Enlarging the eBook supply

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There has been a campaign by members of the Canadian library community to ask international publishers to reduce prices to libraries for eBooks.  If my experience in the scientific publishing arena is any guide, the publishers will continue to charge the maximum they can get until the marketplace — that is us — forces them to change or get out of business.

This does not mean that the campaign is without merit. I just feel it needs to be augmented by some explorations of alternatives that could lead to a different ecosystem for writers and readers, possibly without traditional publishers.

Where am I coming from?

  • I am a retired university professor with a number of techinical and scientific books to my name over a long period. Oddly the first published, in February 1979, is a computer book that is still in print on real paper. All the others have gone out of print and I have put those for which I could generate an e-version on archive.org.
  • Since retiring in 2008, I have published a traditional book with Wiley. The royalties were pitiful, and the publisher had deigned to ignore requests to fix the web-site. However, I believe they are still selling the book, though I’ve not had any reports. If it was worthwhile, I’d ask a lawyer to prod them. However, I know the amounts involved are much, much less than any fee a lawyer would charge.
  • I’ve also written four novels as well as many shorter pieces, and am one of a collective that has published three creative writing anthologies. My novels are all epub versions and I have put them on obooko.com. They are freely available for individual readers.

How does this help libraries?

First, I’d be really happy if libraries where my novels are of local interest would make them freely available. There are clearly some minor costs to doing this, but we are talking of a few tens of dollars in labour to add a web-page and a link or two, and some cents of storage cost. I offered my first novel, which involves Ottawa, to the Ottawa Public Library, but was told I would have to pay an external (indeed US) company for the DRM to be applied. But I offered an unlimited number of downloads! Is it surprising that I went to archive.org and obooko.com? And the library has fewer offerings for its readers, but also I miss out on local readers being offered my work.

Second, I believe there are other authors whose motivations are not primarily financial who may be willing to offer their works in a similar fashion. My own motivations are to record anecdotes and events not otherwise easily accessed, if at all. I put these in a fictional shell to provide readability and structure. Given that obooko.com seems to be doing reasonably well, though some of the offerings are less than stellar, there are clearly other authors willing to make their works available to readers.

Third, there may be authors willing to offer their works for free for a limited time to allow initiatives by libraries to be tried out, even if they do want or need to be remunerated eventually.

What about the longer term?

DRM imposes considerable costs on both libraries and readers. Whether it protects authors can be debated. Its main damage is that it cedes control of works from authors and readers to foreign, often very greedy, companies, whose interests are not in creative works but in selling software systems. Worse, it only really protects the income of those companies. All DRM schemes are breakable, though they are always a nuisance.

Some workers talk of “social DRM” or watermarking. I believe this could be a useful tool. The borrower/buyer is identified on the work. I have done this with my books in the past, using a scheme developed to put a name on each page of student examination papers so each student had a unique paper. This avoided the need for strict invigilation, since copied answers could be wrong. In an ebook, the idea could be enhanced with invisible encoding of the name (steganography). However, each additional feature is another cost, another obstacle to getting the work to the reader. And no scheme is unbreakable.

Publishers now insist on “renewal” of the license for an eBook. The library may not get a “reference” copy. Personally, I believe one of the important roles of libraries is to serve as repositories of works. A single disk can store an awful number of eBooks, so the cost is small. As a possibility, reading the archival copies could be restricted to in-library access only, but users would have a chance to verify material for study and reference purposes. Audiobooks require more storage, and are less easy to use for reference purposes, but could be similarly archived, as the audiobook reader’s voice may be of interest.

For a sustainable writer-library-reader system, there does need to be a way to reward writers. The current scheme, with DRM, counts downloads. This is costly to libraries. How many times have you abandoned a book after a few pages? This might be overcome with some sort of sampling mechanism providing more material than currently offered as a “tease”.

If eBooks are available in unlimited quantities, authors could actually benefit more. There are often temporary fads or surges of interest, or else book club members all want to read a title. At the moment, I know some club members will decide not to bother with a given book, or will find ways to “share”. Clearly, libraries will not want to have open-ended costs, but it is likely that works will be temporarily popular. As I understand things, traditional publishers  allow a fixed number of borrowings, so there is in essence a per-borrowing charge. In effect this is infinite for a never-borrowed work. Those of us in the non-traditional community who still want some reward might be happy with a smaller per-borrowing reward, and may also be willing to accept a cap or a per-year maximum or some similar arrangement that still keeps costs lower for the library.

My view

I want my work read. Readers want choice and diversity. Libraries want to grow the community of written work. It is time to think out of the DRM box.

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