Digital Underclass 2: The future of books and libraries (PODCAST)

Digital Underclass 2: The future of books and libraries (PODCAST)

Summary: Is the book and the library becoming transformed from an institution that deals in lendable, perpetual and tangible objects to one that deals in expiring consumable materials?

TOPICS: Hardware

Click to listen to the related podcast with Jason Perlow and Andy Woodworth (45 min.)

A year ago, I wrote an article entitled "Digital Underclass: What Happens When the Libraries Die."

The article had a wide-ranging impact on the library community, and brought in opinions from both sides of the spectrum.

Some library scientists agreed with me that the eBook is indeed threatening the existence of the Public Library, while others such as notable library blogger Andy Woodworth were in firm disagreement, that libraries were still alive, but were entering a transformative phase.

I thought that it might be a good idea to take a look at the situation a year later.

Since that article has written, the eBook as a book distribution medium has utterly exploded.

And while it has not immediately contributed to the fall of libraries, it has almost certainly been a contributing factor in the demise of regular bookstores and independent booksellers.

In October 2011, Borders Books closed its doors, due to overall economic pressures facing all modern businesses, but also because the company was unable to adapt to the ebook and ereader revolution quickly enough.

While there has been no immediate indication that vast amounts of Public Libraries are going to close (at least in the United States, although the situation in the UK is much more serious) in a short period of time, there has certainly been movement and an increased call for libraries to provide more electronic options to their patrons.

In September of 2011, Amazon rolled out its Kindle lending program to over 11,000 libraries in the United States through the Overdrive service.

While this is overwhelmingly being viewed as a positive step for the electronic bookseller, many questions are still left to be answered about how easily Americans will be able to access electronic books for free from their local library in the future.

In my original article I had some concerns about the cost of devices to access the material. This has now become less of an issue, because now we're seeing $79 Kindles and even $199 Kindle Fires enter the market.

Within the next five years, I now expect the base level Kindle to become free, particularly if you pay for the privilege of becoming an Amazon Prime member.

And there's certainly enough free Wi-Fi to go around between all the Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts and McDonalds locations out there that even if someone doesn't have broadband in their home, downloading the books from Amazon's Cloud should not be much of a significant financial obstacle in the future.

But even if the Kindle devices become unbelievably cheap or even become free for Primes, it still means that Amazon is going to become the eBook supplier of choice, and their eBook format is going to dominate the industry, despite all the intentions of the standards bodies to create and develop something like ePUB.

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I think that it is going to become increasingly difficult for companies like Barnes & Noble and SONY to continue to compete with their devices and offerings when Amazon is practically giving the devices away so they can drive the sale of their products and services.

This raises a number of issues. The devices indeed may be cheap, but to have an Amazon account, you need a credit card. Not every American can have a credit card, particularly children.

Are we soon going to see Amazon gift cards sold at the check out counters at Target and Wal-Mart and other retail stores, just like pre-paid iTunes and App Store cards are sold today?

I think that's the next logical step if Amazon wants to move from one e-reader for every six Americans versus a Kindle in every home, or a Kindle for every person.

How long will it be before we see $30 advertising-supported Wi-Fi Kindle readers sold in bubble packs at every Walgreens or Wal-Mart? That time is really not that far off. I give it less than three years to materialize.

So if Kindle readers become ridiculously cheap and every American, regardless of credit will be able to do business with Amazon, giving them instantaneous access to millions of books, what happens to the libraries?

Right now, to get Kindle books from your library, you have to use the Overdrive service. But it's important to remember that Amazon isn't actually lending books to libraries for free -- libraries buy books from Amazon, using Overdrive as a purchasing agent.

By virtue of specific Digital Rights Management (DRM) policies set by each publisher, it allows them to lend out those books only a certain number of times. Depending on the demand for each ebook, the library in turn will set the duration each book can be lent out each time.

One such publisher, HarperCollins, has negotiated specific terms with Amazon that only allow a single copy of a Kindle eBook which has been purchased by a library to be lent out 26 times before it has to be re-purchased at a lower rate.

