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

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?
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

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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.

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