Category Archives: Library Issues

Heresy and Patron Data

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last several years thinking, writing, and speaking about ebooks. I’m on the Board of Directors of Library Renewal, a group dedicated to finding ways to make the ebook experience a good one for libraries, publishers, and authors. And I’ve spoken all over the US and Internationally about eReaders and how digital content changes libraries. So what I am about to suggest is something that has been rattling around in my head for some time now, and I feel like it’s something that I’d love to hear other thoughts about.

So as the Joker said in The Dark Knight Returns:

When we look at how libraries, pubishers, and authors all interrelate vis a vis electronic content, specifically ebooks, the models that are largely being forwarded are straightforward economic models. The rights-holders have content, we want content, we pay them for content. Most of the disagreement comes down to the details: how much are we paying, and what rights do with have to the content that we are paying for. The majority of “new” models that are being trumpeted in libraryland, like the Douglas County Public ebook model, are just differently-arranged ways of doing exactly the same thing…which, admittedly, gives different outcomes on the two contentious fronts (cost and rights) but isn’t actually new in any significant way.

In an economic system, when one side of an equation (libraries) want something from another side (rights-holders), there is an exchange of value that takes place wherein both sides agree that said value exchange is fair in both directions. Libraries pay money for content…this is, at its base, just a value exchange between libraries and publishers.

Libraries don’t want a free ride as far as ebooks are concerned. Every single librarian that I have spoken with is perfectly willing to continue to pay for content. Unfortunately, the economics of libraries are such that when we want more rights (the ability to check out ebooks to any number of patrons simultaneously, or the right to ILL ebooks, etc) we don’t have the ability to exchange our typical economic instrument (money) for them. Think about Amazon and their ability to put the Harry Potter books into their Lending Library…freely available to anyone with an Amazon Prime membership. Libraries would kill for the right to do this, but Amazon is the one that can write the check. If we had tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to throw at publishers, we could dictate any rights we wished. But we don’t.

So the question that’s been bugging me is: what else do we have, besides cash, that is of value to the rights holders and could be traded for more of what we want. Libraries generate value in enormous numbers of ways, but what do we have that publishers might want that would give us some bartering ability?

Some librarians have started looking at these value-exchanges in a new way. Toby Greenwalt, a librarian at the Skokie Public Library, started asking what the value was to the publishers of the awards that the American Library Association gives out for childrens and young adult titles, and Andromeda Yelton followed up with a look at how those awards related to the ability for libraries to lend those books electronically. Here’s something that the ALA does, which appears to be significant value to publishers, with no visible complimentary exchange of value going the other direction.

Finally we get to what I’ve been thinking of as my heretical idea. Because when I think about what other thing of value that libraries have that could potentially be traded to publishers in order to get an equivalent set of value back from them in the way of ebook rights, I keep coming back to one thing:

Information. Information about our patrons, information about our circulations of individual books, and demographic information about our users and what books they read.

I know. A lot of librarians just stopped reading, or perhaps began clutching the arms of their chairs a bit too tightly. Patron information! The holiest of holies in library land, the Thing Which Must Not Be Shared! One of the core tenets of librarianship is that the borrowing history of the individual is sacrosanct. And for very, very good reasons…it doesn’t take a paranoid person to see the ways in which reading histories should be kept private, from the teenager looking for information about sexuality to the individual checking out a book about chronic illness (you wouldn’t want your insurance company to know that, now would you). As the saying goes, “show me what you read and I’ll tell you who you are”.

But this information is valuable. Publishers would love to know more about their readers, as it helps them to make better decisions about what to publish, how to market, and what sorts of books that a given population is more likely to buy. The amount of data that libraries could have in this realm is enormous, and could be a huge lever with which to move the playing field that we are all currently on regarding ebooks.

I am very aware, there are huge problems with this idea. The data in many cases is actually non-existent (libraries are very good about dumping this data so that it can’t be used by law enforcement or others in negative ways against readers). In order to maintain any sort of patron trust, there would have to be serious thought given to sanitization of the data, stripping of individually identifying information, and more (and yes, I am aware that stripping of individually identifying information has been shown to be basically useless…I retain some hope that there is a way to do it that isn’t). It is also the case that with the rise of cloud-based ILS systems that this information is going to be more available than ever, and centralized on servers that are out of library’s control.

But if we want the next decade to be a good one for us, libraries and librarians need to put some serious thought into what our other value-creation areas are, and how we can begin to identify and trade on those against the rights-holders. Because our money is getting thin, our prices are going up, digital is likely to kill our existing model completely, and we need new ways to think about these things.

What else do we have? What sort of leverage do we have that we aren’t using? What can we bring to the negotiating table that we haven’t yet?

A shot across the bow

If you had any doubts that Amazon’s Lending Library was eventually going to compete with public libraries, here’s where your doubts get shattered. From Amazon’s homepage today, on the announcement of all 7 Harry Potter books entering the Kindle Lending Library program:

With traditional library lending, the library buys a certain number of e-book copies of a particular title. If all of those are checked out, you have to get on a waiting list….the wait can sometimes be months.

