Kindles Don’t Have Covers or The Return of the Penny Dreadful

You know what I like to read and I mean, you know what I really like to read?

More like Awesomov, am I right?

I like to read deep, thought provoking science fiction. The kind where you sit back every so often and think “Yeah, not only could such-and-such happen, but the author totally nailed the human condition and the human response if it did happen.” I love reading essays, especially short well written essays like the classics from Isaac Asimov (who, coincidentally, is also a science fiction author). I like to read Christopher Hitchens’ essays because they’re awesome and make me think. I like to read insightful scientific stuff by Neil deGrasse Tyson or Brian Greene. I love to read history, especially the history of science or the history of Japan. Scientists and/or samurais are pretty hard to beat.

And sometimes I like to read about people f**king.

I don’t mean the occasional romance story with cuddling, cooing, soft lighting and making love at midnight. I mean bodies slapping where the only thing missing is the bad disco soundtrack. I also, on occasion, pick up something bizarre. Something that’s not pornographic, but damn, the title alone is enough to twist one’s brain. For instance, there is a book titled The Driver’s Guide to Hitting Pedestrians. There’s another one called Ass Goblins of Auschwitz. Then there’s The Egg Said Nothing which sounds fairly sedate yet the cover would draw some interesting stares on the bus. (Especially from the more interesting people who may not actually be so interesting to you.)

There’s another really good book called Just Friends by Anne Thomas. It’s a romance novel about a guy who totally falls for, and has some marvelous sex with… another guy. While attitudes have changed towards homosexuality, I’m kind of a low key guy and don’t really need jerks approaching me and sermonizing about the “sinful literature” I’m reading.

Sometimes I do want a fairly standard romance novel that may or may not have hardcore sex. I’m a librarian, in order to properly serve my patrons I need to read any genre there is – at least that’s my cover story. I don’t want to deal with the crowd of people who’d frown on a dude reading Phantom Waltz nor do I particularly care to harmonize with those who might think it’s awesome. I’m reading, leave me alone.

All this brings me to my point, something I try to cram down my dear readers’ throats in the post title. Have you ever noticed that Kindles have no covers? (Neither do other eBook readers, but the words “Nook Tablets have no covers” just didn’t flow properly for me.) There’s a couple of things that are awesome about this development of coverless reading and you’ll see more and more of them, especially after people open their presents on Christmas.

This picture was worth several thousand words.

Since an eBook reader doesn’t have a cover, I can sit in a coffee shop, on a bus, kick back against a wall outside the library, or stand in line at the supermarket and read my book- and no one needs to know that I’m reading The Gentleman’s Guide to the Golden Age of Menage a Trois. (Sadly, not a real book.) This bit of increased anonymity means that one can enjoy their guilty reading no matter where they go or what they’re doing. Seriously, I’d say most of us have read a book that we want to keep reading, to take with us, but fear the bit of social ostracism that might occur if we go out with a book sporting a cover like you see on the right.

But did you notice something most of the books I linked? They’re all fairly inexpensive, even as far as Kindle books go. They’re especially inexpensive when you compare them to Kindle editions of the latest bestsellers. That makes them attractive for a lot of reasons. First, at those costs, they’re an impulse purchase. If I’m looking to read something fun, and you give me a list of fun books, I’ll look at many things and one of those things will be the price. I can buy SUPER AWESOME BESTSELLER for $14.99, or I can read this thing over here that looks interesting for $3.99. Heck, for $3.99 I can buy four things instead of just one. Even if they’re not the best writing in the world, nothing like a great American novel, they’re fun and they’re cheap and I can have more of them.

BEST TITLE EVER.

This isn’t a new business model at all. There used to be these things called “penny dreadfuls” which were the predecessors of the pulp magazines of the mid-twentieth century. They were cheap, sure. Of course the writing contained therein was one step above or below Highlights for Children. In some cases, they wrote stories about real people but the stories were full of lies, damn lies, and fabrications.

But by god they were entertaining.

Then, just like now, people would cock a sneer at you for reading such tripe, trashy “literature.” Many would, in the style of Capote, tell you that it’s not even writing, it’s merely typing. There’s truth to that, and as an ardent fan of Truman Capote, I agree and I love to read things like In Cold Blood.

