Il blog di Antonio Tombolini

Ebooks and libraries, again?! Excuse me while I rant…


A recent pompous announcement heralded an innovation on a completely “global” level: BookRepublic will supply the ebooks of some publishers to MLOL (for an unspecified fee) which in turn will offer them to libraries (for another unspecified fee). This is the innovation, according to the press release:

Based on the agreement, more than 2,300 Italian libraries supporting the MediaLibraryOnLine (MLOL) platform will be able to lend ebooks distributed by Bookrepublic, and protected by watermarks (or Social DRM), to their patrons. And herein lies the revolution. If the “DRM Adobe” protection set limits for the users (in terms and time and supports), the so-called “watermark” no longer has these limits: each ebook will be watermarked with the lending library’s name and information regarding the user and download, thus enabling traceability of any improper use. Each qualified user will be able to download an ebook every 14 days. Once the copy has been downloaded, the book will remain busy for the next 14 days and can only be reserved by other users (unless the library has purchased several copies).

The only innovation, it seems, is the fact that it doesn’t use Adobe’s DRM technology. It’s a terrible technology, by the way, but it’s the only one up until now that can manage, on a enough devices, a limitation which in my opinion is essential to the very concept of lending: the time limit, in other words a duration. Without a predetermined duration, without a time limit placed on the use (and this applies to any type of good), there can be no lending. And anyone who deals with books should cherish the use of words.
But maybe I’m the one who’s limited, and I’m missing something here: so please, go ahead and convince me that you can have a loan without time limits, and I’ll run right to the bank to get one.
But the real distortion (harsh word, I know, but that’s what it takes) is something else: they’re proclaiming the arrival of a presumed (and phoney) global innovation, at a time when a completely unsustainable ebook lending model is being implemented and confirmed as the dominant model everywhere, starting in the US. The fact is that in the US it’s already beginning to fall apart, with publishers pulling out of their partnerships one by one. If this model is then applied to public libraries, as naturally occurs, spending public money (our money), in my opinion it becomes downright morally unacceptable.
I’ve tried to explain it a thousand times. I even explained it at the National Librarians’ Conference, apparently unquestioned and approved by everyone, and yet it’s no use – we continue down that road. OK, I’ll explain it all again for the umpteenth time.
Here’s what’s going on today in the US (Overdrive, first and foremost) and what’s also happening in MLOL, including the BookRepublic titles referred to in today’s announcement, including the Edigita titles, and including other platforms like MLOL that are preparing to supply ebooks to libraries:

  • The publisher, or the distributor representing several publishers, or the specialized platform for libraries that supplies the distributors (even this eventually …), goes to the library and says “look at all these nice titles I have in my catalogue, wouldn’t you like to be able to lend them out as ebooks?“.
  • Sure!“, replies the library, clearly trying to do its duty of procuring books for lending.
  • Well, the others continue, here’s what you have to do: just pretend like they’re paper books, tell me which titles you want and how many copies of each title you want, and then pay me a price for each copy. And while we’re at it, maybe you should even pay me in advance for a certain number of loans, let’s say twenty, that you pay for regardless of whether or not anyone ever requests that title“.

And let me say it again, just to be clear: we’re talking about public money!
There you have it, I think it’s just absurd. If I were the librarian, this is what I would say:
What do you mean Mr. Distributor? You provide your ENTIRE catalogue with ALL your titles to ALL the online bookstores, from Amazon on down, without asking them to pay anything, but you want money up front from me? Why is that? What am I paying for? To ensure that the library is forced, just like in the paper world, to predict the future, systematically risking to pay for titles nobody would ever want to borrow or, conversely, not buying enough copies of books that many people want to borrow at the same time? So just what advantages are there in going digital?“.
Here’s what we need to do with libraries:

  • Distributors integrate their systems with the libraries (or with the platforms representing the libraries, if they’re really necessary), just as they already did with online bookstores, allowing the libraries full access and full availability of an unlimited number of simultaneous licenses on all the titles available.
  • The library, just like the online bookstore pays only for the ebook that it sold at the time of sale, pays the distributor ONLY the agreed amount for each book loan when the book is actually borrowed.

That’s not so hard, right? And it would provide an effective solution to the economic unsustainability problems of the paper system. It would also reduce the constant waste of public money for things that nobody would ever ask for. But nobody does it. Not even us. Please forgive me, my librarian friends: you were all there applauding me at your conference, because of course it had to be this way, but then quick to accept the diktats of the various distributors and platforms, forcing their conditions on you, and for which you take responsibility to allocate public money completely unnecessarily.
And now everyone’s cheering hooray because Hey! Hey! What d’ya know!, users can download an ebook for free every 14 days and it doesn’t even get deleted from the ereader (meaning: anyone who actually buys the ebook is clearly a fool).
This is why we’ll only get moving with STEALTH, distributing our publishers with the libraries, if someone decides to accept the pay-per-rent model, making public libraries pay (with our money!) only and exclusively a (very limited) amount for each individual loan they actually make. Thus the library will not have to spend (public) money to “buy” ebooks that nobody will ever want to borrow, nor will it have to refuse to lend a title because “we didn’t buy it” or because (so ridiculous!) “it’s already on loan” to another user.
But that’s not enough: we’ll start taking action only and exclusively under a parity plan. Let me make it clear: as long as libraries accept the procedures that have already been implemented, like those by Edigita and BookRepublic, paying them a certain amount for every title acquired “regardless” (something that Edigita and BookRepublic wouldn’t even dream of requiring from any for-profit online bookstore!), and paying for a number of loans “regardless“, we will not make any of our publishers’ titles available to the libraries. Or we’ll make them available only to those libraries that refuse the other model, finally starting to seriously fulfil their role as a public institution.
But that’s still not enough, dear friends of BookRepublic and MLOL: I don’t have to explain to anyone what I think of Adobe’s DRM, I hate them. They’re illogical, poorly done, and seem to be made to stop normal people from reading ebooks. I’ve been writing this since 2005, when many of you had very different ideas about ebooks than you have now, fortunately. Having said this, I’m now even less inclined to put up with the demagoguery of the so-called Social DRM used haphazardly so often: if we ever decide to make our publishers’ ebooks available for library lending, under the terms outlined above, well those ebooks (which we sell almost entirely WITHOUT DRM, as you all know) would have to be provided with timed DRM for the library loan, designed to limit the time of use of the file to the actual duration of the loan. (For now it’ll have to be Adobe DRM, since they’re the only ones available, but anything better would certainly be appreciated.) Without the timed DRM it’s impossible to understand why on earth publishers should supply a loan channel alongside a true sales channel.

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Il blog di Antonio Tombolini