The Fiction about Friction

Let’s talk about a concept that keeps coming up in the conversation about ebook lending in libraries. The publishers who are currently not participating in the library ebook market all seem to be worrying about the lack of “friction” in the library ebook lending transaction as far as the patrons are concerned.

What do they mean by “friction”?

With physical media, in other words, books and CDs and DVDs, patrons have to come to the library to borrow them and come back to the library to return them. According to the February 10 post in Publisher’s Lunch, forcing patrons to come into the library to borrow ebooks is also the appropriate model for ebook lending. The publishers say they are doing this for the libraries’ own good, to reinforce the concept of the library as destination. Research indicates that ebook users are already “power users” of library resources, regularly visiting their local libraries for programming and to borrow materials, as well as borrowing ebooks online, and doing all those activities in great gulps.

Back to that “friction” thing again. The publishers seem to be laboring under a set of misapprehensions about how “easy” it is to borrow an ebook from a library. Let’s look at that for a moment.

According to the recent report in American Libraries, when ALA President Molly Raphael met with the Big 6 publishers in New York recently, many of the executives from those publishers were laboring under the mistaken belief libraries loaned ebooks to anyone who happened to click through their websites. We all know that’s not the case.

Libraries are responsible to their communities, and their resources are paid for by the taxes raised in those communities. We make our resources available to those who live or own property in the community. Many libraries make arrangements with their neighboring communities to reciprocally serve their patrons.

So it’s not quite as easy as the publishers think. But is it easy?

The so-called “friction” in borrowing an ebook from the library is different than the model the publishers are used to, but it is definitely there.

The hold queues for ebooks are very, very long. A recent article in the Washington Post showed hundreds of people waiting in line for some of the titles. The libraries in the D.C. metro area also have attempted to purchase copies to meet the demand, but the numbers are staggering. Placing a hold for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and seeing yourself listed as number 508 in the queue has to be a shock to anyone.

The second piece of grit that causes no end of friction is the general supply of ebooks. Period. When a person logs into their local library’s ebooks collection and wants to read something, anything, but just get a book, right now, can they? The answer generally is only if they understand the system and are willing to take something they may not be familiar with.

Patrons complain, with justification, that everything is out.  My LPOW has about 10,000 ebooks on OverDrive. However, if I check to see what a patron might check out, the first several screens all tell me to put myself on the waiting list. It is possible to search for only the titles currently available, but you have to know how to do that. And if you do know, you must search for EPUB, PDF, Open EPUB and Open PDF separately. There’s no option for just ebook. Out of those 10,000 ebooks, there are only 50 science fiction and fantasy titles in today. I did a quick scroll through, and a significant chunk of those are unfortunately mis-categorized. They’re really paranormal romance, which wouldn’t bother me, but would disappoint a lot of readers.

That’s not all the friction in this potential transaction.

Those of us who have been on the receiving end, know that dealing with end-users brings its own variety of friction. Whatever the client program is, whether it is OverDrive’s Media Console or the search program or the patron’s device or any other piece of the puzzle, there is a chain. Server to website to search to download to device to human. Any one of those parts can suffer a classic case of “failure to communicate” and when the chain breaks, the patron calls the library.

OverDrive’s Media Console isn’t quite as intuitive to use as the Kindle app, or the Nook app, or Bluefire. It’s pretty decent, and I frequently use it for EPUB format books, but there are a couple of things that get to me. For example, I can rename books in Bluefire and I can’t in OverDrive.

But the transaction to borrow an ebook in OverDrive far from frictionless. There’s no ability to search all of one type of format. So a patron can’t just search for “ebooks” or just search for “audiobooks”. The format limits are EPUB or PDF, and MP3 Audiobook or WMA Audiobook.

Once you find something you want to borrow, there’s the need for a library card number and a PIN, or personal identification number. Some libraries have made this easy by tying it to something the patron can’t forget, some don’t. But once past that hurdle, there’s the whole download business. If you’re reasonably savvy about your device, it is a piece of cake. With an iPhone or an iPad, there is, of course, an app for that.