I also love to read murder mysteries involving shabbily dressed alcoholic detectives who are as likely to throw up at a crime scene as they are to investigate it and, for some reason, they totally get the hot girl in the end. Oh and the victim? They died with clown makeup on their face and that face was wrapped up in a plastic bag.

Now that, my friends, is entertainment. And it’s cheap!

Patrons of our libraries are no different than any other readers except for the fact that it’s a safe bet that a regular library patron reads more than the average reader. They want those amazing, award winning novels and sometimes, they also want absolute trash. Trash in all its wonderful, fun, and entertaining glory. And now they can have it! They can have it easily! They can even check the stuff out without ever looking a librarian in the eye – a librarian, one who is an ultimate judge of literary character. (Well, we are, aren’t we?)

So let me ask you, will your library stock it? I’m not worried about collection development ethics and whether or not something is too filthy for your collection. I’m talking about a lot of collection development policies that basically run towards archaic ideas like “Well, if we wouldn’t put it on our shelves, we don’t want it in the eCollection.” Or “It doesn’t have a starred review in two major book review magazines and Publishers Weekly never even mentioned it.” Or my favourite “This looks like it’s self published, or published by some tiny, independent press. We don’t add that kind of stuff to the collection.”

Well, let me give you a (five) word(s) of advice. RETHINK YOUR COLLECTION DEVELOPMENT POLICIES. Libraries are finally accepting that the eBook revolution is upon us and, bucko, come this Christmas you’re going to see another massive explosion of interest in eBooks. There’s a complimentary revolution going on alongside this that has just as much to do with the soaring popularity in eBooks and you ignore it at your peril. Amazon and B&N both have made it incredibly easy to self publish and have your work displayed in a big online store. And before one discredits self publishing as vanity, let me hit you with one last fact before I get out of here:

This massive bestseller started out as a self-published book.

Oscar Wilde. Edgar Rice Burroughs. Christopher Paolini. Beatrix Potter. Louis L’Amour. James Redfield. Virginia Woolf. These are just a few of the famous authors you will most likely find on your library shelves. All of them writers, all of them self publishers. One of the founding fathers of the United States was a notoriously unabashed and completely unashamed self publisher – none other than Benjamin Franklin.

If you have a bias against cheap, self-published or independently books, especially if they happen to be eBooks, I advise you to get over it. Welcome to the new world of publishing and the new frontier in reading, which as the penny dreadful illustrates, isn’t so new after all.

Streaming is the New Lending

Among other things I’m a historian.

And as a historian, you feel even more connected to the old adage that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Now, as a technology advocate (which I’m told is a new age term for “computer geek”) I’ve watched the history of tech change so rapidly and flash by so quickly, that history can repeat itself in as little as ten years.

Case in point: Penguin Publishing.

Penguin decided that what it really needed to do was to stop allowing library users the privilege of checking out Penguin e-books for Kindle, Additionally they suspended new books from the popular OverDrive service used by many libraries. The reasons behind this were “security concerns.” I guess that they’re worried about library users checking out Penguin eBooks and then pirating them.

More and more, publishers are looking at library based digital lending programmes the same way the music industry viewed Napster back in the early 2000s. I can honestly say that when it comes to a technical person like me, the possibility of pirating a loaned Kindle book isn’t far off. It can be done, certainly, but given who I see checking out the most books from our digital collection, it’s not bloody likely.

See, I’ve helped a lot of people with their eReaders, and eReader questions and support, and demonstrated how they can get stuff onto their devices from our websites. You know who most of them are?

Your mom.

No seriously, a lot of them are older folks. Not exactly senior citizens though there are a fair amount of them. Most of them are middle aged and older and have absolutely zero interest in pirating a book. That’s fortunate since, given the questions I’ve had to answer, they also have no technical knowledge that would facilitate pirating a loaned eBook. They do exactly what librarians think they do – check out an eBook, download it to their device, read it, and return it so they can check out more eBooks.

Libraries have this habit of buying a lot of books at once. You’d think that publishers would be into that. Likewise, with the digital eBook revolution ongoing, we’re licensing more copies of eBooks at once than any mainstream consumer. Look, if I buy an eBook of Ready, Player One, I’m buying one copy of it. Meanwhile, libraries will buy or license multiple copies, at once, and thus put more money into the publisher than I ever will.

