Libraries: future shock

authors and libraries

Authors and libraries

Are libraries on the endangered list? Not to my way of thinking.

In my last post, I had touched upon the origins of writing and authors. I had wrapped it up by suggesting that libraries will continue to play a vital role in the universe of literature.

It would be a serious mistake to conform to the prevalent attitude that they are no longer relevant, just because you have your ebooks and print books out on Amazon and CreateSpace.

Just keep in mind that all through the odyssey of literature since that first author wrote his first book, these institutions have played probably the single most vital role in book discovery and the progress of literacy.

I don’t think I am mistaken in the impression that after some serious and premature obituaries, libraries around the world are beginning to look like they will not just survive, but enjoy a robust resurgence. Ebooks have ignited a renewed interest in reading, and who better than these institutions to serve that interest? We are heading for a brave new world, and you the author should be there.

What can we do?

I have no practical advice for you on what you can do to take advantage of libraries. I am rather confused about how authors and libraries can tie up with and benefit from each other over the long term, at least in terms of the ebooks the authors write. There are too many technical and (selfishly) commercial aspects involved.

As I see it, the basic problem is this: unlike a print book, an ebook does not become the property of the buyer. When you “buy” a Kindle, Nook or Kobo ebook, you are really “borrowing” it. You can read it any amount of times, but that is about all you can do, other than letting others read it on your reading device.

You can lend, sell or give away your print book. But can you do that with an ebook?

No. As a typical example, here is an extract from Amazon’s “Kindle Store Terms of Use“:

Limitations. Unless specifically indicated otherwise, you may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense, or otherwise assign any rights to the Kindle Content or any portion of it to any third party, and you may not remove or modify any proprietary notices or labels on the Kindle Content. In addition, you may not bypass, modify, defeat, or circumvent security features that protect the Kindle Content.

In other words, the only thing you can do with the digital book you buy is read it.

What can libraries do?

The primary purpose of libraries is to allow access to publications. How are libraries going to “lend” ebooks they don’t own? I hear talk about ebook publishers allowing libraries a certain amount of “lends” for a given sum of payment. This is like a lease, where the lessee—the library—periodically renews the lease with fresh rental payments; rather incidentally, the lessee can also sub-lease. The ownership aspect (permanent transfer of title and rights) simply does not exist here. The paradox here is that the lessor—the ebook publishing platform—is not really the owner of the property. In this whole arrangement, the rightful owner—the author—is shunted out in such a way she can neither lease out the property herself, nor can she exert the slightest influence on the exchange between the lessee and the lessor.

Given that scenario, why would libraries bother? They are used to working with a system that

  • allows them, forever, to buy all ownership rights to a book with a one-time payment;
  • allows them to lend that book any number of times to any number of borrowers; and
  • allows them to dispose of that book in any manner they choose and at any time, by selling it, destroying it or storing it.

While on this subject, I note that publishers—print or digital—have a history of denying the rights, to the maximum extent possible, of the various other actors involved: authors, readers, libraries, you name it.

Obviously, if libraries don’t bother with ebooks, authors lose access to a very potent tool for spreading the word about their works.

Let’s consider the practical aspect first.

To be inclusive, a library needs an access system that allows borrowers to read any ebook available in the library on any reading device. It is going to be a nightmare coordinating with the Kindles, the Kobos and the pdbs, mobis and epubs. The big positive I can think of straightaway with such a system is that the problem of “late returns” and “no returns” can be eliminated. In reality, there would be no need for readers to “return” ebooks borrowed from a library. The system’s programming would automatically shut down access after a reasonable period.

Yet, for all the practical difficulties, this is a doable project. Some day soon, there will be deliverance.

Recent developments

Just a parting thought: can libraries become publishers themselves? That would be an ideal way for them to encourage local and regional authors. This is not my brainwave; I recently read about a library in Tennessee that has collaborated with IngramSpark to set up an in-house publishing platform. The books published, both print and digital, available in that library and in any other library that takes an interest.

I find the idea fascinating. I think it will catch fire.

I also find it fascinating to think of a situation where I can “borrow” any amount of ebooks from my local library for a nominal, periodical fee that would work out to a teeny fraction of what I would pay for “buying” those books from Amazon or Nook. When it comes to “buying” books, I would rather buy print versions, because in terms of the pride of possession, digital is like making love to a ghost, while print is the real thing.

And as someone who is working hard at being an author, I would love to have my books introduced to countless new readers in libraries across the world, even if they don’t actually “buy” my books. If they just “borrow” and talk, the sales will come. Of course, I intend my books to be worth talking about.

Stay alert

That is what you can do.

My guts tell me the library-ebook-publisher tangle is going to get sorted out, sooner rather than later, and when that happens, there is going to be a stampede for ebooks. I intended to get in the way of that stampede.

Libraries and subscription sites like Scribd are going to be right up there, catering to that stampede.

How about you? Where do you stand on print books, digital books and libraries? Like me, do you think all the noise about the pending demise of these august bodies is much ado about nothing?

Libraries: future shock

by Venkatesh Iyer time to read: 5 min
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