There's a text version and 2 videos totaling 24 minutes below.
There’s a phrase that I use every now and then; “It’s like dancing on quick sand” and never was it more appropriate than right now in respect of the eBook arena. It’s almost impossible to get properly to your feet and on top of things before something else comes along and drags you down again. Unfortunately I also think that we’re in a situation where some of the people in the quicksand are trying to get out by climbing over other people.
Let’s look at the latest news. A new low cost eBook reader has been unveiled by txtr, a German eBook retail platform. It’s a 5” e-ink reader, running off standard AAA batteries that should last it for a year, it can be customised with different coloured backs and works using Bluetooth. The price? Estimated at £8. No, I haven’t missed any figures off there – I really do mean eight pounds. Amazon has also recently said that they don’t make money from selling the Kindles; they see their profits coming from booksales. They’re also going to be delivering the Kindle Paperwhite and Kindle Fire tablets towards the end of the month. Jeff Bezos told the BBC "We want to make money when people use our devices, not when people buy our devices"
Oyster, which is a new startup has raised $3 million in order to become the ‘Spotify of books’. It’s preparing a mobile app that will allow customers to get unlimited access to a library of books for a single monthly price. Their blog announcement is an interesting read, because everything that they say could also be said about libraries. Here’s a small example: “By moving from individual transactions to an access-based model, readers can explore and enjoy books freely; more like your corner bookstore than a big box retailer. This leads to a more fulfilling experience built exclusively on taste and relaxed reading.” Another thing that is really interesting about the Oyster option is that when everyone has access to the same library you can share experiences with your friends. They can read the same book at the same time as you without having to find it to purchase and read.
HarperCollins is launching a new global publishing system which will provide them with an infrastructure that allows them to maximise it’s catalogue of books, eBooks and apps. They want to focus on the content first, “thus enabling the flexibly to adapt to various formats depending on the needs of the business.” The publisher is putting digital products at the core of the publishing business, rather than as a bolt on.
I also read an excellent article from author Patricia Martin reported in the Huffington Post talking about the future of libraries in a digital culture. She had some interesting figures to share; in 2011 OCLC reported that library usage increased for 36 million Americans, and that 69% of Americans use public libraries. Moreover, 30 million Americans rely on libraries to find a job by offering CV writing classes, online job-search tutorials, free access to business databases like LexisNexis and unbiased financial information. A telling point that she makes is “Americans need help navigating a way forward -- whether it's to find work or explore a new career path. It's no wonder people are rediscovering their local libraries as a place to begin. That's why libraries need to innovate. Otherwise, they risk becoming an object of nostalgia -- the emotional step right before irrelevance.”
The final news item that’s caught my eye, and I assume has also caught yours is that Amazon is going to launch their lending service in the UK by the end of the month. Users of the Amazon Prime service (costing £49 a year) will be able to borrow a book for free every month. It’s no surprise that Amazon sell their readers at cost when the lending library drives 229% more in sales to backlist eBook titles. Authors who enrol in the Amazon Direct Publish program can earn as much as $2.29 per borrow, which cuts out the publisher from the chain rather neatly.
So what, if anything, does this all mean? I suspect that the short answer is ‘no-one knows’. However, there are lots of possibilities that abound, so I’ll throw in my viewpoint. I firmly believe that the existing model of publishing is unsustainable in the medium to long term, as I think HarperCollins has already discovered. There is an inexorable move away from print to digital, and while there are still many hundreds of thousands of books printed every year we are seeing the closure of bookshops and the increase in sales of digital copies. This is not going to change – does anyone think that we’ll still be mainly reading physical books 100 years in the future? Probably not. How about 50 years, or 25 years? There is going to be a tipping point and I don’t believe that it’s an if question, it’s a when. If we are to plan for a long term future for libraries we have to take this into account.