Other publishers are monitoring the situation to see if they should adapt the same model.

While the overall rules of engagement for publishers versus Amazon versus lending to libraries is still being worked out for the industry overall, we are also seeing the rise in individual authors turning to Amazon directly for self-published content, bypassing the traditional publishing system altogether.

What this means is a prolific author who wants to retain 100 percent creative control over their works can simply directly engage any number of Internet-based service bureaus.

Many of these service bureaus have been created by people which have worked in the existing publishing system.

Authors can have their manuscript edited and formatted for submission directly to Amazon, as well as negotiate for promotional spots on the company's website or to electronically solicit customers that have already bought their books.

Some very famous authors, such as J.K. Rowling, have set up their own eBook stores, to bypass Amazon. But this is the exception rather than the rule.

Ultimately this going to mean that less traditional paper books are going to be printed, which will result in the consolidation of the publishing system as well as the need for public libraries to cull space and funding for purchasing traditional paper books in lieu of electronic copies purchased from Amazon.

Even wealthy local library systems, such as my own BCCLS, due to economic conditions and the desires of their members to use electronic media may find themselves having to consolidate branches, and spend more of their funds on purchasing electronic media.

It may be that we might even see regionalized "cooperatives" of libraries move towards multi-county or even multi-state electronic media pools.

But because of the heavy demand for this content, it might not be so easy for people who want to take out or reserve these e-books on a timely basis. There may be several week or several month waits on popular titles.

It may mean that the models for libraries to buy content from Amazon may have to change. Or it may end up being that people who have means may end up in a Netflix-like subscriber agreement with Amazon where they can consume a certain amount of books a month or a year for a fixed price.

Does this mean we still will have a Digital Underclass, or does it simply mean that literature and media moves from this socialistic notion of free access to written materials to one of knowledge as a consumable good?

Is the book and the library becoming transformed from an institution that deals in lend-able, perpetual and tangible objects to one that deals in expiring consumable materials? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topic: Hardware


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • RE: Digital Underclass 2: The future of books and libraries (PODCAST)

    Well I expect e-books to eventually be significantly cheaper than paper books, so that should make it easier for libraries to lend books. Fair usage rules seem reasonable to me, but libraries need to negotiate deals that leave their costs similar to how they are today. I have no idea on average how many times a book gets lent out at a library but libraries should. As for whether they can survive, I think that is up to the local governments but our libraries offer a lot more than books. They offer classes, kids classes. Internet access. Somewhere cool in the summer (in Arizona).<br>The modern library in fact could undergo a resurgence, if they offer the right services. People liked bookstores but with them going under Libraries could actually replace them, add a coffee shop, and you are half way there.
  • I see this as a net positive development

    Anyone with an Internet connection and computer, be it a tablet or desktop, has at their immediate disposal a virtually unlimited amount of free information (books, music, etc.). This IMHO is a good thing and as the costs go down more people will have access. Unfortunately, in the transition there will be losses, most libraries will not make the cut as taxpayers increasingly look at them as luxuries that no longer make sense in our digital age.
  • RE: Digital Underclass 2: The future of books and libraries (PODCAST)

    Who goes to libraries any more?<br><br>They started to become redundant when the Internet took off. I remember as a school kid I'd go to to one to find out information for my latest assignment. I wouldn't bother now.<br><br>eBooks have their place too but buying books online came about long before eBooks. These have more to do with the libraries decline than eBooks do. It's just so easy to pick up books online and cheaply too. Online book stores can hold far more books than bricks and mortar stores or libraries possibly can.<br><br>I don't morn their loss. People used to send telegrams, times changed.
  • RE: Digital Underclass 2: The future of books and libraries (PODCAST)

    And yes ebooks should be cheaper than books. Their production costs are significantly less but currently this isn't being passed on to customers.
    • ebook pricing


      I agree.

