Can There Be an E-Book Library?

The recent demise of the Borders book chain reminded this Kat once again of the ambivalent position of the consumer within the ecosystem of the book and magazine industries. Popular wisdom holds that the Borders chain failed because it did not adjust to changing reading (or non-reading) habits and the migration from physical books to the e-book platform. Whether Borders was simply a book company that lost its way (unlike, say, Barnes & Noble), or whether it is the canary in the coal mine of the ultimate demise of the physical book store business, is still being played out. The Nook e-book reader here has at least bought Barnes & Noble more time to test the ultimate answer to this question.

So how does the consumer of books fit into this? I was a Borders loyalist (I largely eschewed Amazon, since I hate to pay the delivery charges). This meant that, whenever I came to the U.S., I made a special effort to find the local Borders store in whichever city I found myself. I reckon that I purchased 5-10 books a year on that basis, although I admit that my usual pattern in the store was first to find the Specials tables and only thereafter to consider full-priced titles. In so doing, was I good for Borders and/or the book publishing industry? Did Borders fail because of, or rather, despite me?

Be that as it may, I like to think that, as a reader, this Kat is unequivocally in favour of supporting the content-creating industry. Aren't we taught that copyright is principally about providing incentives for the creation of more and more contents. But that is the rub--contents for whom, and at what price? As a consumer of contents, I want to obtain books as cheaply as possible, subject only to the unqualifiable psychic benefit that I may derive by walking throuogh a book store.

But I am also an author, and not a mass-market one to boot. Wearing that hat, I have both my own interests as an author and those of my publisher at heart. As such, the person I least want to meet is my cash-conscious alter ego as he careful paces along the aisles of Borders and its ilk. Say what you want to say, this is hardly a full allignment of interests between all of the relevant actors in the physical book ecosystem.

These ambiguities were brought home again by a recent report that appeared in The Wall Street Journal (September 12th) entitled "Amazon in Talks with Publishers Over Fee-Based Digital Book Services." The gist of the report is that Amazon is considering the launch of a service (described as "Netflix Inc.-like") whereby customers will pay an annual fee for access to online contents. Based on the report, Amazon would offer publishers "a substantial fee" for signing up to the program, which is described as "a library of content". Amazon may limit the number of titles that it will for free via the service.

As reported, however, publishers "aren't enthusiastic about the idea because they believe it could lower the value of books and because it could strain their relationships with other retailers that sell their books." The article goes on: "Publishing executives would rather have people buy their books, and they are concerned that participating in the program could create the impression among consumers that books have little inherent value."

Public libraries may be great in providing access to books (and thereby encourge reading and create a more knowledgable citizenry) for a token modest charge. However, a private form of online lending library, where the delivery platform is a source of revenue for the platform that has the affect of crowding out potential purchasers of the book themselves, seems to be less desirable, at least for the content owners.

Looking at this as a consumer, the plan seems attractive. After all, provided that the fee is not prohibitively expensive, it would seem to offer access to contents without having to engage in the repeated purchase of individual titles. For at least certain kinds of subjects, it is the contents and not the books per se that are of interest, and the plan seems to offer a nifty way of accessing such contents in a manner that favourably resonates with my experiences with libraries over the years.

But this distinction between contents and books must certainly be a nightmare scenario for publishers. It is not enough that they must contend with the challenge of finding a workable pricing model for e-books here. Now they face the threat that, for certain categories of titles, providing access to contents in the form of online lending, rather than ouright purchase of the book for display on an e-reader, will be the norm. Can the parties find a pricing model that satisfies all parties involved -- publisher, online distributor, and consumer? Stay tuned.

More on Borders here.
More on Netflix here.
Can There Be an E-Book Library? Can There Be an E-Book Library? Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Friday, September 23, 2011 Rating: 5

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