Dear Publishers. Lots of people use computers. Most of them aren't actually pirates.

Study after study indicates that library users buy more books than people who don’t regularly use the library. Yet publishers don’t seem to understand that in the same way that the music industry still doesn’t seem to fully understand that people who listen to streaming music on the Internet buy more music than people who don’t. At least the music industry is coming around and things like Spotify actually make it so the recording companies can make money, and no one has to pirate anything. There’s no reason to pirate a song if you have Spotify. You can use Spotify to listen to the song any damn time you want to listen to it.

Does that mean I’ll never buy the song? Of course not. See, I use the free version of Spotify. This means I can’t use Spotify on my phone or on the iPad or iPod or stuff like that. In other words, if I want to listen to that awesome song on my Droid X, I have to buy it. I would rather spend the money buying the music than I would to subscribe to Spotify. Either way, someone in the recording industry is going to make ten bucks off me every month. (Quite possibly more if I find several new albums I like.)

The CEO of Macmillan once compared library eBook programmes to “…NetFlix, but you don’t pay for it,” and went on to ask how that’d be a good business model for publishers.

Well, gee, I don’t know.

Last I checked, NetFlix has to pay the movie industry a boatload of money to stream movies and thus the movie industry is making money from licensing deals with NetFlix. Spotify, Pandora, and similar services all pay money to the recording industry so they can stream music and so the recording industry is making money from licensing deals with Spotify, Pandora, and so on.

Here’s a wakeup call for publishers and content creators everywhere. Streaming is the new lending. When the library lends me a book, I’m not supposed to keep it. I have to give it back. Sure, I could steal it, but most library users worldwide don’t steal library books. Likewise, when I stream a movie from NetFlix or listen to Little People’s “Start Shootin’” on Spotify, I can’t keep those either. I’m just borrowing them. The only difference between checking out a book and streaming something over the Net is that, with a stream, I have nothing to give back.

Books can check out anytime you like, but they can never leave.

To return to the library metaphor, streaming is like going to a library, looking at a book, and then leaving it there. Does the publisher get cheated? No, because the library paid for the book. I didn’t even take it. I left it there. Maybe I’ll come back and read it again, maybe I won’t. It doesn’t matter much anyway because the library will buy more books even if I never walk through the doors again.

Likewise, with an eBook I borrowed from the library, I have nothing to give back there either. The book “returns itself” in that it becomes unusable on my device and it’s noted in the library’s digital collection that the lending period has expired and the eBook can be lent again.

So if Penguin and other publishers don’t see all the many ways they can make money from eBook lending, then they have some incredibly short sighted leadership who are cheating not only their readers, but their customers, future customers, and ultimately, their investors.

Things To Do – Completely Transform the Library

So a few days back I wrote up a little post that set off a few people, got some nice comments, and generated a tiny bit of buzz. Basically I asked a question, which I thought was a fair question, “What are libraries going to do when most everything is delivered digitally?” We’re getting close to that point. I can buy a lovely device that will carry my books, movies, music, games, and all manners of stuff on it. This device, if given proper capacity or a connection to the cloud, can carry more items than many large libraries. So, what are libraries to do when this happens?

One person said I don’t get it and that if occupations are defined by the tools they use and those tools go away, then naturally so too might the profession. I don’t think I’m daft here and I don’t think I’m being off hand when I say that all professions are defined by the tools they use. That’s actually what makes a profession, the ability to use tools in a way that most people don’t understand. I can use a scalpel, but that doesn’t mean I should perform surgery. A doctor might be able to search with Google, but according to some medical librarian friends of mine, that doesn’t mean doctors are good at using Google.

Either way, let me lay this out in a context that I understand and that might clear a few things up – by using science fiction.

You ever watch Star Trek: The Next Generation? You notice how they have these things called replicators and that’s how they get a lot of their stuff? For instance, if Picard is thirsty he orders “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot” and the replicator not only makes the tea, but it can also make a cup and saucer to properly serve it. Hungry? Have the replicator make you some food, anything you want. It occurs to me that, if we actually had this kind of technology, grocery stores would be in a hell of a jam, wouldn’t they?