With the Kindle Owners Lending Library, there are no due dates, you can borrow as frequently as once a month, and there are no limits on how many people can borow the same title…

The full image of the announcement is included after the click: Continue reading A shot across the bow

Commoditizing our complements

In business and economics, there is a concept that is often expressed with the phrase “Commoditize your complement”. A complementary product is has some form of necessary connection to the product in question…the usual example is automobiles and gasoline. As Joel Spolsky puts it:

A complement is a product that you usually buy together with another product. Gas and cars are complements. Computer hardware is a classic complement of computer operating systems. And babysitters are a complement of dinner at fine restaurants. In a small town, when the local five star restaurant has a two-for-one Valentine’s day special, the local babysitters double their rates. (Actually, the nine-year-olds get roped into early service.)

All else being equal, demand for a product increases when the prices of its complements decrease.

Thus the concept of commoditizing (making available uniformly and interchangably) your complement. If you can decrease the cost of your complement, you by necessity increase the cost of your product. Microsoft learned this very early, and went on to great success, making hardware (the complement to it’s product, software) a commodity product…it didn’t matter if you bought from Dell, or Gateway, or Asus, or IBM, or Lenovo, or…the list goes and on. Those companies struggled to make money in a market driven to complete interchangability, while Microsoft made billions on software. A reversal of this strategy, as Marco Arment has pointed out, is Apple is attempting to commoditize software via its iOS and Mac App Stores, because its product (where they make their profit) is the hardware.

My questions to the library world: What is our product? What should we be commoditizing in order to make our product more valuable? The concept isn’t just about money, it’s about market values, even when the market in question isn’t measured in dollars but in reputation, importance, and community value. What should we be pushing to commodity so that our business becomes more valuable to our communities?

I have my theories, but want to hear yours.


January Apple Event – Education/Textbook related?

Multiple industry sources are reporting that Apple plans to have an announcement event in New York sometime in January, most likely featuring something new in the Media space. Most interestingly for libraries, Clayton Morris is reporting that his sources tell him:

  • This event will focus on iTunes University and Apple in education
  • The event will be in New York rather than in the Silicon Valley because New York is more centrally located for textbook and publishing.
  • This initiative has been in the making for years.
  • The announcement will be small in size but large in scope: a big announcement in a demure space.
  • I expect at least two large project announcements as they relate to Apple in education.

Anything involving Apple, textbooks, publishing, and education is something that libraries should be paying attention to. This isn’t going to be a hardware announcement, but given that it seems to revolve around iBooks and iTunes U, I’m guessing it’s a publishing/distribution deal with textbook publishers…or maybe a new publishing platform specifically for textbooks? We’ll see as the month rolls along.

SOPA and Publishers

Here is a list of all of the companies signed to SOPA (which, while delayed until after the first of the year, isn’t dead):
Companies supporting SOPA

While there are a few surprises (GoDaddy? A DNS company that supports breaking DNS? Huh?) most of the names on the list are exactly who you’d expect: copyright holders that are clearly desperate to hold on to their business model. These happen to include publishers like Hachette, Harper-Collins, Macmillan, Elsevier, Hyperion, McGraw-Hill, Pearson Education, Penguin, Random House, Scholastic, and Norton. Not to mention all of the video/music companies that produce content that libraries spend money on: Sony, Universal, Disney, etc.

For those who aren’t keeping up with SOPA and PIPA and what exactly it is that the above companies are suggesting, let’s be clear: SOPA and PIPA are both so completely bad that I have trouble describing how bad they really are. I consider myself a writer, and I have trouble conjuring forth a description about just how incredibly fucked the USA would be if we allow these ridiculous bills to pass into law. So I’ll let someone else say it for me. Mr. Savage:

Make no mistake: These bills aren’t simply unconstitutional, they are anticonstitutional. They would allow for the wholesale elimination of entire websites, domain names, and chunks of the DNS (the underlying structure of the whole Internet), based on nothing more than the “good faith” assertion by a single party that the website is infringing on a copyright of the complainant.

Or maybe Mr. Dotorow? Or how about, oh…the engineers who built the Internet in the first place? Or maybe even the Stanford Law Review? All of them agree (as do I) that SOPA and PIPA would break the fundamental way that the Internet works, making the US into a third-world-country of ‘net access, and threatening the very concept of Free Speech online.

These are agressive, wrong headed pieces of legislation that attempt to find a technical solution to a legislative problem…we already have laws that punish individuals who infringe upon copyrights. This would be the equivalent of legislating the ability for private companies to decide to close down roads and revoke your drivers license just because someone claimed they saw you take a drink, instead of simply having and enforcing laws against driving under the influence.

So what can libraries do? I think we should let these signatories know that we disagree fundamentally with SOPA and PIPA and indeed any law that would lessen the freedom of speech on the Internet. Tell everyone you speak with at these companies that this is not the sort of thing that we will support. If SOPA and PIPA are still on the table at the time of ALA Midwinter, I plan to try to speak with as many employees of these companies as I can about this. I suggest you do the same.

Ready, Aim…Fire!

Head over to the ALA TechSource blog to see my take on the new Amazon Kindle announcements. The new models announced yesterday, along with pricing, are:

There’s lots more at TechSource, but the pull-quote from the article is probably:

For libraries, however, with the exception of cheaper cost-per-device you want to provide…well, nothing really changes. Amazon is still providing books at the publisher’s set cost that are licensed in such a way that limits the ability of libraries to circulate them (the books, not the devices). The Kindle/Overdrive deal doesn’t change at all…you can just buy a Kindle to circ to patrons for $40 less than you could yesterday. But the technological hurdles for our patrons on the user-experience front as well as the backend limitations of the DRM provided files are still the same as ever.