Meanwhile it’s perfectly clear that there’s also a change in the way in which we can read and purchase books, in exactly the same way that we listen to music. The Spotify service, where you pay £10 a month to listen to unlimited amounts of music means that there’s less need to buy it. If I can get the music that I want, when I want it and where I want it (and I can) £10 a month is a damn good price. Interestingly, I probably pay more for music now than I have ever done when I was buying CDs. I am happy to pay for a frictionless service that I don’t have to think about. Why shouldn’t something similar work for books? Why would I need to buy a book when I can read or re-read the sections that I want to over and over? I once had an English teacher and she said that her idea of heaven was to read a book, and then throw it away, knowing that if she wanted it again, she could get it immediately. Of course that model already exists – it’s called a library. If the book that I want is available, why buy it?
Of course at this point, we come to a parting of the ways. On the one hand, there is still the attraction of the artifact – we have grown up with the idea of possessing things, as we have done for hundreds and thousands of years. We proudly show off our bookshelves of titles, and they help us define who we are, and I still like to take a quick look through friends bookcases when I’m over for a visit. However, most of my books are boxed up in the garage, simply because I don’t have room for them. I believe that one of the most common tags on LibraryThing is ‘garage’ so I know that I’m not alone in this. My ‘special’ books however are in the house – not because I necessarily want to read them again, but because they are important items to me. They have their own history, not because they are books but despite the fact that they are books.
Are books – in and of themselves – important? Some people will say with an absolute certainty that they are. However, a book is really just an object. If they were that important we wouldn’t have so many remaindered bookshops available. I really think that one of the things that we need to do is to disassociate the feelings we have from the actual objects. If I go into a library which has thousands of books on my particular area of interest the American Civil War, of *course* the books are important to me! But are they really? Perhaps what’s more important is all of the information that is contained within them, together with the feeling of academic study and pleasure associated with using them going back perhaps decades. However, if I was presented with a library of books on say Physics, which holds no interest for me, I would have no interest at all. The subject matter is meaningless to me personally, and consequently the books are of no value to me. So is it *really* the books? Or is it something else instead?
A library is not, and should not be tied to books. Now, I know this isn’t going to go down well with a lot of people (I can think of several without even thinking), but I firmly believe it to be the case. If libraries had been tied to scrolls, or to manuscripts or to handwritten books they would have ceased to exist hundreds of years ago. But they have continued their long history because of the ability of the librarians to adapt to new situations. If libraries were tied to hardback books, the arrival of paperbacks would have been a death knell. They weren’t, and it wasn’t. Paperbacks simply meant that the library could contain more books (and information, data and knowledge) than was possible previously. The librarians and the library adapted, changed and continued. This is what happens. Technology changes things, but it doesn’t remove them. We’ll always have journalists, even if we don’t have daily paper newspapers, because what is important is the activity, and the results of that activity. The danger that we face is when people associate the library with the item or the artifact, and I see this time after time. If a library is equal to its collection of physical items, when those items cease to be important, the library will also cease to be important. If the purpose of the library is to create a collection, that collection must have meaning above and beyond the way in which the information is contained. Because really, what’s important is what is contained in the collection and specifically, how is that information going to be used for the benefit of society. How is the librarian, using the library as the medium, going to be able to work with their community, and how does the community in turn work with the librarian to create something within the library that improves that community? The library as a collection of books is a dead end – a very dangerous dead end. Now, I can already hear people saying ‘but the books are what our community wants’. I really think I’d want to question that statement;
let’s try testing that by saying ‘our community wants vinyl records’ or ‘our community wants video tapes’ or indeed ‘our community wants hand written books chained to walls’. On the one hand, that’s what we do want, because that’s what we know, and that’s what we’re familiar and happy with. On the other hand, the people who don’t want those things, or who want to look beyond it are excluded. Isn’t it the role of the librarian, through the use of the library, to offer something to all the members of the community? We are seeing fantastic work being done by Friends of groups and library activists, to say nothing of keen and impassioned librarians and library workers. However, councils throughout the land believe that they can get away with closing libraries. They are aware (certainly now, if they weren’t originally) that there are key groups who are going to fight them, but how loud are those voices? Individually, very loud. However, when you look at the community as a whole, is that still the case, I wonder. We cannot save libraries by doing more of what we have done in the past. We need to reach out into the community and attract those people who do not use a library, and in conjunction with the community, the entire community, create the resources that match their needs, and improve their lives. Of course, providing physical books is one very key element of that process (though how long it will remain key for I’m not entirely sure), but we have to look beyond the artifact to the activity and the results. We need, as Patricia Martin has mentioned, to improve and aid a community. This means letting the entire community work with us to provide the things they need – free access to computers, help with using eBook readers, appropriate training and assistance in many different areas. The library needs to be seen as a creative hub, full of ideas, excitement and above all, power. Because the power of ideas and the translation of those ideas into action cannot be over estimated. Instead of just explaining to someone how to read a book on a Kindle, perhaps we should also be pointing them to ways in which they can become authors themselves. Rather than explaining why searching blogs is a good idea, we need to offer to help them create blogs. Instead of giving a band some books on music maybe we need to offer them a place to play, to record their music and to advise them on how best to get promoted via different social media channels.
