Snowball careening downhill–look out below!

In the April 27 Industry News from Publisher’s Weekly, Amazon reported that sales in their ebook division jumped 63% in the first quarter of 2011.  That was pretty much their good news.   Their bad news, underlaying a certain amount of spin, was that even though revenues were up across the board, their actual income was down.  What’s up with that?  Amazon is investing in even more technology and more infrastructure to meet ever-increasing demands.

According to the report, Kindle owners are larger-volume ebook buyers than non-Kindle owners.  That can’t be a surprise, considering that Kindle owners are locked into purchasing ebooks from Amazon.  This is a marketing strategy that is older than dirt, after all.  The earlier version went something like this: “the razor is cheap, it’s the blades that are expensive.”  The new, cheaper advertising-supported Kindle is being released early in order to take even greater advantage of this.

Amazon’s recent announcement that they will provide Kindle format ebooks via Overdrive is also part of this strategy.  Up until this week, Kindle owners couldn’t borrow ebooks from their libraries.  Now, they know they will soon be able to, for an admittedly undefined value of soon.  This eliminates a clear advantage that Barnes and Noble’s Nook had.  However, to recap the latest round of the ereader wars, B&N just announced a major upgrade to the color Nook that pushes it way above just an ereader.  The review of the new color Nook in this morning’s USA Today shows that the new Color Nook is more of a baby Android powered iPad than just an ereader.

But back to the point about Kindles, what this means is, more reasons for people to buy Kindles or fewer reasons for people not to buy Kindles, so, more Kindles out there.  And Kindle owners buy more ebooks from Amazon than non-Kindle owners, however else they might get their ebooks.  The announcement about the Amazon/Overdrive deal got an amazing amount of press for something relating to libraries, but it was all related to the fact that the name “Amazon” was in it.  Amazon got a lot of mindshare out of something that will probably cost them next to nothing.

It’s also clear from the sheer numbers that ebook buyers actually buy more books than print book buyers.  No surprise there.  If you are sitting in an airport, shopping for ebooks before your flight, guessing what you’ll like, there is a certain amount of glee at the sheer ease of purchasing without having to think of carrying the things.  There are other factors.  Ebooks are still generally cheaper than hardcovers, Michael Connelly notwithstanding.  There is also the instant gratification factor that simply can’t be underestimated.

What does this mean for libraries?  Just Amazon saying that Kindle users would be able to borrow ebooks from libraries generated huge press, even without specifics.  Demand for ebooks, which is already huge, is going to skyrocket.  The amount of general interest press that covered the Amazon announcement showed that ebooks and ereaders have reached well beyond techies and young people and whatever early adopter market people might have thought and spread well into general users everywhere.  For anyone who doubts this, next time you travel, while you are at the airport waiting for your flight, just look around at the number of people reading on ereaders or iPads vs. “dead tree” books.  The percentage will be 1/3 or more.

Many public libraries have the collection philosophy “give ’em what they want”.  It is due to that philosophy that we have invested heavily in best selling fiction, and moved as deeply as we have into AV material.  But ebooks seem like a whole new ball game in some ways.  Especially since we are trying to divide a budget pie that is shrinking into an increasing number of pieces, and ebooks are just another piece.  The same title is now demanded in print, large print, audiobook, ebook, and eaudio, and multiple copies of each.  Meanwhile the demands for DVDs, music and children’s material certainly have not gone away.  Because ebooks are new, it can seem simplest not to invest, or not to invest a lot, to say that there isn’t enough demand in the community, or that the library can’t afford it. Or that people still want print books, not ebooks.  But if you build a good ebook collection, they will come.  It takes time and money.  Unfortunately, those are the two commodities no library seems to have enough of these days.

However, the demand for ebooks is like the proverbial snowball rolling down the hill and picking up speed, as well as rocks and twigs, as it rolls down.  If your library has that philosophy of “give ’em what they want”, then ebooks are looking more and more like what a significant segment of the public wants. The trick will be smoothing the rocks and twigs out of that snowball as we give it to them.

OverDrive and Amazon and Kindles

People who have Amazon Kindles will finally be able to borrow ebooks from their local library.  This is a good thing for user service, whatver questions librarians may have about the forces that are moving behind the scenes on this one.

