The Time Has Come to Expand the Scope of Conflict for eBooks

The time has come to expand the scope of conflict for ebook issues. What does that mean? It means that we, people who care about ebook issues, need to organize about ebook issues on a larger scale than just the issues surrounding libraries. The effort that has gone into ebook issues over the last few years has been impressive, unfortunately the results have not (I am not finger pointing). One of the reasons is that, while we love libraries and believe firmly in their place and purpose in the world, many do not, which makes libraries and ebook issues a narrow interest topic.

We know that there are issues related to ebooks that have nothing to do with libraries. For example that you don’t own your ebooks, you lease them, that you can’t loan them at all or can’t loan them easily, that you can’t switch platforms (without some possibly illegal hacking of your books) for no other reason than corporate greed. These issues apply to an increasing number of ebook readers (as of April 2012 20% of Americans had read and ebook), but not all of them are using library ebooks for a number of reasons.

Libraries have partnered with interest groups and other organizations on many issues over the years. It is time to do this with ebooks.  I’m not sure ALA should lead this initiative, or libraries for that matter. Should libraries be a partner? Absolutely, we are powerful partners on many issues,  but because this is larger than a library issue the organization or interest group or advocacy group or whatever you want to call it should lead the charge on ebooks issues, of which libraries are one facet. Can we lead and spearhead this issue? Probably as long as we are willing to tackle the big picture and remember that libraries are one aspect of that.

I’m thinking something like (which is already taken btw, I checked) that provides factual information in a way that consumers can understand – think short bullet points. Of course backed up with pages of data. Something like

The Truth About eBooks

Fact Sheet

  • You can’t loan your ebooks
  • You can’t change platforms without rebuying your entire library if you want to move from a Nook to Kindle or vice versa
  • Publishers are preventing libraries from buying and loaning ebooks or charging them 300% times the cost of a print book (there would obviously be a page on the site demonstrating the value of libraries and ebook using some of the great reports out there.

That’s it short, easy, factual, and a little scary.

I would also include a way for people to contact their representatives, both in the national and state legislature about these issues and possibly their state attorney as well.

I would also leave all the “save libraries” rhetoric out of it. One – I hate that lingo as much as David Lankes does and two – there is no value for policy makers in hearing “in the public interest” rhetoric, give them facts.

So who should lead this? A librarian or librarians should get the ball rolling and be involved but not out in front. Too often when people see librarians out in front of library issues it appears we’re fighting to save our jobs and livelihood and not really working on larger issues (sorry but it is true).

Who should the partners be? Think BIG. Who else has a dog in the ebook fight or cares about ebook issues and rights? The Electronic Frontier Foundation, some publishers (O’Reilly comes to mind), some authors (Neil Gaiman comes to mind, as does Cory Doctorow) who else?

Don’t get me wrong we’ve been working hard on ebook issues but the truth is we’re gonna need a bigger boat.

14 thoughts on “The Time Has Come to Expand the Scope of Conflict for eBooks

  1. You are absolutely correct. Funny–I have been part of a book group for almost 18 years. Just a few weeks ago, at our last gathering, I mentioned in an offhand sort of way that nobody in the room owned that month’s book selection if it was purchased in digital format. That announcement was met with blank stares and confusion. Consumers are not thinking about this issue–they just don’t know that the same rights that apply to their purchases of print titles do not apply to ebooks. If they were thinking about it, they might become more interested. Framing this discussion as it relates to libraries only is a mistake. I love how you put it–we do need a bigger boat!


    1. yes! We need a call to action, advocacy and awareness on a MUCH larger scale! And by we I mean us, as book buyers, not librarians. Most people just aren’t aware of ALL the issue surrounding ebooks and I think would be disgusted if they were!


  2. I think I’ve been banging on about some of the broader issues with ebooks for as long as I can remember! Although this has been mainly focused on the Kindle to be honest…info pros/librarians, whatever we want to call ourselves, really need to be engaged in these broader concerns and try to steer the discussion. As with so many things that touch our profession, we are left complaining at the sidelines about how things affect us, without really engaging in the broader issues and trying to steer things in our favour.

    So, yeah, I think we do need to tackle the big picture. Maybe with some US/UK collaboration 🙂 I’ll be watching how this develops with interest! (And maybe chuck my two penny worth in!)


    1. Ian
      I absolutely agree with you about standing on the sidelines.

      I think many of us who have worked (fought, cried?) on ebook issues over the last several years as individuals have focused on the big picture. But it seems our concerted efforts as a profession have, well, focused on the professional aspect of ebook issues. I don’t think that is wrong, after all we are librarians, or library people and ought to be advocating for library issues. The problem is that doesn’t seem to be getting us anywhere or at least anywhere fast.

      If I had the time, and more importantly the funding, and resources to make this happen I would do it in heart beat. We must take this powerful step to solve ebook issues, because after all it isn’t just about libraries it is about digital rights and that effects everyone.

      I’d love to see a US/UK collaboration


  3. Check out Bookshout! app yet? It imports all your books so you can have access to both your kindle and nook (or other reader) library at once! Pretty cool.


