Why I still don’t own an ereader [rant]

It’s quite simple. I can’t afford to purchase copies of every ebook I’d like to read, and I refuse to pirate them.

I could easily spend a decent portion of our monthly budget on ebooks, especially since the ebooks I want to read tend to be from the Big Six publishers. They are more expensive than many indie titles (which I’m sure are lovely and all, but not of particular interest to me at the moment) so that everyone gets paid (the authors, the publishers, the editors, the publicity folks, etc.). I want everyone get paid, but I’m a pretty voracious reader, as is my husband. Dropping $50-$100 per month on ebooks (or paper books, for that matter) is not plausible in our family budget.

This is why my husband and I are heavy library users. We happily use our local public library constantly. And are thrilled to pay modest taxes to do so, as homeowners. Which in turn get us access to way more books and other media than we could ever afford to purchase ourselves.

Pirating ebooks (especially for those titles not lucky enough to be bestsellers with big publicity pushes) keeps dear friends of mine from being paid or contracted for further work.

It is still *much* faster and easier than using library ebooks.

Here’s how libraries get ebooks to their patrons. They use a vendor called OverDrive. (There really isn’t a viable competitor that has the same stock of titles. We’re stuck with them.)

The vendor deals with the publishing companies, signing contracts with them to provide ebook access to libraries at a certain rate, and makes DRMed copies of ebooks available for download to Kindles, Nooks, etc.  For an annual access fee (note that the ebooks aren’t OWNED by the library–they are just leasing access) paid for by the library, ebooks are then furnished to their users for free (your tax dollars at work!).

Setting up your ereader for OverDrive takes about 19 steps. Downloading an ebook once you’re set up takes 4-5 steps. The ebooks sit on your device for the loan period (2 weeks, usually), and then magically disappear. It is (and remains) WAY easier to just pirate. I don’t personally LIKE DRM, but I’m willing to put up with it because it means that my favorite authors can eat, feed their cats, and keep writing. Until we have a better way to guarantee this, we’re stuck with the current system.

The people who use library ebooks are committing to extra steps because they WANT the authors and publishers to get paid. Libraries are using a vendor like OverDrive because they also want publishers and authors to be paid, and they don’t have the time, money, energy, or lawyers to contract with each publisher individually.

How much libraries are willing to pay depends on a) how good the selection of books is (will our patrons use it) and b) how the use is tracked and charged (per checkout? per title? per patron?) and c) how much the prices will go up over time.

Right now, only one of the Big Six publishers make their ebooks available to libraries for lending.  Penguin publishing group pulled access most recently in late November, then restored it until the end of 2011. Now it’s 2012. The most recent “pull” was for “security concerns” according to the press release. Other publishers such as Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins have or are looking at “limited” models, which restrict the number of checkouts to 26 before additional copies have to be purchased by libraries (often way fewer checkouts than a paper copy would endure before being replaced). This could lead to libraries devoting the bulk of their ebook purchases to multiple copies of the next NYT bestseller, leaving less-popular (but no less worthy) authors in the dust.

What the publishing industry is arguing about with libraries here is how much they will be paid, not whether they will be paid at all. We’re already committed to paying them. They just think we aren’t paying enough (especially compared to how much more they make in direct ebook sales from Amazon, B&N, etc.) So they are doing their best to just cut us out of the equation completely. Our market isn’t important enough to them right now.  Despite evidence that library use leads to more purchasing of books in every format. *sigh*

I’m really hoping this gets sorted out in the near future.  I’m a librarian and an editor for an online magazine. I believe in electronic publishing. I recognize that publishing companies are trying to figure out how to deal with a distribution and economic model for which they weren’t really prepared.

I just don’t want to see this new format thrive at the expense of libraries and patrons who aren’t as well off as the first wave of early adopters. Seriously. Some middle ground would be nice, but right now, the Big Six are offering libraries all or nothing. Which means that a potential ebook customer (yours truly) is going to wait for the Big Six to get their heads out of their nether regions and start paying attention to the libraries that consistently buy and promote the books that they produce. Now that Borders is dead and Barnes & Noble is cutting their in-store stock to be a Nook showroom, how else do they plan to get readers to notice their books, especially the consistent mid-list sellers that could be a stable core of their business?

I can’t afford to do it any other way. *sigh*


About Lynne M. Thomas

Lynne M. Thomas is a nine time Hugo Award winning editor and podcaster. In her day job, she is Head of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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1 Response to Why I still don’t own an ereader [rant]

  1. WELL SAID!!

    I’m not too happy with the publishers because of this. It’s annoying. I work in a library thus I don’t have the money to spend on a ton of books. I’ve cut back on book buying, and utilize the library like crazy. My fiance has been getting his comics on his iPad, because he doesn’t mind reading them electronically and then it doesn’t take up shelf space. But he’s even cutting back on that. It’s hard being a poor voracious reader & the publishers aren’t making it easier.

    I definitely will think twice about buying an ebook (or regular book) from these publishers that aren’t playing nicely. I’ll pick up something from Random House over HarperCollins or Penguin.


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