Well, that’s kind of what I see libraries facing in the very near future. Apple’s new iPhone with built in Siri (Now with GPP, Genuine People Personality!) makes it so you can just talk to your device and get what you want. It won’t be long before this is available on an iPad and soon I can just pick up my iPad and say “Siri, get me the latest James Patterson book from the iBooks Store. Put it on my Visa card.”

So transformation is not only desirable, but one hundred percent necessary. Now we come to the next question:

Are we ready?

Some ideas about what we could do to enhance our services and further that transformation came up in comments and through conversations. Here’s a short list:

  • Help people create blogs, web sites, or teach them how to self publish.
  • Teach them the best and most efficient ways to find what they want online.
  • Create apps to better access our services from anywhere in the world.
  • Go to public places, businesses, and even private locations to teach, instruct, and serve their information needs.
  • Set up work spaces, shops, and places for people to learn how to makes things.
  • Help them learn how to create and distribute their ideas. For instance, a library studio that helps people make videos and post them on YouTube.

There are far more ideas. Ask fifty librarians and you’ll get fifty ideas. So what would it take to make this happen? I’m a technologically oriented guy, but creating an app is something I wouldn’t be skilled at. There are many working in library IT departments who might be able to create library apps, but do they have the time, backing, and resources? I’ve been known to make videos to post online, but I’m using my own equipment. The library doesn’t really have the money to purchase the necessary stuff to make a video studio, let alone two or three of them.

It’s easy to say we need to re imagine the library, but to do it we’ll need resources, skill sets, a willingness to learn and adapt, and the administrative vision to make it happen. After all, even if I get our Friends of the Library group to buy us the necessary equipment to say, set up a multimedia online studio for creating videos and podcasts, that doesn’t mean I have anyplace to set it up nor the time to devote to teaching people how to use the stuff.

I work with many bright and intelligent librarians both within and outside my library system. They use the Internet, they’re adept at searching, and they’re far from technologically illiterate. Yet some of them look at the video and podcast production stuff I do as something akin to magic. They read blogs, but they have no idea how to set one up or what the difference is between WordPress.com, WordPress.org, or  Blogspot. They use eReaders, but haven’t the slightest idea how to publish something for one, let alone how to distribute it online.

So are we ready? Well, no, not yet. I think we’re going to get there, but it’s going to take some time to reorient not only our profession, but ourselves as well. I have specialties that you don’t and there are things you can do that I shouldn’t even attempt. I think a good first step, especially within your own library systems, is a simple but highly important one.

Look around you. Look at your colleagues. What are they good at? What is it that they know more about than anyone else in your system? I work with a geologist, a doctor of psychology, a talented guitarist and musician, and a master storyteller. What about you? Let me tell you, it’s much easier to figure out who should do what when you find out who would be the best at it.

And if you feel the interest, leave a note in the comments about what to do after you find out who your experts are. This transformation, this change, will not happen overnight nor should it. But after you figure out who does what the best, where do you go from there?

So, What Are Libraries Going to Do?

A few days back, some news hit the Internet with all the power and ferocity of a snowflake striking the ground. Some people saw it as the inevitible conclusion to a long, and sometimes rocky, history. Others dismissed it with a “Psh… should’ve happened years ago.” Yet, for the most part, no one seemed to care.

Me, I care, but not for the reasons that you may expect.

The news was about CDs and how they’re probably going away soon. Now, as a musician and music fan, this disturbed me only a little. See, one of the biggest things I miss about the days of vinyl isn’t the warm sound you get from a record, though that’s something I miss quite a bit. You know what’s awesome about records? They’re huge. And you know what a huge record means? It means a huge record sleeve. And what do you put on a huge record sleeve?

You put this on it.

That’s not only beautiful, that’s iconic. The Beatles had this one album, you may have heard of it, where the entire cover was white… and yet that cover became one of the most well known covers in music history. We’re going to lose some of the awesome cover art we’ve grown to love once we no longer buy physical CDs, and I think that’s a little sad.

But that’s not what bothers me.

