EBooks, The Long Tail, and Longevity

This is what we're talking about, without realizing we're talking about it.

Just minutes ago I saw the article come through from Library Renewal on the ever expanding cost and serious problems with libraries buying ebooks, and I couldn’t resist chiming in.  The author makes a few good suggestions like working toward better negotiation for price points and breaking away from letting the vendor also be the digital host.  Those two things would go a long way to making this a better situation for everyone, especially the cash strapped library who has an exponentially increasing demand for digital books.  But there’s a lot more to this story.

The Long Tail

The most valuable asset for any library is its collection, and something that we have known for a very long time is that certain items will trend in popularity during different seasons and during times when society pushes the issues at the heart of that item to the forefront.  An author’s birthday, a 50th anniversary of a classic children’s book, new information on an old story, all of these factors drive people to go back and look for older works.  Where publishers and booksellers capitalize on the new, the library is in it for the long haul.

Chris Anderson wrote “The Long Tail” in 2006, but libraries had known the power of a backlist for centuries.  But what Chris is looking at is how digital trends, and search engine functionality is driving people to rediscover older content more frequently. Case in point, this blog.

I began this blog in June of last year.  And one of the wonderful aspects of WordPress is that they give you some fabulous statistics.  I usually post one article a week, if I’m being good, but I was incredibly busy for the last couple weeks.  And still my blog gets hits, daily.  Just look.

The orange block is the last post I wrote and that was on February 22nd. Note I still have traffic every day, usually about 20 hits.

I know that this isn’t a terribly popular blog.  But traffic is driven to this site every day, usually through some incredibly interesting Google searches.  People search for things, and they get intrigued by the blurb in the search engine results and they come here. Even if I’m not generating new content, that old content is still there, being indexed, searched, and served up to new readers all the time.

But let me show another really important illustration of how the Long Tail really works.  This is my stat chart on the article about which publishing companies supported SOPA.

That first block when I originally wrote the article back in December got 20 hits. On January 18th, during the SOPA blackout protest my article on publishers got over 300 hits, and it slowly ebbed out again. But I still get hits on that article today.

Why do I bring this up?  Because this is the fear that publishers have when they think about libraries buying ebooks.  They look at the long tail and think “OH GOD, they’ll never buy another copy of this book ever again! If people can perennially borrow this book from the library they’ll never buy that book from us!”  There are two glaring flaws in this argument.  1) Publishers don’t want to sell old books and 2) Software changes too rapidly.

Out Of Print

Publishers have never wanted to be in the business of continually reselling every book they ever released.  It’s just way too much hassle, for too little turnover.  The money is in selling new works, at high prices, preferably with enough marketing hype to ensure that they’ll sell multiple printed runs of things.  And once they’ve milked that cow, they kill it.  This is the process of taking a book “out of print.”  The maximum shelf life of most books is a matter of months, at most a year.  If you’re really, really lucky then maybe you have a run for a decade through a hardback, to trade, to mass market paperback success.  But most are not that lucky; those unfortunate works get remaindered and go off to a farm in Virginia to live out their days.

So, libraries and secondhand bookshops have always been there to collect those works that we recognize have a perennial appeal beyond that initial marketing glut.  People want to go back and find those things.  There may be a sale to be had out of it, and good secondhand booksellers know how to work that market.  But what people want to read is not always what people want to buy, and that’s where libraries are king.  For that niche academic work on racial bias in public swimming pools, or that 15th novel in a series that’s 30 books deep, the library is the place to find those things.  For a publisher to assert that libraries are stealing ebook sales is like saying that secondhand bookstores and remainder piles are stealing book sales.  Just because someone finds that book and wants to read it does not equal a lost sale.  Sometimes it is just the reverse, that once they’ve read the library copy they’ll want to go out and buy the book.  I would be curious to see numbers on libraries who do Amazon partner programs and see how reading library books translates into sales.

But there’s something even more serious in this conversation that was just hinted at in the Library Renewal article.

Software Patents and File Formats

EBooks are both a new thing, and an old thing.  They’ve only been around in their current incarnation for about five years.  But there have been attempts for the last 60 years.  Only recently though has there been an active push by the publishing industry to capitalize on ebooks and make a good solid run of it.  But the thing that no one is talking about is the rapidity at which we blow through operating systems, develop new software, the whims of both developers and consumers in what tech they buy.

Here are some important numbers.  Software patents last 20 years.  New operating systems come out from major companies every 3-5 years.  Amazon has released about 8 different models of the Kindle since it originally launched in 2007.  It’s only a matter of time before file formats (.AZW) at Amazon start changing so that they can reset the clock on their software patents.  Apple has released a new iPad every year since 2010.  Now Apple also has its own proprietary ebook format the iBook (.IBA).  This issue of changing file extensions is directly related to the 20 year software patent.  Did you notice that Word documents started to have .docx extensions all of a sudden a few years ago?  Yeah, software patents are about to expire on Word and they pushed out a new proprietary file format that they could turn around and sell for a few hundred bucks a pop.

Now, there is an open standard, .EPUB.  It’s based on HTML5 now and is compatible with all the browsers that matter.  So it doesn’t even need a special ereader device, just a web browser.  But each of these companies is banking on their proprietary format.  And that format will expire, and they’ll build a new one, and then we’re starting to talk about devices that aren’t backward compatible.  Because you know that will happen.

How does a library maintain a back title collection when we are talking about software that may not be relevant in the next five to ten years?  Unless we’re talking about having some kind of agreement for forward compatibility, which is certainly not the direction that these companies are moving, we need to be banking on universal standards like EPUB.  Nothing that we buy outside of that has any guarantee of longevity at all, and even that may be questionable, but at least the standards are known.  And if we’re talking about 20 years for an ebook lasting in a library’s collection, that’s far less time than some of the books we already have in our collections. Academic libraries have books and periodicals going back well over a hundred years.  We can’t even fathom the nature of computing a hundred years from now.

So for a publisher to claim that library ebooks are going to cut into their sales does not understand the function of the library.  We are not here to compete with bookstores.  We are here to primarily supply the back titles for those users who seek works from the long tail.  And if libraries are only focused on getting ebooks, at whatever cost, we’re going to be forever chasing a shadow.  Software changes too rapidly, and tech companies are more interested in maintaining their profit margins than they are ensuring the longevity of products created for devices.  For them everything is ephemeral, and that is not where we should stake a claim.

When I went to the DPLA meeting last year it was my hope that that group, made of some of the finest minds in librarianship and internet culture today, would take a lead in working toward resolving this issue.  It doesn’t appear to be going that way, but I hope that it continues to be raised.  It’s a critical issue, and one that needs to have a powerful advocate from the world of library services who is in a position to make something happen.