The Failure of E-Book Devices

The failure is not the technology. The capacity to download, store, and recall hundreds if not thousands of books is impressive. The ability to replicate the look of font on paper is incredible. Each generation of e-book devices is rapidly outpacing the previous incarnations with additional features such as internet browser, PDF support, wireless updates, subscription support, and multiple e-book file types. The technology in and of itself is grand and a true marvel of the modern times.

The failure is how the e-book reader companies do not consider libraries as a viable customer.

If you read the FAQs or Terms of Service for Amazon, Sony, Mobipocket, and Ebooks, there is a clear indication that you cannot lend an e-book to anyone. Ok, that's not entirely true, since Sony indicates that you can lend an eBook to a friend (gasp!) so long as they are an authorized user of your account (Awww!). Sure, you can authorize a friend, but if you are someone who passes around books to all your friends and family, this becomes an onerous exercise in authorizing and de-authorizing just to share a reading gem. Also, it makes the lending of a Sony Reader with eBooks a circulation nightmare for a library under those 'guidelines'.

Mobipocket stakes dangerous territory by saying that you cannot lend an eBook but you can lend the device. Since they don't make any readers, this could possibly put them at odds with the companies that do make devices that they support. (I'm sure Cybook and iLiad might beg to differ, but I digress since I can't find their positions on it.) This makes the use of Mobipocket books a big no-go for libraries. eBooks mentions that it uses robust software to ensure that only the legitimate owner of the eBook can read it. While it does not outright prohibit lending, it sure as hell probably works to stymy it. I smell a terms of use violation buried somewhere in there like a leftover World War II ordinance in a French farm field. Thus, the libraries are usurped once more.

Out of all of these devices and shops, Amazon has the most frustrating position. With the Kindle, there has been much discussion about whether or not you can lend one. The current Amazon stance is the equivalent of a wink and a nod that you could lend one, but it's against the terms of service. While my first reaction was admiration of shrewdness, it has since evolved into insult. Did Amazon really think that a libraries would not be interested in offering this device to their patrons? Either they are terribly short sighted as to their market or just plain inconsiderate that the well established institution of the library would love to offer a new medium for people to borrow materials.

This simply cannot stand. If this is a product of the electronic industry getting into the publishing business, they need to wake up and smell the pulp. Libraries are not your average customer and we should not be treated as such; for lack of a better analogy, we are the street level dealers to our vast clientele. We deserve to get special treatment.

So, all you e-book reader industry people out there, here's a couple of ideas for you from this librarian.

(1) Write a terms of service exclusively for libraries. Don't leave us in this gray legal area where no one is a winner. We won't want to lend out your product if we feel like we are going to get bit on the ass when you don't support it or repair it (due to terms of service violations) or suddenly decide to sue the crap out of us for lending them in the first place. Stop ignoring libraries and start embracing us for the information and technology educators that we are.

(2) With your army of lawyers (Amazon, Sony, etc.), write a service contract in which you provide us with devices and materials which we can then lend to patrons. (Leave it to us as to how we make them financially responsible to borrowing the readers; we are better in the lost or damage item debt collection field than you are.) For example, a contract that gives us a reader, you stock it with the top 10 or 25 or whatever bestsellers that month, we lend it out, you update it as the month goes on, we send you back the device every year or so (which you can resell as used or refurbished or whatever) for the latest generation, and throw in a service/repair contract on top of that. Make it work so that we can put your devices on our shelves with materials that people will want and we will take care of the rest.

(3) Profit. You profit both literally and through increased exposure for your product to the public who might not otherwise be interested in your e-book reader. We profit with increased patronage, circulation numbers, and overall system usage statistics. It is a win-win-win for us, you, and our patrons. You can't beat that result, not even with a stick.

We are in the intellectual enhancement business, no matter the medium. Libraries are the allies of the e-book reader devices. Start treating us like it.

Cross posted to my personal blog, Agnostic, Maybe.


I just re-posted this in full on TeleRead. It's an important post and it needs as much publicity as possible. I hope you don't mind that I didn't ask for permission first, but I wanted to get it up ASAP. If that's a problem please let me know. My email on the font page of the site.


Paul Biba

I appreciate the re-posting. And you certainly have my permission.

I don't think ebooks will truly become integrated into library practice until we have the right to collect ebook files and lend them to anyone who owns a device. Lending the devices themselves is a good idea as an option for those users who don't own a device, but it just doesn't scale to the whole user population. How could own enough of them to meet all reading demand? We need the option to lend files a well as devices.

