I love my local library.
I frequent the Old Worthington Library, which is one of a number of libraries that offer digital lending of audiobooks and eBooks. Digital borrowing is still fairly new, and negotiations between publishers and libraries can be tense.
This week libraries in Nova Scotia boycotted Random House books because of price hikes as much as three times the retail price of the book.The theory behind increased library costs for books is to compensate for the potential loss of revenue due to someone reading the book for free, but many in the library community consider the Random House pricing excessive.
Publishers have had an uneasy relationship with libraries. After all, if someone reads a book for free, what motivation do they have to go out and buy it? But the digital eBook revolution has only increased this tension, in large part because of a perceived increased risk in piracy.
As I’ve discussed before there may be actual benefits to pirating books, but I also think it is important to understand the technologies involved in this specific case.
My library uses Overdrive, a service that allows you to download audiobooks and eBooks to a variety of readers. The program even allows you to burn some audiobooks to a physical CD. For audiobooks, this effectively means that you can recreate the digital file by ripping the burned CD and converting into your favorite DRM free format. This has always been the case with anything CD based. My library carries a number of CD audiobooks, none of which have the sophisticated rootkit protections that some music CD’s contain, meaning that for even the average computer user there are only minimal barriers to piracy.
But eBooks are a different story. Almost everyone knows how to rip a CD (Windows Media Player or iTunes makes it very easy), but how many people know how to crack a DRM protected eBook? And most libraries, including mine, treat digital books like their physical inventory, meaning they own a certain amount of digital copies of that book, and only lend out a certain number at a time.
Now I’m not saying it’s impossible to crack a eBook, the piracy market wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a way, but your average consumer isn’t going to know how. There are no free and legitimate programs for copying DRM protected eBooks, whereas every new computer comes with a way to pirate CDs.
And libraries can generate customers, regardless of ways they disseminate the material. The bread and butter of most publishers is series. Libraries provide a way for someone to get to know a series, when otherwise they might have not bothered because of the cost. Reading is one of the best ways to determine if you actually like an author and want to plunk down some money for them. And people still like to own books, digital or otherwise. Library eBooks have lending periods like anything else, meaning if you want to refer back to a book, you need to borrow it again or buy it.
I’m an aspiring author, and I do want to get paid for my work, but I also want people to read what I write. As we transition into new ways of reading, libraries can and should still be a place for people to do just that.