      There are significant savings on ebooks, eg. no printing costs, no minimum print run, no storage cost worth mentioning, no reason for books to go out of print/become unavailable, worldwide market i.s.o the just the town in which the shop resides, no marketing channel, no transport, enormous labour savings, no middleman.....but ebook prices are not much less than the physical medium.

      eBooks, at this stage, is extortionately priced.
    • They're protecting their intellectual property.

      How much do you think it costs for Sony/Warner Brothers/Disney/etc. to use their duplicators & create each copy of those $16-20 DVDs/BR-DVDs they sell in the stores, when I can buy a spindle that costs me less than $1/disc?

      Same thing happens with books. Paper is fairly cheap, especially when produced in mass-market editions. But the majority of the price of a book isn't the cost of the paper & ink it's printed with; it's the cost to market the book, the money owed to the author, etc.

      What, you thought the companies would forego their profit margins simply because storing it as electrons/magnetic bits on a platter is slightly cheaper than using mass-volume printing presses? You're living in a dream world.
  • RE: Digital Underclass 2: The future of books and libraries (PODCAST)

    Some inaccuracies:

    Libraries do not buy eBooks from Amazon.

    OverDrive is the agent between publisher and library.
    Since only Amazon can supply a Kindle book, OverDrive convinced Amazon to host a Kindle .amz version of any OverDrive eBook. Amazon did this to combat the Nook.

    Harper Collins is the only publisher with a limited number of licenses per eBook. All other content purchased by libraries is permanent. And libraries, not publishers set the loan periods.

    Sharing eBooks is not new--libraries have formed consortia to share eBooks from the inception of OverDrive. In fact, the trend is away from shared collections. If demand is great for certain items, then extra copies can be purchased, just like in a real library.

    Libraries have to convince publishers that library eBooks are a win-win. They develop audiences for new authors and create the next generation of readers.
    • RE: Digital Underclass 2: The future of books and libraries (PODCAST)

      @Starbookzzz I'll correct the item about the loan periods. However, as regards to who libraries buy from, even if they are using Overdrive as a middleman or a broker to do transactions with Amazon, they are still expending funds to do it and Amazon is the only source for Kindle material.
      • RE: Digital Underclass 2: The future of books and libraries (PODCAST)

        @jperlow My library has been lending ebooks for years, first as pdf or mobipocket formats, then adding epub and now kindle. From browsing site it looks like all the books in epub format are now in Kindle too and I'm sure the library didn't pay for them all again.

        You do need to wait for popular books, but you can put them on hold and you get an email when they are available, just like for physical books that are popular. At least with ebooks you don't have to wait for them to be returned by a person, they just return automatically.
      • RE: Digital Underclass 2: The future of books and libraries (PODCAST)

        @jperlow Libraries do not actually purchase ebook content. They purchase licenses to the content. The distinction is important because the licenses cover all formats available from Overdrive for any given ebook. Kindle formats were added at no additional cost to the libraries - they did not need to purchase any additional licenses to have them available.

        As already noted, HC is, to my knowledge, the only publisher currently stipulating checkout limits. Another publisher, S&S I believe, isn't allowing library lending for their ebooks at all. However, this is an across-the-board limitation in both cases, and has nothing to do with Amazon's involvement or formats - these limitations were negotiated with Overdrive. Amazon simply complies with any existing agreements when fulfilling Kindle checkouts.
  • RE: Digital Underclass 2: The future of books and libraries (PODCAST)

    Libraries provide a service to all age levels. Technology aware generations are increasing every year. Children are learning to read and develop various skills from a iPad and other slate devices instead of a traditional books. There is no doubt that how we acquire and consume information has changed tremendously and will continue to do so (Technology has seen to that). As technology has evolved so should we in our efforts to ensure that everyone has access to information, reducing the technology divide. It would not be beneficial to the public to have one dominate vendor providing e-information. Competition gives way to more choices and better services to the public.
    • Exactly.