Dealing with a side load through Adobe Digital Editions into a Classic Nook the first time is not for the faint of of heart, and not the night before you leave on vacation. Especially not if your flight is at “oh dark thirty”. Of those “power users” that LJ surveyed; 23% have given up on borrowing an ebook from the library because the process was “too complicated”.

If our sophisticated users have difficulty with the process, what about the new ereader users? A lot of people who are not tech-savvy got ereaders  because of the convenience factor and the content, but not the “gee-whiz” factor. How “frictionless” will they think the current ebook lending process is?

There is plenty of friction in the ebook borrowing transaction. The libraries are having enough issues ensuring that their interface with living, breathing patrons who use the library is as frictionless as possible.

What we don’t need is publishers telling us that library ebook lending needs more of this so-called “friction” than it already has. What we need is more ebooks in the library market.

The Two Towers: Apple iBooks Author EULA vs Amazon KDP Select

Before the announcement on January 19, the hope was that Apple’s iBooks Author program would somehow kick Amazon where it hurts. Assuming that anyone can find a location that actually causes Amazon any monetary angst, that is – hunting expeditions for this locale have so far been unsuccessful.

A publishing platform that would make ebook creation easier for the educational market was another “Holy Grail” that some pundits hoped that Apple was about to tackle. I had heard some theorizing that Apple was going to “revolutionize” ebook textbook publishing with the announcement.

And it did, but not in the way that anyone had expected.

By now, you may have heard the chatter (samples here, here and here) about Apple’s Author End-User License Agreement (EULA) for producing books (iBooks) with their new program. If an author wants to be recompensed for the blood, sweat and tears they have put into their book, and they want to create it using Apple’s new program, which is supposed to be so cool, they have to be willing to sign over exclusive, absolutely exclusive, distribution rights to their work, forever. Not for a period of time, but forever. Authors can’t even sell their books on their own sites.

Now if authors want to give the book away, they can distribute it wherever they like.

Some people wanted Apple to give Amazon a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Why? Because of Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program, also known as Kindle Digital Selects. As a librarian, I have some issues with the program, because the public face of this program is the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, where Kindle Owners can, well, borrow an ebook from Amazon without buying it. Just like at their local library.

But from the authors’ side, this appears to be a way better deal than Apple. A very detailed analysis of the pros and cons from an author’s perspective was written by Carolyn McCray and posted at Publishing Perspectives. There have also been some recent sales statistics made available by Amazon at Digital Book World showing that there is a positive ripple-effect to participation in the program, because it includes promotion on Amazon’s Kindle Daily Deal mailing, which has pretty big circulation.

Authors want their books to get read, and they want to be fairly compensated. Whatever one might think about Amazon’s practices, or what they might morph into in the long-term, in the short-term, there are reports that indicate those goals are being accomplished.

And Amazon doesn’t expect a lifetime commitment when authors sign up. 90 day exclusivity may not be for everyone, but it is a much shorter term than forever. No matter how you count the days.

But a lot of people are more worried about the long-term than the short-term. Amazon is playing a very long game. As a recent NPR story put it, Amazon’s tactics are seen as ‘predatory’, because Amazon is not just an extremely huge bookseller, but they are also a publisher. Not just an ebook publisher, but a print publisher. They have more clout in more places in the publishing and bookselling business than anybody. Ever.

People were hoping that Apple’s announcement on January 19 would stick Amazon where it might hurt.

Instead, we have a situation resembling the one in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers. On the one side, the dark tower of Amazon, with their huge distribution network and their “predatory” practices and their consumers locked-in to their Kindles.

On the other side, we have the white tower of Apple, signing their authors into permanent contractual servitude, telling eager potential iBook textbook creators that if they want to use the cool Apple product they either have to give their work away for free or they have to let Apple own the rights to their work forever.

And in the middle, us poor consumers, hunkering down while the electronic salvos fire overhead.

Remember that in Tolkien’s story, the white tower didn’t turn out to be any less self-serving than the dark tower once the truth was revealed. White just turned out to be the new black.