Libraries are, for the most part, defined by physicality. We talk of our branch, our collection, our books and DVDs, our CDs, our front desks, and our librarians. What do all of those things have in common? Simple, they’re real. You can touch them. Stroke them. You can see them. They’re there. If I ask you to pass me that CD, you could do it – provided there’s a CD in the immediate vicinity and we have the required proximity.

Now, pass me that MP3 file. Oh, excuse me, could you hand me that streaming video please? Hey, mac… toss me that eBook I wanna read the book jacket.

Now you’re looking at me kind of strangely, aren’t you? You can hand someone an MP3 file. You can’t read the book jacket of an eBook. You can’t hold a streaming video.

Yet all of us pretty well accept that this is where things are going. I’m not being hypocritical here either. I watch a lot of NetFlix, I read eBooks, and I listen to MP3 music almost every waking moment. Heck, I don’t even have to buy the MP3 music thanks to services like Spotify or Pandora. And for the most part I don’t want to buy things like books, and CDs, and movies if I don’t have to. I’ve already got enough clutter in my house.

But what about libraries? We live and die on physicality, the very tangible nature of things. I check out DVDs, not streaming movies. I help a patron find stacks of CDs, not MP3s. Indeed, if I do help a patron find MP3s, there’s a fairly decent chance I’m committing some kind of crime.

Now CDs are going away, and soon enough they’ll be gone. I can’t help but think that it won’t be all that long before DVDs join them. For public libraries, losing CDs means that, not only do we lose our music collection and our ability to restock and refresh it, we lose our audiobook collections as well. Those kids books with the CDs? Gone. How about The Short and Dirty Guide to Learning Short and Dirty Words in Japanese? Yeah, it’ll be gone too because it’s a kit that includes four or five CDs of Nippon profanity, kusoyaro.

No, sorry. Wrong Penguin.

What happens when we lose our movie collections because the industry finally gives up on DVDs? eBooks exploded over the last year, what happens when more people want eBooks rather than regular books? Some folks say this won’t happen and all I can do is scratch my head and ask “Why can’t it happen? Look around, it already is.” Penguin just reported a banner year for eBooks sales and the year isn’t even over.

Raise your hand if you own and regularly use a portable CD player. Sure you don’t. You use an iPhone or an iPod or an Android or some other device that probably does a hell of a lot more than play music. Heck my phone works really hard at eliminating the aforementioned collections because I can use it to read, listen, and watch.

Remember these? Of course not. We tend to block out traumatic events in our lives.

Many cities have to bid out services. What happens when some political schmuck gets the awesome, out-of-the-box-thinking idea of “instead of giving all that money to the library to buy movies and books, let’s see what Amazon.com’s bid is for providing the city with certain kinds of content.”? Oh, and before someone chimes in here with “But we provide services to people who can’t afford eReaders, Internet, and NetFlix!” all I can say is sure we do.

We also provide comfy sleeping areas and improvised bathing facilities for semi-crazy homeless people. Do you think the politicians care much about that? (Hold your emails. I know that not all homeless people are crazy, especially in this economy. Let’s face it, I worked in a public library a block and a half from the county jail. I know what kind of people can frequent certain public libraries.)

Here’s some hard reality. The people who can afford things like Kindles, NetFlix, an who are purchasing eBooks and buying music from the Internet – they’re not as likely to come to the library for any of our stuff. However, since they do have money, they’re more likely to donate to political campaigns and they’re far more likely to vote than a poor person who can’t afford any of that stuff, let alone campaign donations. It’s getting even harder thanks to the GOP and their efforts to make jolly damn sure that poor people won’t vote. Couple that with a conservative bent to cut services, and you have yourself a recipe for library obsolescence in as little as ten years.

And for all of those who don’t think anything like this could ever possibly happen – today, reality showed up to give libraries another boot in the ass.

So the question is… what do we do?

Warner Bros. Locking Down Harry Potter and Screwing Themselves

This movie is a gold mine! We need to TOTALLY STOP SELLING IT.

See, it’s stuff like this which, I suppose, makes me a bad business man.

Warner Bros is going to be pulling a Disney maneuver and locking away the Harry Potter films “in their vaults” for some time. So, very soon, you’ll not see the first movie on the shelves at the shops anymore. Then the second will disappear and so on until you can’t buy a new copy of any Harry Potter movie.