Why do I say this is a good thing for user service?  Saying yes beats this scenario–excited patron calls up, because they just purchased a new Kindle and they want to borrow ebooks from their local library.  The staff has to tell them that the library doesn’t have anything for them, and has no way of knowing if they ever will.  Patron is generally upset, because, well, they just bought this new toy and want to use it.  Patrons do not want to understand about formats, they don’t care about Amazon’s lock-in on its consumers (if they did, they wouldn’t have bought a Kindle in the first place), and they pay taxes in the community and they feel entitled to the services they paid for.  If ebooks are available for other people, they should be available for everyone.  There is no survivable way to explain to a taxpayer that they should have done their research first.  For front-end service, this solves a major problem.

But all the questions about exactly how this is going to work are still open.  Based on OverDrive’s own blogpost/press release, they are going to simply make any ebook currently available to libraries available in Kindle format in addition to the current formats.  Whether this means both PDF and ePUB or just ePUB remains to be seen.  The OverDrive blog is very clear that there will not be anything available that isn’t available now, so Simon & Schuster and Macmillan are not coming to the library table, and the 26 lending limit for Harper Collins titles will still be crosses that libraries have to bear.  Or, to put it another way, #HCOD is alive and well, and it has been joined by #AZOD.

There is an awful lot that we still don’t know about this deal.  Just because there is no “up front” cost to libraries to add the Kindle format ebooks, doesn’t mean this won’t somehow figure into OverDrive’s platform fee.  And it probably has to.  And it’s worth it to be able to say “yes” to all those patrons instead of “no”.  But many libraries would prefer to see the price tag openly, and opt in or out accordingly. 

All the press releases agree that users will be able to retain their margin notes from one checkout to another, but none say how that will work.  It sounds like patron data is being retained, but by whom?  By Amazon?  Is that opt-in or opt-out, or is there any option at all?  OverDrive says that “users’ confidential information will be protected”, but who is deciding what is confidential, and who is doing the protecting?

Also, when is this actually going to happen?  Library users who have Kindles have probably been calling their local libraries all day.  Saying “soon” will only hold them for so long. 

Has anyone else noticed that this announcement came very hard on the heels of the announcement about Recorded Books moving their digital audio to Ingram?  And that was on top of the Ingram/OCLC announcement about making ebooks available to ILL through Ingram.  Wouldn’t it be great if a second player with good contacts in the industry challenged OverDrive for their monopoly?

What should a platform fee buy, anyway?

There are so many things swirling about how libraries purchase ebooks, it’s hard to know where to begin. 

 The Kansas State Library and OverDrive are butting heads during the renegotiation of the Kansas contract for OverDrive access for public libraries in the state.  This is primarily about the platform, or access fee, not about the individual content purchases, which are separate and priced as purchased.  But without the platform, no library can access the content.

Steven Jobs introducing the iPadThere are a few issues up front.  This particular original contract was negotiated in 2006.  The Sony e-reader with e-ink had just been introduced.  The Kindle was one year away.  Steven Jobs probably hadn’t even dreamed his iPad dream yet.  Ebooks for iPhones were still two years away.  No one could have predicted the explosion in ebook adoption by the consumer public, let alone by libraries. 

But there is a reason that “may you live in interesting times” is a curse and not a blessing.  OverDrive has become the major supplier of ebooks and downloadable audio to public libraries.  Unfortunately for OverDrive, it is human nature for people to take shots at whoever is out in front, and in the public library digital market, they are it.  To add fuel to the proverbial fire, public libraries are facing the perfect storm of record-breaking usage, heart-rending budget cuts, and an ear-splitting clamor for the digital services that OverDrive represents, with no human, technical or monetary support in sight.  For many libraries, ebooks represent another “do more with less” scenario, just with a higher profile.

On top of all of this, platform fees are very strange beasts.  When a library subscribes to a database for a year, the database license fee includes both access and content.  When the subscription stops, the access stops.  It may be expensive, but the concept is relatively simple.  In the case of OverDrive, the content is paid for separately from the platform, or access, fee.  So what does the platform fee buy?

The platform fee buys access to the content for library patrons, it buys access to the purchasing site so libraries can license additional content, it buys reports so the libraries can figure out what to buy and what not to buy, and it buys customer support for both patrons and libraries,.  And that’s where the questions come in.  Is the library getting value for money?  It’s not about the content.  Each ebook and each downloadable audiobook is paid as it is purchased.