  4. I should really have mentioned that myself and my colleagues in Voices for the Library here in the UK are currently putting together evidence for a Department for Culture, Media and Support review of ebooks in public libraries:

    The review seeks to explore:

    1. The benefits of e-lending.

    2. The current level and nature of demand for e-lending in English libraries, along with a projection of future demand. For example, will e-lending be in addition to traditional borrowing of print books, or is it likely to transform the way in which library users access services? What is the demand for downloading e-books remotely, that is, away from library premises? To what extent do owners of e-readers value public e-lending above what is freely or commercially available elsewhere?

    3. Current supply models, barriers to the supply of e-books to libraries, and likely future trends.

    4. Systems for remunerating authors / publishers for e-lending.

    5. The impact of e-lending on publishers and their business models.

    6. Any unforeseen consequences of e-lending. For example, the impact on those who cannot keep up with technology, the likely long-term impact on the model of highly localised physical library premises, skills requirements for librarians, etc.

    Obviously there are some differences between the situation in the US and in the UK, but if anyone has any evidence that might be helpful (particularly interested in the impact of ebook lending in terms of the broader library offering ie the impact on lending of print books), would be good if you could send it our way. I think that the experiences in the US could be very helpful in putting forward our evidence on each of the key aspects listed above.

    I hope Bobbi doesn’t mind me asking here, but if anyone does have any information that can assist our efforts, please contact Voices for the Library at


  5. Bobbi,

    Once again, you got me thinking. Below is an idea I’ve begun to share with opinion leaders in the library world. I’d like to know what you and your readers think of it.

    I’m a recent MLS graduate whose previous career was more than 25 years’ work in corporate marketing and communications, mostly for IBM.

    I believe that e-books are the single most important service opportunity and potential threat for libraries. The health and even survival of public libraries may depend on the resolution of the issue of access to e-books. I also believe that the key to achieving full access to e-books for libraries and our patrons is for librarians and ALA to think of and treat publishers and distributors as the business enterprises they are. Corporations change their behavior in response to factors in these areas:

    1. Financial — They seek to increase revenue or profit, reduce or avoid costs, and overcome threats to sources of revenue.

    2. Competitive and marketing — They seek to gain advantages over competitors, overcome new initiatives by competitors, increase revenue from existing customers, protect their current customer base, and acquire new customers by taking them from competitors or by opening new markets for their products.

    3. Legal and regulatory — They seek to follow current laws and regulations at the lowest possible cost, work to prevent new laws or regulations that would negatively affect financial performance or current competitive position, and overall try very hard to avoid litigation.

    4. Brand image or reputation — They try to establish a desired image in the minds of customers and prospects and they address internal and external developments that would damage that image.

    I don’t believe business management actually is that simple. My point is that ALA should be planning and acting strategically, on multiple fronts, to influence publishers’ and distributors’ behavior.

    For instance, ALA could help libraries do the following:

    1. Financial — Organize large collectives of libraries for buying BOTH e-books and printed books from distributors and publishers, particularly the largest publishers. These collectives could operate on a state, regional or even national scale, giving libraries much more bargaining power than they have today with publishers and distributors. They could tie the purchases of printed books to the pricing and availability of e-books. This alone would fundamentally change the relationship between libraries and publishers. We’re starting to see signs that some state library organizations and leaders may be interested in this approach.

    2. Competitive — Give preferential treatment in library promotion and outreach to books from publishers and distributors who provide full and easy e-book access for libraries and patrons.

    Meanwhile, ALA could act in the remaining two spheres, possibly in the following ways:

    3. Legal and regulatory — Identify the populations of citizens who are being denied reasonable access to e-books and determine if any of them does or could meet the legal definition of a class for purposes of a lawsuit. Explore a legal challenge to publishers’ and distributors’ treatment of libraries as an issue of civil liberties. After all, as I learned in SLIS at Indiana University, freedom to read is equivalent to freedom of speech. Groups such as the ACLU might be potential allies here. Finally, given the constraints that have been placed on libraries recently, should libraries seek special status — like that given to media companies — under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and/or under any state constitutions?

    4. Brand image or reputation — ALA should continue to praise publicly the publishers and distributors who are working to improve e-book access while criticizing those who continue to erect obstacles to full and easy access. But make ALA communications more specific, more frequent and broader in scope. For instance, on a weekly or monthly basis, ALA could issue a press release and place ads in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today listing the latest bestsellers that are not generally available for borrowing from public libraries because of pricing and other restrictions imposed by publishers or distributors. Even more could be done with coordinated efforts at the local level in social networking and public relations.

    The points above constitute a starting point for developing a comprehensive strategy. I’ve presented mostly negative (“stick”) tactics here. What’s missing are the “carrot” elements. A complete strategy to influence publishers’ and distributors’ behavior should also include positive tactics, such as offers of cooperation in addressing publishers’ business concerns or a new annual award given by the ALA to the publishing-industry executive who has done the most to advance the interests of readers in accessing e-content from libraries.

    The goal would be to make libraries a force truly capable of significantly affecting the business interests of publishers and distributors in both positive and negative ways.


  6. You have such a GREAT library blog! What a great layout and such incredible content! I’m doing some research on library blogs and want to mention you in an upcoming article. So really just stopping by to give you some kudos.

    Have a beautiful day!


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