The Failure of E-Reader Devices, Ctd.

Since my initial post on the subject two and half weeks ago, I have read over the replies that have accumulated across a couple of sites. I’ve appreciated the time that commenters have put into their replies to the post. In reflecting upon the discussions put forth, I can see that major flaw of my post was lumping e-readers and e-book stores together. In separating the two, it creates a pair of much more navigable and manageable issues for the library.

As various replies have correctly pointed out, e-books are already being lent out through libraries by vendors such as Overdrive and Netlibrary. Personally, I’d like to see some of the major e-book dealers (such as Sony and Mobipocket) consider creating lending arrangements with libraries. The additional titles and competition that they would bring would be good for libraries, patrons, and the market. As it stands now, the vendor provided software enables you to read these books on your computer, PDA, or is compatible with a handful of selected e-reader devices. For me, the current issues that dance around e-books are the various levels of permissions that are granted by the publisher and the author when it comes to the transmission of their work. It can be aggravating to show a patron a couple of different e-book choices and then have to go into nitty gritty details as to why one book could be put on a PDA while another cannot. In fact, I’ve had patrons turn down borrowing an e-book since it would not transmit to their iTouch or PDA because they wanted to take the book with them rather than be only allowed to read the book on their personal computer. I would strongly urge e-book lending companies to encourage publishers and authors to allow their materials to be viewed on any device; otherwise, it’s completely useless to the library as a lending material if no one is interested in meeting the requirements.

When it comes to e-readers, it is my fear that we will end up with something that resembles the video game console market. With the Wii, Xbox, and the Playstation, these are a handful of proprietary systems that dominate the market. Wherein the past, a game manufacturer could develop a game that worked on multiple platforms, the current trend is for companies to sign exclusive deals for their product lines. In carrying this over to the e-reader world, it would be the equivalent of James Patterson or Janet Evanovich signing a deal to exclusively publish their e-books through Amazon. The other companies would be snubbed as would any libraries not lending a Kindle (not that you could lend it as it is, but let’s pretend) as would any patrons of those e-reader lending establishments. The expense and hassle of these proprietary devices plus their propriety book formats would create a decision for a library as to whether to collect a single e-reader format or multiple types. Given the nature of budgets this year, my inclination would be the former strategy would be adopted. Overall, under this scenario, libraries and patrons would lose out in terms of access to materials.

It is my fervent hope and desire that the focus of e-reader manufacturers change from proprietary to universal platforms in which a device could read any e-book. But, alas, I think we are a few business and technology cycles away from any sort of movement towards that lofty ideal.

I am still quite serious about getting companies to allow libraries to lend their devices. So, in the hopes of turning words into actions, earlier last week I started to contact the various e-reader device makers about creating a terms of service or other arrangement that would allow libraries to lend their devices. My basic question each appeared like this:

“I have a question that I’d like someone to help me with: why is [name of company] not creating a special Terms of Service for libraries so that we can lend out [their device] with content and not risk a licensing breach?”

Depending on the web form or email, I would copy an excerpt of my post and include a link to the original post. Here’s the rundown of replies thus far:

- Sony was a complete (unsurprising) run around.

From my initial submission:

Thank you for contacting Sony Technical Support.

We appreciate the time you have taken to write us. Your email has been assigned Case ID XXXXXX. An email support agent should reply to your letter within the next 24 hours. Occasionally some inquiries will require additional time.

Thank you for your patience as we strive to provide you with the best service and support possible.

The Sony Online Support Team

Within an hour, I got a reply:

[AndyW],

Thank you for contacting Sony Support.

While we have been working hard to make the Digital Reader the best product on the market today, there is always room for improvement. We look forward to getting this type of customer response on our designs and will do our best to incorporate as many as possible in the future. To submit such requests we have established a dedicated email address. Please send all such comments to: feedback@ebookstore.sony.com

Thanks in advance for your feedback.

Thank you for understanding.

The Sony Email Response Team
C6LD
Paul

So I sent off my initial query to the email address and got back a rather irrelevant reply.

Thank you for your feedback! We read every submission to help us define the future direction of the store.
If your request is for a new title or author to be added, we are working to add new content regularly so please check back often. Also, if you have not already done so, be sure to sign up for our weekly newsletter that highlights new releases and additions and well as promotions and special offers.

To sign-up for our newsletter:
1. Launch the eBook Library Software.
2. Click on "My account" at the top and Sign in.
3. Choose "Update Newsletter Settings" in the "Newsletters and Notifications" section.
4. Check the newsletters you want to subscribe to.
5. Click "Submit".
Thank you again for taking the time to share your comments with us!
Regards,
The eBook Store from Sony

Hello, customer service fail! I’m not really sure where to go from there, since their customer service website is mired with communication pitfalls. I’d love to be able to try to get someone from corporate who could actually give me a real person reply, but I guess I’m relegated to crossing my fingers and hoping they read this post.

- Foxit, the creators of the eSlick reader, had this response:

Dear [AndyW],
Thanks for your email.
I think it is a good suggestion you have sent.
But we have no plan to do this Marketing mode at present.
For now, we are working on reseller program. Our reseller can place order and Foxit will give some discount for them according to the quantity.
Thanks!
2009-06-02
Best Regards,
Nancy
Foxit Software Company
www.foxitsoftware.com

And since I’m not going to be ordering, I guess I don’t have to worry about that reseller discount.