      Our local library is big on what corporations would call "value-added services". They:
      -- make computers available for use to library patrons (have to reserve a station using your library card, you have a time limit depending on demand for the stations, & there's a charge if you need to print anything out);
      -- offer summer reading programs (primarily for children, but sometimes have a separate program for adults) that encourage reading & parental participation;
      -- sponsor workshops on relevant topics, such as job searching tips;
      -- have computer training courses available (usually for a small fee)
      -- besides the previously mentioned "digital editions", they've offered DVD rentals for years (with VHS & even laser disc before that), CD rentals (cassettes also before that), & magazines as well.
  • RE: Digital Underclass 2: The future of books and libraries (PODCAST)

    Once one vendor controls most of the method of distribution, they also, at that point, control the content. Another win for the corporate america.
    Chris S
  • Disruptive technology

    I think it is unfortunate that Borders books went out of business. It is also unfortunate that newspapers and magazines have been caught in the trend to publish electronically. Technology has been disruptive to these old information forms as well as music and video sales.

    I have not used an E-reader yet; I am not opposed to using a device in place of a book if it is for something I may not read again. I still read newspapers because sometimes there is more information printed than what is posted on the internet and I can ignor the ads in print but some ads online are beyond obnoxious.

    Computer technology has been and will be disruptive. The challenge is to keep the good from older practices while incorporating new technology into the mix.
  • RE: Digital Underclass 2: The future of books and libraries (PODCAST)

    I have always loved libraries. As a child, I relished the idea of going to pick out brand new (for me) books to read, and a comfortable, quiet place in which to read them. I still love the library today. There is something romantically tangible about holding an actual book in your hands which is not available with a kindle or other such devices. I also enjoy the latest technological developments as well. I think there is a large demographic of people who are not yet ready to experience things such as kindles, or do not have the economic resources for such devices. The library would be wise, in my opinion, to develop a system which caters to both groups. Just because libraries deal in books does NOT mean they have to deal exclusively in books. Many libraries have advanced systems of computers for use, kindles, classes etc. There is so much more to experience at a library than merely paper books. I hope libraries evolve to serve even wider ranges of people.
    James Keenan
  • How about the stupidclass and the stubbornclass?

    How about those who walk around saying, "Me and computers, we don't get along." or "I'm too OLD to learn that stuff"? Fear of tech or just plain laziness will leave these folks in the dust.
  • RE: Digital Underclass 2: The future of books and libraries (PODCAST)

    I'd like to support my local library with a two tier approach to ebooks. Let me check it out now for $2 or $3 or wait my turn for a free copy. In both cases, set a standard 14 day borrow period with option to purchase my own copy should I choose.
  • It's not ALL about the media

    In a small community like ours in Nebraska, the library has been traditionally a hub of activity for the entire town. I believe it is encumbent upon the library management team to continue to provide state-of-the-art resources for research, and entertainment. Books on tape, videos, and now ebooks are just another step on the way to who knows what in the end. Would you prefer to ask a librarian or Google? Sure you will find thousands of answers on line in a few milli-seconds with Google, but a librarian might know of a different way to ask the question or make a connection to other resources that Google just cannot make. Sure the media might change, but until Hal becomes a reality, it's our librarian who will make the strongest case for keep the traditional library around, in one form, or perhaps another.
  • RE: Digital Underclass 2: The future of books and libraries (PODCAST)

    Thanks for a great post Jason. Doc thinks libraries will evolve into more diverse community centers and that there will always be a role for them even if books go electronic. Remember, libraries are full of librarians, and they provide a valuable service that isn???t the same as Google.
    DocuMentor (Doc)
  • RE: Digital Underclass 2: The future of books and libraries (PODCAST)

    Call me a digital crumudgeon, but when Huricane Irene passed my neighborhood we were without power for days. Of course internet and cell phone service were out even longer.

    Funny how my neighbors came to our house to use the old land line phone (they had all upgraded to FIOS which of course was out longer than the power). Also, funny how several friends who had become ebook readers only, came by to borrow paperbacks.

    Yes there is a place for ebooks but it will not eliminate the need for books. Personally since I work in front of a couple displays all day, the last thing I want is to look at another one to read.