ebooks, then and now

In doing some blog maintenance today, I found this draft from a year or so ago that for some reason I never published. While things have gotten somewhat better on the ebook front — more publishers are willing to sell to us, albeit often at extortionist prices and conditions — and certainly the process of downloading an ebook is miles better than it was when we first started offering them. But ebooks in libraries are far from the frictionless experience Amazon offers and will be forever, probably, and so the post still seems sadly relevant to me.

I tell them that it will get better. I apologize for not being able to deliver awesome service this way, the same way we can in other ways.

Rochelle Hartmann, Tinfoil + Raccoon, December 2010

Rochelle wrote those words about the situation with ebooks in public libraries a year and a half ago, which is approximately a decade in library tech time. Back then, perhaps we did think it would get better. Or perhaps Rochelle was putting on a brave face for the patrons, trying to be positive in the way we’re told we should if we are leaders.

Of course, it hasn’t gotten better. Not really.

Oh sure, you can read many (although not all) Overdrive ebooks on Kindles now (supposing that you are okay with being routed through Amazon — with all the attendant privacy problems that creates — in order to do so). There are many thousands more ebooks in the Wisconsin ebook catalog (11,911 in Adobe ePub format when I just checked; about 2900 ebooks are currently available to check out).

But if you work in a public library that contracts with Overdrive, you know that it will likely be a cold day in hell before we can “deliver awesome service this way, the same way we can in other ways.” Most of the Big Six publishers won’t sell their books to us as ebooks at all, or they’ll only do so for limited numbers of checkouts, or they’ll only do so at greatly inflated prices. None of them will let us loan their books unless we load them down with unwieldy digital rights/restrictions management software. Device makers won’t free up proprietary formats.

You thus find yourself more often than not saying to a patron, “Well, yes, that device might work with our ebooks, and there might be some ebooks available for you to check out.” But mostly you spend a lot of time attempting to explain the publishing industry to them, and file formats, and software requirements. Essentially, there’s a pretty good chance that if a patron asks about ebooks, what you’re going to have to tell them is no.

No, you can’t get ebooks from the library even though you have a card here, because you don’t actually live in our city limits.

No, you can’t get that ebook from the library on your Kindle because it’s not available in Kindle format.

No, you won’t be able to get that book from the library till probably next year some time, after it moves to the publisher’s backlist.

No, you can’t get that as an ebook through the library at all, because that publisher won’t sell to us. Yes, I know it says right there on Amazon that it’s available, but we can’t actually buy it and loan it to people.

It’s depressing. It’s discouraging. It’s not why I became a librarian, and I doubt it’s why any of you became librarians, either.

Sarah Houghton is breaking up with ebooks. Some of us never wanted to date ebooks in the first place. But breaking up with them now isn’t as easy dumping a bad boyfriend. For most of us, it’s going to be more like a long, drawn out divorce, the kind with property disputes and bankruptcy filings and custody battles.