBooks available in a wider range of formats with their eBook bundles. This has led me to think that *possibly* some of the barriers to libraries offering their users eBooks may soon come down.


I saw a recent blog post from @ijclark on eBook pricing. Ian found that, for individuals at least, there was no real price benefit to getting an eBook. For libraries, this point is even more salient as you often have to pay platform or hosting fees on top of the cover price. An interesting aside here, contrary to eBooks in general O'Reilly eBook bundles are significantly cheaper than the print versions (try clicking on any with a green E logo from this page to compare). It seems that O'Reilly have recognized the price barrier and opted to pass production savings on to eBook readers.

The Dreaded DRM and proprietary standards...

DRM only really works on closed standards and O'Reilly have correctly (just my opinion) identified that closed standards are preventing eBook uptake. Amazon are particularly bad at this - using a proprietary file format for the Kindle which makes it difficult to read books that you have bought for the Kindle on any other device (and vice versa).

My library patrons use a number of different operating systems, mobile devices and eBook readers. Buying eBooks that all of my library users can read (regardless of their chosen platform) is very important to me. At the moment I don't have this ability. However, there are signs that more publishers and eBook manufacturers are getting behind the open ePub standard.

As a librarian I want to decide which books I buy...

Until recently, most of the best computing publishers (O'Reilly, Addison-Wesley, Pearson etc.) have offered their eBooks exclusively through a distributer - namely Safari Books.

Safari works on a subscription basis. Getting all of this content for $45 per month may seem like a bargain but actually, how many computer books can you read a month? When you look at this on an institutional level (for example providing library users with access) the pricing becomes prohibitively high - especially when you know that your users don't need alot of the content that you're paying for.

Whilst some distributors (such as Netlibrary) will let you pick and choose which titles you buy they are hamstrung in that they can't sell books that are exclusive to other distributors. To build the collection you'd like to as a library, you'd need to have deals with a number of distributors. This would really break the bank as well as confusing your library users. In practice it's Hobson's choice between paying through the nose for content that you don't need and offering more selective but lower quality books. The solution, for me, is for publishers to offer their content directly to users in a common format. Cut out the distributors.

Light at the end of the tunnel?

All this brings me back to Bookworm. When I first saw Bookworm I got very exited as it is a free platform that allows individual users to build bespoke collections that are hosted on the Internet. It's actually not far off being a platform that libraries could use to provide access to collections that aren't hampered by subscription/ exclusivity deals or limited content that we get with existing platforms.

Ironically, the lack of DRM is what makes this a no-no at the moment. Obviously, hosting a load of eBooks on Bookworm and giving users access is not an option. Everytime a user downloaded an eBook they'd be creating a copy which would be a massive infringement of copyright. Cleveland Public Libraries have overcome this problem using OverDrive's platform to host their ePub books (they are the only library that I can find who are loaning ePub books). The way this works is that when a user downloads the file it becomes unavailable to other library users. After a time the user's copy of the file expires. At the same time the copy on the library system becomes available to the masses again. However, OverDrive are a distributor so, although the ePub file format is open, you'd soon come up against the exclusivity/ limited content problem.

Soooo, it's not quite there yet. However there is hope. With publisher's like O'Reilly recognising that overpricing, proprietary file formats & DRM, and the limitations of distributors are hampering eBook uptake by individuals, hopefully it won't be long before some of these issues are resolved for libraries?

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