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A colleague and I are interested in finding out more about how students use library books before we follow the herd into investing a lot of money in e-book collections. The project is just in the beginning stages, but I did have a chance to look over some survey responses today. Numbers will have to be crunched before they mean anything, but at first glance I was struck by a couple of impressions.

  • Some of the things people mentioned as benefits of printed books are actually not attributes of library books. Being able to underline and write in margins appears to be an important benefit of printed books, but I'm afraid we actually frown on writing in library books. (I was pleased to see that one student, at least, wrote about copying sections of books before writing all over them.)  
  • Likewise, some of the things people asserted are benefits of e-books may not actually be true of library e-books. Buying a Kindle book is easy, and there is little question in my mind that it is easier to use articles found in a database than in print – because publishers let you save copies, print entire articles, and don’t require that you download specialized software before you can start to read. Not so with library e-books. They are not automatically easier than print. If we do start adding e-books, it’s likely that they will not only come with strings attached, but with completely different tangles of strings depending on the vendor and the license.  Eventually things may settle down, but for now everything about library e-books is complicated.  (So is finding a book on the shelf using the Library of Congress classification system, according to our students, so maybe it’s a wash.)

I was thinking about how complicated all this is when reading about the Department of Justice’s suit against trade publishers for colluding with Apple to give Apple a “most favored nation” status in setting the prices of e-books. Since that news broke on Wednesday morning, sixteen states have jumped on board. A similar investigation was launched last December by the European Union’s  Competition Committee.  In all of these cases, Apple’s role in price setting seems to be a key factor, rather than just the publishers’ interest in “agency pricing” – retaining control over the price of e-books. Over two years ago, Macmillan went to the mat with Amazon over agency pricing. Amazon made Macmillan’s books disappear for a few days, before grumpily agreeing to let them be sold under different terms.  Amazon had been dumping e-books on the market, selling them at a loss in order to reset price point expectations and sell Kindles.  

Meanwhile, another battle is brewing. Amazon wants bigger discounts from publishers, and in February when IPG, a distributor for small press publishers, pushed back, all of the e-book versions of their titles disappeared from Amazon – more than 4,000 titles gone instantly. (Gee, gives another meaning to the name "Kindle.")  Amazon's contracts with the “Big Six” publishers are also due for renewal, and there are rumblings that they are refusing to agree to Amazon’s new demands for much higher “co-op” (promotional placement) fees, which in a Salon article were reported to be 30 times higher than in the previous annual contract. This isn’t just e-books – this is all books from the largest publishers. Is Amazon ready to delist them all?  

I admit to mixed feelings about all this, of the “devil v. deep blue sea” variety. I’m not a fan of giving Apple an advantage over other booksellers, but Amazon seems much more ripe for antitrust actions than just about any company involved in the book business, and the reason publishers cut a deal with Apple was precisely to create a competitor for a company that was aggressively discounting e-books to give its Kindle (which uses a proprietary e-book format) market dominance.

On the other hand, it’s hard for me to have any sympathy for these publishers, all of whom have told libraries, one way or another,  to drop dead.

The academic book market is a different matter.  University and scholarly presses see a market in academic libraries, whose book budgets have shriveled in order to pay for crazy-expensive journals and databases. So now book publishers want to level the playing field by licensing packages of digital books to libraries. I have no idea where any of this is going, but the notion of actually curating a collection designed around the needs of students enrolled at a particular institution with a locally-developed curriculum is increasingly seeming a quaint custom, and book that aren’t packaged in electronic bundles may have an even harder time finding a place in libraries. Oh, and interlibrary loan may be a thing of the past, too. Many e-book packages don't allow that.

I have no idea what to make of all this, and no way of predicting the future. We’re living through a weird era where giant companies like Apple and Amazon, who don’t create knowledge but simply provide platforms for consuming it one app or download at a time, are hastening the demise of traditional publishing. Publishers are having a harder time explaining the value they add in an era when (as Clay Shirky recently put it) publishing isn’t a job, it’s a button. Academic books seem poised to go the big deal license route we went with journals, (even as open access publishing becomes an easier proposition with simple tools like PressBooks). And readers and the libraries they serve are wondering what’s going to happen next.

All I know is no matter what our project tells us about what students and faculty want from e-books, what we will actually be able to offer will be less than ideal.