Steven Harris
Collections 2.0

For something like that, it would come down to format. Much in the same way that HD-DVD and Blu Ray slugged it out for the standard, we would need to see the same for the devices. Then they can concentrate on features rather than how big their DRM loaded retail collections are.

I don't think anyone understands digital technology like the effing librarian. The whole point of all this new stuff is to avoid the mistakes of the past which allowed libraries to get away with lending the same copyrighted materials out to multiple customers over and over again after making the initial purchase. The DMCA is designed to eliminate this freedom.

Digital files: TV, music, books, holographic hookers,... are all going to be controlled by the Creators to keep us from sharing.

When someone on the development or marketing team asked, "What about libraries?"
The answer came back, "What about 'em?"

Trust me: they considered the role of libraries and that's why they explicitly state in their TOS, "no lending."

Libraries DO NOT generate additional income for the Creators, not in any way they appreciate. So if there are ever to be any lending allowances, it will be from libraries purchasing licenses to lend. High demand items will cost us more and be limited to fewer loans.

The freedom of lending a paper copy of a book will *never* exist with digital copies. Never. Ever.

I wouldn't have a problem if they actually enforced the 'no lending' on the devices. But this ambiguous 'you can't lend it/ok, you can lend it but with no content/ok, you can lend it but you'll be in violation of the TOS' is bullcrap. It's the equivalent of being informally told by a cop that the speed limit is 55 but you're ok up to 100. You could drive 100, but you are still going to wonder if you are going to get pulled over by a different cop. They need to make up their damn minds.

You're right, they are building little fiefdoms of content with their own Gandalf standing in the path yelling "YOU SHALL NOT PASS! ...your device or eBook around." DMCA is a outdated law that needs to be updated to reflect the copyright realities of today. That's another fight down the road. And yes, I don't think they considered libraries in the slightest when they created their devices and sites because they only deal with us in terms of print items (a very clean transaction).

But now we are here and I want them to deal with us. I don't think I'm out of line for asking to be treated differently, either. I am working towards what I think is best for my library and my patrons. And if they came back to me with a declarative "NO", then I would be content and move on. But the ambiguity that I find now gives me hope that maybe I can get what I want. And, obviously, I'm not shy to ask for it.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act was enacted so as to implement the WIPO Copyright Treaty.

The treaty can be found at

It is a little complicated, I would imagine, to interpret away the obligations President Clinton signed the US up to in the 11th & 12th articles of the treaty. The signature, ratification, and entry into force dates for the US can be seen here:
Stephen Michael Kellat, Host, LISTen
PGP KeyID: 899C131F

Unless ebooks and ebook readers fail to turn the expected profit. Then they will pour them on us like rain. Libraries will be filled with free readers as soon as the sales figures disappoint.

Agreed. But I'd rather be the market of first resort than the device equivalent of Goodwill.

You know, publishers of ejournals offer special subscription services to libraries. We all know that most library ejournal subscription prices are based on many things such as number of users, type of institution, etc.... I see no reason why ebook/ereader publishers couldn't do the same thing.

through the vendor Overdrive. The books are DRM protected and are unreadable after the loan period. Actually, I don't see any indication that publishers are unwilling to provide downloadable e-books for libraries, particularly academic ones. The issue here will more likely be one of pricing. As mentioned, e-journals have been marketed to academic libraries on term related to number of concurrent users, or size of institution. They've also bundled journals into packages which forces libraries, particularly those in large institutions, to pay a heavy premium for obscure journals they would never think of selecting for their patrons. Downloadable e-books have the potential to completely change the equation. With DRM protection, there is no reason why libraries can't buy single copies of e-books and loan them out on exactly the same terms as print books as per the Overdrive model. But will the big academic commercial publishers like Elsevier and Springer go for this model? These companies have grown extremely profitable under the old model. Librarians should be working together now to ensure that we get the kind of pricing that is fair and sustainable.

Dan D'Agostino

Overdrive might be a good model for the lending of content on devices as well, but I'd have to comb through it first. I think there are compatibility issues at present but I'm not certain of it (and I'm not presently in a position to look it up). And I'm looking at devices more than ebooks because that's where the current controversy lays.

My ideal situation, many years down the line, would be able to lend an eBook to a patron with any device.

I think you're right on when it comes to the Kindle. As of now Overdrive offers e-books in both Epub and Mobi, so that they can be read on e-book devices like the Sony Ebook Reader that can read Epub, and various mobile devices like cell phones that can read Mobi. The real compatibility issue is with the Kindle since it cannot read Epub. Amazon seem to be going out of their way to ensure that libraries are not able to lend e-books to Kindle owners, just as they are doing everything possible to ensure that they are the only ones able to sell content for the device. This is where libraries could really lose out, not to mention Kindle owners.

