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eBooks, Libraries, & Publishing

I’ve done a strip on this topic before, but David A. Bell’s wonderfully written article, “The Bookless Libary,” has me thinking about the impact of eBooks on the way our culture reads, so forgive me if I revisit it.

The idea that eBook readers, once they are truly cheap and dominant, will kill either the traditional local library or traditional publishers’ business model is one that I find endlessly fascinating. It’s an interesting and not implausible mind game, to imagine scenarios for both…although truthfully, I imagine publishers maintain the upper hand. They are the ones who control the “supply” of new books, as well as hundreds of thousands of existing copyrighted works. They can choose to limit supply, delay supply (as is done with movies, after theatrical runs), limit user-counts on any digital copy, or refuse to sell eBooks to libraries at all.

And yet I find myself more drawn to the flip-side idea: The scenario where publicly held and publicly lent books in a digital public library system could slowly bring down publishing as we know it.

We all know why people tended to buy a paper book when the same book was available from the library. You got a fresh book that was yours, forever yours, to display in and complete your shelves of books. It had no library “stains,” no torn-out pages nor dog-eared, hand-noted chapters. You didn’t have to wait on another librarian patron to return the book so you could check it out. And it never had to be given back. No, a store-bought book was yours,in the way that only a physical object can be yours.

But those impulses change dramatically when it comes to digital goods.

Think of it from the average consumer’s angle: What, aside from the altruism of supporting new art or their favorite artists, is the impetus for a mass audience to buy an eBook… when the identical zeroes and ones can be borrowed for free? Sitting on their couch at home, would the average person choose to instantly buy a book, or instantly borrow that book, when both require picking up a tablet and 10 seconds of downloading?

Libraries were born out of scarcity, after all. A book was expensive to produce, expensive to keep safe, and (generally speaking) rare. What happens when a book is neither expensive to produce, distribute, maintain, or copy? What happens when your local library has the computing power to give everyone in their community a free copy of every book ever written?

The internet has shown, again and again, that the average consumer always tends toward the cheaper, faster solution. And all things being equal between delivery systems, there’s no debate which one is more advantageous for the individual: The borrowed copy.

But I wanna hear your thoughts on the matter. I’m fascinated to hear other people’s thoughts on it. And by all means: Link to any relevant articles by librarians or publishers. I’m curious to see where the existing decision-makers come down on the topic.