Let me stop right there and tell you about The Lion King.

As a circulation librarian, I take a lot of requests and place a lot of holds. My small town library took well over 100,000 requests last year from all over our system and filled over 99,300 right here in our library. Not bad, especially when you consider our collection is, currently, only 73,000 and change. Of those requests, one of the more frequent was Disney’s classic, The Lion King.

Ah, but there was a snag. Our copies of The Lion King were all withdrawn or removed from the collection due to damage, wear and tear, theft, long overdue, and so on. Until recently, when the movie reopened in cinemas a couple of months ago, we couldn’t replace it. It was “locked in Disney’s vaults” and not available for sale. So all of those kids, all of those parents, all of those adults who wanted to relive a moment of childlike glee – all of those people who wanted to see The Lion King…. 

Hi! Did you want to buy my movie? TOO BAD.

They couldn’t.

Now, what the corporations will tell you is that, by locking these things away you’ll drive up demand and then when you start re-releasing them again (one piece at a time, then probably as some kind of boxed set) you’ll make bank because now everyone wants it and now, for the first time in a while, they can get it.

Naturally, this includes libraries. We’ve ordered well over a hundred copies of the re-release of The Lion King. We’re restocking hard and fast because, who knows when it’ll come out again? I don’t know much about the consumer market, but I bet your average household family (mom, dad, couple of kids) didn’t buy more than two copies of that movie. I’m certain they didn’t buy over a hundred copies, yet publishers and media distributors seem to think libraries are the enemy and they’re working to limit what we can get and how many we can purchase for our patrons. Yet we buy far more than your average family would ever purchase.

That’s not the point of this however. My point is that Disney was incredibly foolish and, once again, working on a totally outdated business model when it came to The Lion King – and so is Warner Bros. I lost count of how many people came to our front desk with a kiddo or two and asked for The Lion King and then had to console said kiddos because I told them we not only don’t have it, but we can’t get it because Disney isn’t selling it. It happened a lot, as in several times per month.

You know what I also lost count of? I lost track of how many of those people thanked me for my help, told me that they understood the situation and that there’s nothing the library can do about, and then – as they walked away from the front desk – told their kiddo that it’ll be okay…

They’d just go home and download it from the Internet.

Media corporations thrive on want. They want you to want their products because really, they’re not selling anything you need. They’re selling things that you want. Now, years ago, this meant that corporations could do these kinds of things, limit the supply and drive up demand. Keeping the customers wanting, while depriving them of satisfaction only meant you got more money when the product finally shipped.

Folks, that doesn’t work anymore. People have new avenues open to them. Corporations created the culture of want and now it’s come back to bite them because now customers can get what they want, and they don’t have to involve the producer at all. They’re certainly not going to involve the producer or the corporation if the corporation is throwing roadblocks in their path to “drive up demand.”

People wanted a copy of The Lion King and so did libraries. We had money to give to Disney and say “HERE! TAKE OUR MONEY AND GIVE US YOUR DVDS!”, but no, that wasn’t allowed. It wasn’t even for sale. So people stood there, with that odd look on their faces that most people get when you try and give someone money and they refuse it. The good people might have checked around for another vendor, maybe went to WalMart after shopping at Target. And yet they couldn’t find The Lion King anywhere. They couldn’t buy it on Amazon. They couldn’t buy it at Target. They couldn’t buy it at WalMart. They couldn’t stream it on NetFlix. They couldn’t check it out from their library.

So they hopped on over to The Pirate Bay and got it there. Hey, they tried to give someone, anyone, some money for this product and they were denied a legal avenue to do so at every turn. So, right or wrong, ethical or not, they acted upon the wantingness, the desire, created by Disney, and then removed Disney from the equation. Then they went out and gave that money to someone who would sell them some popcorn to snack on while watching the movie.

My prediction? Well, it’s not a prediction if it’s a sure thing so let me just tell you what the hell is going to happen. You can watch the incidents of piracy surrounding every Harry Potter movie skyrocket as soon as they start disappearing from the shelves. People will come to the front desk, ask for the movie, we don’t have it, they can’t buy it, so they’ll go get it from someplace that will give it to them.