Maybe it is more of a failure of customer service. If a business stopped serving little old ladies because they didn't see them as a model customer, there would be an uproar. That's what I'm wondering. Where is the uproar for being treated in such a manner? Now, someone could say that their business is not to serve little old ladies, but they haven't explicitly said it yet.

My overarching question is why the e-book reader and e-book stores are not looking to libraries as viable customers. We certainly move our fair share of book units. Is there no company bold enough to try (aside from Overdrive)? That's just a shame.

I think the Overdrive option is a good start. The eBook lending market is still very young. I think it is just the right time for libraries to get their voice heard and get the notion of eBook lending out there. Since the market is still young, libraries should be able to have their input into molding the lending market.

I think the first hurdle is working to get files that can be lent, with time restrictions, maybe even for a small fee (similar to the Overdrive option). Once you get the files worked out, it would make sense to look at being able to loan readers (doesn't make sense to loan readers when the number of ebooks is limited).

As far as Kindle owners go, if libraries are supporting files available on other readers (Sony's reader as an example), as well as ePub and Mobi formats (which is owned by Amazon), then there may be enough pull to get Amazon to open up their Kindle to ebook loans. It would be better for the libraries to work on getting into the market while it is still early, work on getting as wide an option as possible, and find a way to open the ebook options to their readers.

"The failure is how the e-book reader companies do not consider libraries as a viable customer."


The failure of all e-book readers has nothing to do with libraries, it has everything to do with price and content control, mostly content control. If I write a book, convert it to .pdf, and would like to read my own content on my own Kindle, I have to pay Amazon for the privilege? Why? Doesn't apply to my PC, my iPod, my DVD player, etc, why would I buy something that deliberately makes it difficult and expensive for me to use it?

Look at the iPod. By your argument iPods should be a "failure" as well. Libraries have circ'd music forever, but Apple sure didn't "consider libraries as a viable customer" when they built the iPod. iPods are a royal pain for libraries to circ.

No, iPods became hugely successful because the consumer could load anything on it. Have a stack of CDs? Apple happily provides the software to convert them all and load them on your iPod. No fees, no fuss, and as a GIGANTIC perk, you don't even have to own the CDs, you can borrow your friend's CDs or just download any music you like and put it on your iPod.

When I can put any text document I like on my own e-book device, easily and without having to pay for the privilege, that's when it will have a chance at success.

The other problem is price, though not as big a problem as content control issues, but e-book readers are way too expensive. For that amount of money, I can afford a good Netbook, which can do everything a Kindle does and so much more. Yes, they are less convenient for reading books, but I've curled up on my couch reading off my MSI Wind just fine.

So don't buy a Kindle. It's not the only ebook device out there. I can put any sort of pdf or txt file I like on my reader and I don't pay for it.

I just bought a netbook and thought of using it to read books, but for me it still doesn't work. I want something I can curl up with, use with one hand while hanging on to a pole on the streetcar, while I'm eating lunch... Too much scrolling down involved with using a computer. Plus, I'd get eyestrain too quickly. (Different strokes, though. Obviously it's just fine for you.)

My ereader has also paid for itself since I bought it in October just from the legal, free ebooks I've found online. I wouldn't have owned/read them without the reader.

I have to say the library where I live is kind of useless for Overdrive. I was hoping to use it more to borrow books, but they haven't had any new additions to the fiction section since I started checking 8 months ago. To me that reflects more on the library than my ereader.

If you want more content for the Overdrive collection, tell your librarian. It may help, it may not, but they will be more likely to add new content if they know that at least one of their patrons wants it.

I will agree, I think content control is a big issue. I'm looking to change it in a manner that would make it favorable to libraries. I don't think that it is too much to ask of these companies as we both move forward in the future of e-content. We (libraries) might as well get a foot in the door before we become passengers to the process.

I read your post with some puzzlement as it seems to ignore the existence of the digital lending libraries run by Fictionwise and Overdrive that are out there now. Books are "lent" for a period of days selected by the user, with DRM that makes them unreadable after the "expiration date." (Here's my review of a couple of these libraries.)

(Of course, these libraries themselves have a fundamental flaw: it's easy to crack the DRM and get free-forever e-books out of them.)

>these libraries themselves have a fundamental flaw: it's easy to crack the DRM and get free-forever e-books out of them

And any paper book can be dropped on a scanner. Give me any paper book and one hour and I will give you a digital file of the book.

