The many futures of e-reading

Future arrows

Back in August, I blogged a bit about the current state of e-books, especially with regard to libraries. However, the future of the e-book is diversifying, and several companies have begun testing new ways of marketing e-books. Some of these methods are intended for direct marketing to consumers rather than through libraries, meaning that libraries will be seeing even greater competition for providing e-books to patrons:

First, let’s look at Oyster, a company whose service has been termed “the Netflix for books.” Their idea is to court publishers into offering as many titles as possible, and sell that access as a monthly subscription to their customers, anyone using Apple mobile devices. Oyster offers access to e-books from its library on an unlimited basis, and has some large publishers backing them: Houghton Mifflin, HarperCollins, and SmashWords (a large self-publishing company). They have also tied in readers advisory functionality, social media and privacy settings.

Following in their footsteps is Scribd, with a similar unlimited-use service with a monthly subscription. Claiming to be the largest global digital library, their service is slightly less expensive than Oyster, and shares a focus on mobile users (though they also have an Android app, which Oyster currently lacks). Scribd claims also to offer supplemental information to its readers: “Scribd’s extensive collection of user generated content also offers subscribers additional reading options that enhance and add a social element to the books they’re reading or have read. For example, after reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, readers can access papers analyzing the different characters in the book, a doctorate paper on tenement houses in Brooklyn, and even a study guide for the book.”

A third subscription option is eReatah, though they do not employ the unlimited use option. Instead, users pay monthly for a certain number of tokens (between two and four), and reading a book costs one token. However, with eReatah, you are permitted to keep the content you have purchased, even should you cancel your subscription. They are also using a powerful algorithm used by Netflix for making recommendations based on previous purchases, making it easier to find new authors or titles that readers might not otherwise have encountered.

For people who are interested in deals on e-books, there’s also services like BookBub, which notify you when an e-book has been steeply discounted (or offered for free) by many of the major vendors. Rather than spend the time perusing the online marketplaces, these services do the work for consumers.

More and more, vendors of library services are shifting toward a pay-per-use model, such as Freading and the Gale Virtual Reference Library. This model seems to be very attractive for libraries that have the resources to support the reading habits of their communities, but retain some of the issues of other models, such as the lack of ownership of titles. However, the cost per use is considerably less than the cost of a single copy of the material, so it can be seen as “micro-licensing” of a sort.

Finally, publishers often find themselves choosing platforms of preference, such as Overdrive3M Cloud Library or Axis 360. We’re pretty familiar with this model, though it seems like the one that makes no one perfectly happy (except the owners of the platforms themselves). They will remain around until a critical mass of e-reading consumers have sided with a different method.

Which future do you think is most likely?

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The e-ssentials of e-books

e-book

With the new look for the Maine InfoNet Download Library and the imminent update to the Overdrive Media Console app (bonus points if you are registered for the live webinar), it may be time to say a few words about e-books. (I am, of course, making the assumption that readers of this blog know what is an e-book, and why they are important to libraries.)

I’d be very hard-pressed to say anything particularly new or insightful on the subject, and even harder to say anything that won’t be rendered obsolete within a few months, except to make some very broad observations: there is a growing demand for e-books, the larger book publishers have reservations about selling e-books to libraries, and even librarians are finding ethical conundrums when dealing with e-books.

In many ways, e-books have become symbolic of the challenges facing libraries and librarians: an increasingly digital world where libraries are striving to meet demands despite tightening budgets and active competition from the private sector. In Maine, we’ve been very fortunate to have the Download Library (as supported by Overdrive to manage almost all of the technical hurdles), but then supporting patrons with their e-reader devices can be tough on smaller libraries with limited staff and technology training.

Many libraries are choosing a path forward. Some are trailblazing, such as the New York Public Library and the Douglas County Public Library, by negotiating directly with publishers. Most others are working with middleperson “aggregators” of e-books, like Overdrive, MyiLibrary, 3M Cloud Collection, and EBSCO eBooks (available through MARVEL!). Point is, it’s going to be hard for libraries not to do something about the trend toward e-books.

It’s not just libraries that are moving forward to the digital realm: education is facing a push to digitize textbooks due to the number of tablets among high-school and college students. It’s not hard to imagine how this trend will lift e-book demand even higher, as the generation of young digital natives grows into digital consumers. Not only that, but e-book readers will certainly result (and has, already) in more self-publication in e-book format.

Some have already imagined the “bookless” library, where each patron has his or her own tablet, and can browse, borrow, request and read everything in their library’s collection from anywhere. Others will forever maintain that the tangible collection can never be truly replaced. Where does your library fall on this spectrum, and how are you addressing the e-book question?