- Amazon wrote back something that made my eternal optimist stir, but it still leads to me to believe that I got the official brush-off already.

Hello,

Thanks for writing about make libraries able to use Kindles and lend them out with out being in breech of the terms of service. I will pass this information on to our Business teams from review.

Strong customer feedback like yours helps us continue to improve the service we provide, and we're glad you took time to write to us.

Thanks for your interest in Amazon Kindle.

Please let us know if this e-mail resolved your question:

If yes, click [here]:
If not, click [here]:

Please note: this e-mail was sent from an address that cannot accept incoming e-mail.

To contact us about an unrelated issue, please visit the Help section of our web site.

Best regards,

Jonathan R
Amazon.com
We're Building Earth's Most Customer-Centric Company

The last line drew a wry grin to my face as a sudden dose of irony. I can only really hope that it is not simply a product of the marketing department. I’ve decided to see if I can get an actual phone call from a customer service individual by choosing the “no” option. Here’s hoping.

- I have an outstanding inquiry with Cool-ER which I should follow-up upon in the next week or so. I’m also still tracking down a place to submit an inquiry for the iLiad reader since their website appears to be uniquely obtuse for customer inquires.

I would encourage those who read this and want their libraries to have the ability to lend devices to do their own contacting of the companies involved in the e-reader business. While my persistence might get me eventually to a real live person (the new pinnacle of the customer service experience in the 21st century), it is only through combined action that libraries will see movement in their favor. E-reader use might not be the reality of today, but as the technology generations improve these devices, I feel that it will be in the future of the library. This is the time to work towards better and more open e-book formats compatible with our lending practices as well as devices for people to read them on. We are positioned to share and shape this future and we should not let it get past us. For our future collections, there is too much at stake to watch the businesses that will influence the patron borrowing interests of tomorrow proceed without us as an advisor and partner. We owe it to the future of the library to act now.

Cross posted in my personal blog, Agnostic, Maybe

Comments

A great subject

I've been a big user of libraries since they started having online catalogs (even dial up) and it's only increased over the years. As new formats have changed (from books, cassettes and video tapes to books, audio books, CD, DVDs and now MP3 files) for me the portability of the format really has made a big difference. So now it seems in addition to audio and video the written word is becoming portable in the form of e-books and e-readers.

However it seems to me (and I could be wrong) that a large percentage of people who are big readers of books are also people who are frequent borrowers of libraries. And so for me there is a strong disincentive to invest in an e-reader unless a decent amount of material is available for it from the library.

I think the e-reader market has the whole idea wrong. For the most part I think people don't want to own books, they want to read them. Books and stories are like videos. People own CD's (or MP3 if you like). They rent DVDs. Instead of a purchase model the e-book industry needs a lending (or renting) model, for a cost that is comparable to an inter-branch loan fee, like $1. An electronic version should be able to trivially keep track if I've viewed a page 3 or 4 times and have some algorithm like you can view the entire book an average of 2 times. That is if there was a very hard page in a 1000 page book I could read 10 times, but I can only read (i.e. turn) 2000 pages total. If you added a model where I could search (and reference) online with a user account but not reread the whole thing now I would be really interested.

The publishing industry needs to come up with a model that gives libraries mass access to electronic versions of their books for lending (perhaps at a small fee). The catalog available needs to be comparable to the hard copy catalog. The e-reader industry needs to allow easy access to books out of copyright in the public domain. But I really don't think you will see mass adoption (like you did for CD's instead of vinyl, or DVD's instead of video tape) until they have some user model like that. As the previous user commented the format has to be open enough so there is competition in the hw and sw delivery platforms, like there was for CD, DVD, and MP3.

The danger to the publishing industry is that if they don't adopt they will become irrelevent. Fiction writers do complete with videos for our attention. Non-fiction writers do complete with online information of of ever increasing quality. The encyclopedia industry has been rendered obsolete by wikipedia. The publishing industry has a window of time here to act decisively and move to a new standard before ripping paper books to electronic format becomes so easy that people just do it themselves like they did for CD's to MP3. Otherwise they will have no control over the format that gets widespread adoption.

Huh?

When it comes to e-readers, it is my fear that we will end up with something that resembles the video game console market. With the Wii, Xbox, and the Playstation, these are a handful of proprietary systems that dominate the market. Wherein the past, a game manufacturer could develop a game that worked on multiple platforms, the current trend is for companies to sign exclusive deals for their product lines.

What "past" are you talking about? Video game consoles have always been proprietary, going back the the Atari, Coleco, Odyssey days.

And most modern games are ported across platforms.

--Terry, GameCouch.com

"Most" being the operative

"Most" being the operative word in that sentence.

In the rest of what I wrote that follows the passage you quoted, it is my concern that a small spectrum of proprietary devices would lead the companies to sign exclusive contracts with popular authors. These contracts would deny the work of these authors for owners of the other devices. For a business, that's good in building market share. For a library, that can be bad if you are lending out the other non-favored readers.

The "past" of which I talk about is when game makers would make the game available across the widest number of platforms. The trend now is for exclusive contracts for a game on one platform. Yes, it may be ported over eventually, but it can be embargoed for several months to a year. In a library setting, that would be a no-go situation. Timeliness of materials is important, even more so these days with people seeking us out to replace their former book buying habits.

Basically, I'm hoping for a market in which e-reader device makers and e-book sellers are on the same standard. Proprietary stinks for library collection.

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