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Writing about Reading: Guesting over at The Digital Reader

Normally on Thursdays I do a little bit on ebooks and libraries in a bit I call Writing About Reading.  Today I’m reblogging my column from over at The Digital Reader which was published on Saturday.  Cool beans.

When most people, even book publishers and ebook readers, think of libraries they often still bring up the image of the shushing librarian among her stacks of dusty tomes, stacking and sorting.

And while it’s true that there are still some libraries who will never end their love affair with Dewey, there are an increasing number of librarians who are embracing, and even driving, new innovation. This is even more prevalent within the world of ebooks, and many libraries are actually becoming hubs of ebook experimentation. It’s sort of an obvious role for them to fill. Besides Amazon, there aren’t many organizations or companies who know as much about the reading experiences and preferences of their readership than libraries.

I work with a consortium in California, the Califa Group, which built our own ebook platform in 2013, the enki library, with content purchased directly from publishers and being lent out from a shared collection that now has close to 40,000 items. It’s available in about 75 library jurisdictions in California, and the entire state of Kansas. We were dissatisfied with the slate of available ebook options and restrictions on libraries, and built our own solution. When I saw the call on The Digital Reader for guest bloggers, I immediately thought of the amount of innovation going on in the library world, and I wanted to bring that story to other ebook professionals. So I will be doing regular stories on the new and interesting ebook projects incubating and percolating in your local library.

Most of us can agree that the state of ebooks in libraries is less than ideal. From the patron perspective there are a lot of vendors to keep track of, many offering different content, meaning that to find the book you want, you might have to search in three or four databases, often logging in each time. Then, once you find your title, there are often long holds queues. Even once it becomes available, the process to download and actually get your title can be cumbersome and confusing. And then it might not even work on your device.

The libraries bemoan the pricing (libraries often pay multiple times the retail price of an ebook) and the legal restrictions: just like I don’t “own” the titles on my kindle, libraries generally don’t “own” the titles they purchase through third party vendors. I’m ok with not owning my Amazon titles per se, but one of the main reasons for my existence isn’t to provide an archive of the written word, and context for cultural and local history. And I’m not buying the titles with public, taxpayer money. Libraries do both of these things, which makes ownership a much more pressing issue. Finally, libraries are just as frustrated as patrons with holds queues, multiple platforms and access issues.

Then there is the publisher perspective. From the dozens of publishers I’ve spoken to when purchasing content for enki, publishers are concerned about the ease of use that ebooks provide library patrons. Ten years ago I needed to physically go to my library to get a book; now I can simply download it from my couch. They are worried that this ease of use will end up with lost sales, and that’s part of the justification for increased pricing for libraries.

Finally, there is the perspective of authors. While some authors share the fears of publishers that libraries will cost them sales, most authors are supportive of libraries, seeing them as a place where readers explore and discover new titles, and can give new authors a try before committing to purchase a book. Many books were written in libraries, and so authors have a soft spot for the buildings and people that provided them with their own inspiration. Lots of authors would love to donate their digital titles to the library world, but they find that there is no simple way to donate an ebook.

In this entry, I’m going to look at a company that is solving some of the ebook issues from the perspective of the author, eBooksAreForever.com. Several years ago I first heard the story of Harris County, TX, who approached J.A. Konrath about purchasing his ebooks directly for the ebook system they were building. He invited them to do a guest blog about the issues of ebooks in libraries, and devised a system that he would put out to libraries who wanted to buy his titles. Out of that was born eBooksAreForever, which provides a platform for libraries to purchase ebooks from participating authors.

Right now they have content from some of the best selling indie authors including Hugh Howey, J.A. Konrath, H.M. Ward, Blake Crouch, and many others. There are over 1000 titles in their catalog available for purchase, and they are looking to grow it continually. When a library buys a title, they own it forever. There aren’t any restrictions as to how many times they can lend it out, or forced to repurchase it when a new format becomes available. The ebooks are there forever, hence the name. The participating authors make at least 70% of the royalties.

The books are competitively priced; $4.99 for novels, and less for shorter works. The titles come without DRM, which would be an issue for libraries who didn’t have a hosting solution, and a way to provide DRM already. From my conversations with them, I know that they are looking at ways around this problem to make it easy for every library, not just one who has invested in the Adobe Content Server, to be able to offer their ebooks.

I purchased all of the available titles for enki over the summer, and it was a simple experience for me which took less than half an hour. They allow purchasing by individual titles, or you can buy the entire catalog, everything by a specific author, or everything in a specific genre. Once the library purchases, the titles are emailed along with the ONIX metadata, and can be uploaded to the library’s platform immediately. It took longer than half an hour for our System Admin to load the titles, but it was still a pretty painless process. Right now the titles are available on a 1 user/1 copy basis, but they are also looking at ways to add unlimited users as an option that libraries could choose when purchasing.

I asked Harris County about their experience with eBooksAreForever, and Michael Saperstein told me, “We were interested in working with eBooksAreForever because they had quality independent titles and were a one stop shop for us to purchase from. As they were developing the website they frequently reached out to us to see if it was meeting our needs. This let us know that they were serious in their willingness to work with us. The titles arrived accurately and quickly soon after our first order was placed. The website easily displays whether or not a title was purchased previously which is very helpful. We have placed a second order with them and plan to do so again in the near future.”

The thing I really love about eBooksAreForever is how committed they are to coming up with solutions to work directly with libraries. Generally libraries aren’t consulted by the big companies before they make business decisions. That leaves libraries in the position of offering a product to their patrons that they didn’t design, and had very little input into its creation, if any. Authors are also often in the same position, having decisions made for them by their publishers or by the large library vendors, without necessarily having any say in what’s happening to their own content. With eBooksAreForever, libraries and authors are working together to increase readership, which is in both groups’ interest.

In the eBooksAreForever blog, J.A. Konrath wrote in February: “I discovered countless new books at my local library, and I credit that opportunity for turning me into the bestselling author I am today. Thanks for that. I will forever owe a debt to libraries.”

I think it’s awesome that more patrons are going to be able to discover new authors thanks to innovative projects like this, and I am grateful to Harris County for bringing the issues to his attention back in 2012.

In my next blog, I’ll talk about the Library Simplified project that NYPL is building and testing with libraries nationwide, which aims to provide one place to search all the holdings, including all the ebooks, within a library catalog.