Many people will be aghast at this; I know, because I’ve met and talked with a lot of them. It’s fine to be horrified as an initial step, but I’d ask you, if you’re in that group – what exactly horrifies you? Is it a fear of something new, of being excluded in turn, or being lost or out of your depth? There is nothing wrong with any of these feelings – in fact I’d go so far as to say that they should be embraced, because it’s only when people are in an uncomfortable space that I believe they do their best and most innovative work. Perhaps the concern is that if libraries turn towards these activities we’ll fall between two stools, and will alienate the existing users and will not attract the new ones. As long as we are aware that is a danger, we can take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen. However, the dangerous thing is to do nothing, except try and preserve what we already have. This will not work, because the old saw that ‘libraries are a good thing’ doesn’t work in our society at the moment. The only people who will fight for the library are the ones that use it, and those numbers are simply not enough. We have to demonstrate much more widely to a wider group of the community that a library, staffed with professionals can improve society. We can only do that if we improve our libraries, not save them. Surely the mission, if we have one should be to assist the communities that are being battered and destroyed? To help people get back on their feet and provide them with the means and the knowledge that they need to get new jobs, or start new enterprises? We cannot do that by simply offering books. We have to do it by our actions, by reaching out to these people and showing them just how powerful knowledge can be. That way the library – by appealing to a larger group within a community stands a better chance of not just existing, but thriving.
Now, a while ago I mentioned that we’ve come to a parting of the ways, with people perhaps finding out that the physical item isn’t quite as important as it once was. On the other hand, there are still many people who want to purchase items, be they books of a physical nature, downloads to their ereaders, MP3 files or films via iTunes for example. This is certainly what publishers are hoping for, and indeed they’re pretty much betting the farm on it. Publishers have worked for centuries using an excellent model that’s always worked. It’s understandable that they want to continue using that model, because it feels safe. However, they’re also very much aware that it’s not going to last that much longer, which is why they’re scared. Make no bones about it – publishers can see that their profits, based on physical ownership may start to drain away. They are looking around at the moment for someone to blame, and libraries are an easy touch. Personally I’d be more likely to blame supermarkets for discounting books by insane amounts of money, but maybe that’s just me.
It’s perfectly clear that the price of eReaders is dropping like a stone, as I mentioned earlier. When I was a teenager my parents bought me a tape cassette player for one Christmas, and it cost about £80. All it did was play tapes and let me listen to the radio. A calculator cost a ridiculous sum of money, way out of the reach of most people. I could go on, but you get the idea. We have politicians attempting to define how a library should work, and how it should present and promote eBooks based on the current costing of eReaders, and I have been told that they are so expensive, only the rich and middle class can afford them. This isn’t even the case now, and it will be less the case in the future. I also wonder sometimes why there’s all the fuss over eReaders anyway, when I can – and do – read books on my smart phone, my tablet device and my desktop as well as my Kindle.
