Oh, there he goes off to his room to write that hit song "Alone in my principles."
Question #64686 posted on 10/03/2011 12:18 p.m.

Dear 100 Hour Board,

I am still on the fence about books being completely digital. Part of me really likes it because I like to ready in bed and it would be nice to have something light weight that I can hold in just one hand (and don't have to worry about holding the page open). I love the library, though, and I just would hate to see that eventually go the way of the do-do. I've told myself that I would wait until many popular books would be available for loan from the library and it looks like this may be happening soon:

So my question is this: how do you think that they will handle loaning out books? Will it be like regular books where a library will only have a few copies of the digital files and so you have to wait for the ebook to become available to borrow?

-Avid Reader


Dear Avid,

I was just posting my thoughts about eBooks and libraries the other day on Google+.  It's an area that really bothers me because technology is being artificially handicapped to prevent it from being nearly as powerful as it truly is.  See, a digital work (book, movie, song, art, etc.) can be perfectly copied and distributed an infinite number of times at almost zero cost.  This power should be changing the world.

The markets of physical distribution should be in turmoil while this far superior distribution method takes over.  The price per copy should be almost negligible while the breadth of distribution explodes.  With no additional effort your work can be immediately available to the ~2.1 billion people with Internet access!  No distribution method in history has ever come close to that breadth.  But it's not happening.  People in Canada can't watch U.S. TV shows via sites like Hulu.  People in the U.S. can't stream episodes of BBC shows.  And people in South Africa can't buy certain eBooks from the U.S. for no reason other than some company says so.  There's nothing technologically preventing it, it's entirely an artificial restriction.  The thing that blows my mind is that people all over the world are saying "Here's my money, may I please buy your product?" and the companies are refusing!  Publishers are attempting to shoe horn the incredible power of digital distribution to fit within their antiquated notion of physical distribution. 

Now to the topic of eBooks in libraries.  Libraries are, so far, required to purchase digital distribution licenses for any eBook they plan to lend (okay, that's fine).  They are only allowed to lend the eBook to one person at a time per license (this is an arbitrary, "physical distribution" restriction).  And worse, HarperCollins, for instance, is requiring that libraries purchase a new license every 26 times the eBook is checked out.  This simply makes no sense.  Their reasoning is that 26 is the average number of checkouts a physical book has before needing to be replaced.  But, since a digital copy experiences no damage, there is no reason to replace it.  HarperCollins considers this a flaw that they must fix.  It's ridiculous.

The counter-argument is, of course, that the people creating the works should be able to make some money off of their efforts.  And that's a fair argument.  However, it's not the authors, bands, singers, artists who are restricting the distribution of their work.  It's the middle-men: the book publishers and the record companies, etc.  The organizations that were necessary to successfully run massive printing, manufacturing, shipping, and advertising processes.  But 3 of those 4 steps have essentially just disappeared.  Yet those companies are still demanding revenue and profits as if they are still doing all 4.

It's taking what seems like a very long time, but slowly these companies are catching on that we, as a market, simply won't support their massive profits anymore.  Actual creators of work can sell directly to their audience without a middle-man.  Authors can sell their eBooks themselves to anyone in the world and bands can sell their songs without a producer.  The great thing is, in a digital sale almost the entire transaction is straight profit to the actual content producer.  So instead of authors and bands getting pennies on the dollar from publishers and producers, they can get upwards of 90% of the revenue.  You can still make the same amount of money while selling a lot fewer books at a lot lower prices when we're talking about a ~7% cut of the proceeds versus a ~90% cut of the proceeds.  And you can sell a lot more books when you're selling at a much lower price to a much wider audience (as digital distribution allows for).

The distribution world should be all topsy-turvy right now, but so far large companies have been able to use their clout to enforce a physical model on digital goods.  But the times are changing (I hope they continue to do so) and soon they'll be toppled by companies willing to accept a smaller slice of the bigger pie that digital distribution allows for or by content creators bypassing them altogether.

-Curious Physics Minor


Dear Avid Reader,

CPM gave a very broad view of what is happening with the e-book industry, but I just wanted to put in two cents about borrowing e-books from libraries. I do this now, as we speak. The public library system where I live uses Overdrive to distribute digital copies of the books that the libraries purchases the rights too. I don't have a Kindle or Nook, I just have an iPod touch (that came with my Macbook that I bought more than a year ago). I was mostly using it for downloading podcasts and playing dumb little games like Angry Birds. I knew other people who downloaded and read books on iPod touches, but it just seemed like a drag: such a tiny screen, squinting down at tiny books? Blerg.

But this summer, I downloaded a few books from the library before a trip and I admit that I'm hooked. I have at least three books with me all the time, so I've been able to read on the bus, while waiting for doctor's appointments, kinda wherever. You can check out a copy of the book or audio book for 14 days, at which time it will no longer play on your device and someone else can check it out. The library buys the rights for as many digital copies as they want (see CPM's great explanation above), and there are multiple copies of popular books. For example, I just read The Help (a very popular book right now) through the library and I noticed they have 5 digital copies of the book.

So, while I think that the death of physical, paper copies of books is a long way off, I think the use of eBooks is really on the rise, and for good reason. I have really gotten a lot of use out of my library's distribution of them, and while I don't agree with a lot of the tactics that publishing companies use to keep control of them, I think that they're great.

- Rating Pending (who has read about, let's see, nine books on his iPod now and is seriously looking at a Nook or a Kindle)