by Havilah Lyon
One of the first things I was asked about when I first started at the American Falls District Library was “Are you going to bring in eBooks?”
The short answer to that question is “Yes, I am.” The long answer to that question will be a later column. I am waiting to hear back on a grant I applied for from the Idaho Community Foundation before I make any grand announcements about our future eBook status. It is in the works though.
In this column, I thought I’d give a general overview of the eBook world. People often are surprised by how the eBook world works; as far as I know, there is no equivalent to it. eBooks came of age after the whole “download music for free from the internet” debacle, which resulted in music sales plummeting and caused an entire industry to go on the offensive to protect music from being pirated. When book publishers looked at what happened to the music industry, they decided they wanted no part of it – they were going to lock down eBooks tighter than a maximum security prison. eBooks were not going to be pirated, no how, no way, not on our watch.
Of course, it’s hard to get mad at them – this is their livelihood and they are simply protecting it. It would be stupidly naive of them not to take that approach. But still, I feel that the pendulum has swung too far the other direction, and publishers have made it almost impossible to do things with eBooks that come natural to most readers – ie, share their latest find with their best friend.
To break things down even further, there are capabilities that you, as the average consumer, have that I, as a librarian buying eBooks on behalf of the library, do not have. It is one of those cases where being part of a large organization (ie, the library world) is a hindrance not a help. The restrictions vary by publisher, but in a nutshell, they all boil down to the same problem: eBooks don’t get destroyed. They don’t get lost, or chewed up by a dog, or dropped in the bathtub. They could technically last for all of eternity, and this really bothers the publishers. They make money every time a library has to replace a book that a patron fed to their cat for breakfast (you think I’m kidding, but I’ve seen books destroyed by a marauding cat!)
Thus, there is a list of restrictions currently in place in the library eBook world that you, as a regular eBook consumer, do not have to worry about:
*Although eBooks are digital and thus could technically be lent out to millions of people at the same time without causing a problem, all publishers have put the same restriction into place: One copy of an eBook can only be checked out to one patron at a time. If we want to check out to two patrons at the same time, we have to buy two copies. This does mean that there will be waitlists on eBooks just like there are on regular books. This is probably one of the hardest things for people to understand, because it is counterintuitive to how it ought to work. It is, however, the one thing I don’t see changing anytime soon.
*Some publishers have it set that an eBook will “expire” after a certain amount of checkouts, forcing the library to buy the book again. As an example, the eBook will check out 26 times, then if the library feels there is still a demand for it, they will have to rebuy it in order to have it available to check out the 27th time. A variation on this is making a copy of an eBook available for only a year, and then forcing the library to buy it again in order to have it available for another year.
*Other publishers charge libraries a much higher fee for an eBook than a regular consumer would pay (ie, a book that would cost you $14.95 to buy from Amazon could run a library $75 or more).
*My personal favorite: Simply not allow libraries to buy the eBook, period. Some publishers have decided that rather than opening Pandora’s Box, they simply aren’t going to sell their eBooks to libraries until they’ve studied every angle of the situation and can guara-darn-tee that they will make the maximum amount of money possible.
So as the American Falls District Library starts to delve into the eBook world over the coming months, don’t be surprised when we tell you that there is a hold list 15 deep for a new book, or that we simply cannot buy a particular eBook for you, period. Don’t throw rotten eggs at us – there are CEOs of publishing houses that could probably stand to have a few hucked at them though.