Friday, October 31, 2014

Libraries, ebooks, and magical thinking

Writing for Library Journal, Wayne Bivens-Tatum ignores the economics behind the publishing business and indulges in a bit of magical thinking:

Unlimited access should be a no-brainer, but publishers keep selling single-use licenses to ebooks and librarians keep paying for them so obviously it’s not. The main advantage of ebooks over print books for library users is accessibility. They might take up less room in the stacks, and a PDA-driven ebook plan might save the library some money, but neither of those goals has anything to do with providing the best experience for library users. If accessibility is the main user advantage, then limiting that accessibility makes things worse for library users than they need to be. A print book is limited to a single user because it’s a physical object that’s not easily reproducible. An ebook is limited to a single user because someone deliberately restricted access.

I use my local library quite frequently (usually just for paper books). 

Often I find that the single user access of paper books incentivizes me to simply buy a title, due to a waiting list, or my desire to use the book for longer than the three weeks allotted by my local library system.

Using the library, in other words, involves opportunity costs and inconveniences.

If these opportunity costs and inconveniences disappear with library ebooks that can be downloaded by unlimited users for unlimited amounts of time, then no one will ever have an incentive to buy a book again.

That's great, right? 

Right, except for the old adage, "If no one gets paid, nothing gets made."  

Without an economic pay model, book publishing would still exist. But it would be limited to personal memoirs, poetry chapbooks, and other pure labors of love--which few people would want to read. 

Reference books that require the dedicated work of researchers and fact checkers? No--those would all go away if the universe magically changed to accommodate Bivens-Tatum's wishful thinking.

I like the concept, though. I also think that free Internet and cable TV access, unlimited free meals at my local restaurants, and the free use of any car I desire are "no brainers" in my more quixotic moments.

And then I remember that I have all those things because someone made money from them

Why should economic reality be magically different with reference books?

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