At my LPOW, I handled all the digital stuff.  All the selection, all the purchasing, all the contracts, all the reports.  I’m also a user, but I read way more ebooks on my iPad than I listen to audio on my iPod, mostly because my car is 6 years old but the sound system is too good to rip out and the add-on AUX port just isn’t all that, even though I did add one.  Enough said. 

Overdrive Media Console PicFor patrons, using the library’s OverDrive site is easier than using NetLibrary–way easier.  Not to mention, there’s an app for most devices.  But comparative ease of use is a really low bar to get over.  And in two years of working with it, I didn’t see much change to the website.  There was a tremendous proliferation in the number of compatible devices–but that can easily be said to be a business necessity for OverDrive.  If it didn’t natively support the Android and the iPad by this point, how many libraries would have “just said no” in the past 6 months?  And how many libraries have had to explain to patrons how to email PDF documents to themeselves to use Bluefire?  Also, making changes to the patron interface is very high-touch on the part of OverDrive, and libraries pay for that, whether it is a good thing or a bad thing.  On the one hand, the library does not have to do the set up or maintenance, which is good.  On the other hand, the library can’t do simple changes for itself, either, like changing the loan period, or creating special topic promotional selections for the holidays, which is not so good, and adds to the cost.  On the third hand, (and yes, I know I’ve created a extra-terrestrial here), usage is up, up, up.  Usage equals access equals bandwidth.  At my LPOW, we had more than tripled bandwidth for all of our internet usage in less than three years, and that cost money.  At the same institution, OverDrive is now used twice as much in one month as is was in three whole months when the service first started.  The additional bandwidth usage on their end has to get factored in somewhere.

New York Times Best Seller List PicAnother part of what the platform fee pays for is the platform that librarians use to send more money to OverDrive.  In other words, libraries pay for the right to spend more money.  The best thing that OverDrive could do would be to make it as easy as possible to spend more money.  But it isn’t all that easy, especially compared to the tools that we are used to using with print and AV vendors.  In fact, the purchasing process has gotten worse in the wake of the Harper Collins mess, because now Harper Collins titles must be searched and purchased separately.  But the purchasing side of the equation needs to be updated.  There are a lot of simple tools that could help this process, such as standing order plans for ebooks, and standing order plans for the 25 or 50 or 100 most popular authors, pre-publication availability, etc.  Or just an automatic plan to get anything that reaches the New York Times Bestseller List.  The tools we have available to get stuff available or upcoming on the print side needs to be replicated, because explaining to patrons is painful, as I wrote here not long ago.

Barnes and Noble NookThe other piece that libraries get is customer support.  Whether customer support is adequate or not is always in the eye of the beholder.  Ebook readers and iPads were the gift of this past holiday season.  The email I received from a colleague who had given her 95 year old mother a Nook and was requesting the loan period on ebooks be increased to 28 days because her mom couldn’t finish a book in less than that (and 28 days is the standard loan period for a print book at that library) told me that ereaders were in the hands of a population that no one expected.  Most libraries have limits to their ability to support the tech behind this revolution.  Between all of us at my LPOW, we could figure out a lot of things, but if a patron had a problem downloading to a Palm Treo, we were collectively out of experts, and we called OverDrive.  A smaller library would have a smaller pool of in-house users, experts and converts to draw on, but might need just as much customer support, and might have just as many, or more, patrons going directly to OverDrive. 

There has to be a better way to make this work.  Providing ebooks and other downloadable content is one the fastest growing services that public libraries provide.  As the price of ereaders continues to drop, as more and more people use smartphones instead of landlines, reading on a mobile device is going to penetrate even more of every library’s service population.  If we don’t get on this bus it will leave us behind. 

But it would be better if we drove the bus.  Or at least, had a chance at “backseat driving” this bus.  For other materials that libraries purchase, we have choices about where to spend our money.  There are two major book jobbers, not one.  And there are several in the next tier.  There are multiple vendors who provide AV material, who also must compete for the library business.  Only in the online spaces do we end up in the position where we have to negotiate for the “best one of one”.  Even if that “one” were very, very good, competition for our business would make it better for everyone–for the vendor, for the libraries, and for our patrons.