…to produce something with equivalent quality to the commercial e-books that can be had from libraries. Scanning errors, transcription errors, etc. Not to mention all the effort involved in turning the pages so they can be photographed. (This can be reduced with a bandsaw and sheet-feeding scanner, of course, but not if you're planning to turn the book back into the library afterward.)

On the other hand, it takes considerably less than five minutes to crack the DRM on an e-book. Less than a minute if you've got the software installed already and don't have to Google and download it.

While producing an ad-hoc e-book out of a print book is and will always be possible (barring the invention of ink or paper that explodes when scanned :), the effort-to-quality ratio is a lot more unfavorable than cracking the DRM on a pre-existing e-book. And because DRM systems are by their very nature vulnerable to cracking, this is an issue that "digital libraries" will always have to contend with. At least if someone buys the e-book and then cracks the DRM, the publisher and author got paid for the copy that was sold. A cracked library e-book is just a free e-book.

And to add insult to injury, if you want to read a library e-book on the Kindle, you have to crack the DRM because Amazon won't allow non-Kindle Mobi DRM to be read on its device. If you want to read it on your iPhone or iPod Touch, you have to crack the DRM, because Amazon apparently won't let Mobipocket come out with a Mobipocket Reader for iPhone. (Thanks so much, Amazon.)

Of course, this isn't necessarily bad news for libraries. Publishers and e-book stores appear to be congenitally blind to the easy crackability of DRM, or they would not continue to insist upon this fig leaf that doesn't protect their work and only annoys the consumer. There's no reason to expect that if they honestly think DRM protects their work enough to sell, they won't also think it protects their work enough to lend.

You are right, there are existing digital libraries that lend out. My library system uses Overdrive and it works very nicely. I should give credit where credit is due.

I would like to see other ebook retailers get into the same business. The increase in market competition would see the prices go down. I guess my main argument is really about the ebook readers and the squirrelly nature their creators have taken towards lending/loaning them, the concept of content ownership, and how customers (libraries and individuals alike) are being treated overall. I'd like for them to get into the market of making them available to libraries. I don't see any reason not to push for their inclusion on the shelf since you never know what you'll get til you'll ask.

I know my post approaches broader issues (DRM, DMCA, etc), but this nice narrow one is the one I'm presently most interested in.

Everyone is just deciding to what degree we lost.

Overdrive is the model we can expect in the future: we pay more for high-demand items; and those items are limited by device, like no iPod, limited by number of users, by preset lending periods, or by not burning to CD. All of these options change the pricing of electronic files.

I think Kindle will adopt a library business model. But again, they will control how libraries use the devices and files and charge accordingly.

You will never see the library model of one item (book, CD, DVD), one price, and unlimited use with digital files.

Maybe I'm just still new to the library, maybe I'm stubborn, and maybe I'm not the sharpest crayon in the coloring box, but I just can't accept defeat. Not to presume too much, but it might be a generational thing. As someone at the top of Y/bottom of X (1977), I have come to certain expectations from the world around me. With the rise of the access anywhere on-demand technology, this bleeds over into other parts of my life. This is the great customer service storm that is growing up through our schools and colleges.

You could say that I'm being naive, but viewpoints drive markets. I don't see it as anything radical compared to my fellow Y members or the upcoming Millennials. They just haven't gotten up to that point yet. The majority of Kindle owners are baby boomers who are very used to being told what they are going to get and how they are going to get it. The future of customer service (library, retail, otherwise) will have to deal with generations that are not familiar and/or comfortable with the term 'deferred gratitude' or 'wait list'. There will be patrons who will wonder aloud why they cannot lend materials to one another. The ebook devices are in a losing battle in the long term, in my opinion, because their terms of service and propriety programs will not fit into the mindset of the following generations. This certainly baits the questions for the next copyright revision and business models of the future, but that's probably another post.

I think that maybe the original article is looking at the topic from the wrong angle - or rather looking at the wrong suppliers. This has been touched on already, so apologies for any repetition. One of the examples is given Amazon. Now I do not consider Amazon to be an appropriate main supplier for library books. I would only use for one off purchases of difficult to obtain books - partly but not wholly because Amazon is set up for personal buyers, not libraries. If I buy a book from Amazon for my organisation I have to pay for it myself and then claim back the money. Not ideal!

So why should Amazon necessarily be moving into the library market? Dawsons has an excellent facility for e-books called Dawsonera. It works from a website. You pay for each e-book and there is a cap on how many times each book can be lent. If usage goes above this, it is necessary to purchase another copy. Simple! And I do not work for Dawsons by the way. This is a library supplier, providing e-books for libraries. I am sure that there must be other library suppliers out there who provide a similar facility.

Sarah Seddon
School Librarian


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