Publishers are so scared of libraries that they don’t even want to talk to us. Now, if you want to view that negatively, it means that a library, the librarian and the library authority are powerless. I prefer to view it in a rather different light, since I believe that librarians are powerful people, and libraries are places of power. Feel free to hear some mystical music welling in the background for a few moments if you want! Far from causing publishers problems, we can help the publishers achieve their goals. If you read eBooks, you read more, you buy more. That’s what Amazon is basing their entire sales pitch for the Kindle on. A library is not going to take sales away from a publisher, it is going to increase sales. Libraries have always done this in the past and they will continue to do so in the future. It doesn’t matter if the book is physical or digital, because people will always want to read, and they’ll always want to read favourite authors and explore new ones.
Librarians are perfectly placed to assist in this process. This is the value that we have – not just in providing titles in the first place, but by helping provide new and appropriate material in the future. We are able to promote titles, shine a light on lesser known authors, help people discover new genres, identify challenging works, thoughts and ideas. What our members will get is exactly what they don’t get from Amazon’s Kindle Lending library. As professionals, we are able to do so much more for our communities than they, or the Oyster offering will ever be able to do. In fact, I don’t see these initiatives as a threat to a library service in the slightest. Rather what they are doing is making it obvious to people that a lending/borrowing model is a good idea. Instead of paying £49 to Amazon to borrow one free book a month, maybe the idea of borrowing unlimited numbers of books from my library – for nothing – is an even better deal.
However, in order for this to happen, two things must occur. First of all, the publishers need to realise that we’re on the same side – that is, the reading side. We both flourish when people read, and we both wither when they don’t. It’s got nothing to do with the physical item at all – as long as the right titles are available. A reduction in book budgets means less books, which makes libraries a less tempting prospect, I get that, and it’s quite right. So what we must do it work with publishers to look at entirely different models, in order to get more people reading. The more they read, the more they want to read. Publishers deserve a return on their product, and authors deserve a return on their work. However, there’s no point in publishers saying to libraries ‘this is the model you have to conform to, like it or lump it’ when there are competing models out there – the Kindle idea, the Oyster concept being the obvious examples. They will not help publishers achieve their goals, but libraries can. We all need to think laterally and look at different approaches, and there are many of them. That’s the first thing, and that’s the one that’s hard for the publishers. The second thing, which is hard for the libraries, or rather the staff and users of the libraries, is to begin to wean ourselves off the physical model being the only model. A book is a book, regardless of physical or digital. ‘Pride and Prejudice’ has the same power and provides the same enjoyment for me irrespective of reading it in a hardback, paperback or digitally.
This suggestion was met with horror by one politician that I talked to. He said ‘well, if we move to putting all the books online we could get rid of all the branch libraries and just have a few central libraries scattered around the place – is that what you really want?’ That only holds weight if you define a library by a very narrow criteria – as a collection of books. This is the clear and present danger that we have – we must rise above the association with the artefact, and – as I’ve said – concentrate on the activities and results of those activities and the improvements we make in our communities. A library must be – has to be – more than a collection of books. That’s what we’re all saying – the professionals, the activists, the Friends of groups. We are saying that a library is a key part – in fact central to the community. An attack on a library is an attack – not on the books, but on that community itself. So we need to look laterally as well, beyond the books, and into the ways that we can work with the community, and how we can not just save libraries, but improve the libraries, and as a direct result, improve ourselves and our communities.
We are at an absolutely pivotal point within both our profession, and within the library service in the UK. I recently talked to an ex-librarian who has since left the profession, and she said ‘I’m glad I got out, we’re finished’. That is so patently not the case it’s painful. This is a superb time to be a professional, or to have a love of libraries, of reading, books and knowledge. This is because we are going to be able to shape the development of all of those things into the future. What we do now is going to set a pattern for the next 50 or 100 years. We just need to believe in the power that the information professionals have, and the key role that libraries play in society. But – and this is a big but, we can only do it if we all work together, because it’s only by holding out our hands to one another in trust that we can help drag ourselves out of the quicksand, rather than push each other under faster.