Dang! I just saw this perfect book for my paper, but the library doesn’t have it. I could wait several days for it to come through interlibrary loan, purchase a downloadable e-version for thirty-five smackers (yeah, like that’s gonna happen), or . . . forget it, I’ll just change my topic.
Ouch. If we could only read your mind, that book would have been on the shelf when you needed it.
Peter Osnos has an idea we should think about. He’s been serious about books for a long time. That’s why he left the WaPo to go into publishing, and left a big house to start his own – PublicAffairs. He’s a friend of the indie bookstore in DC, Politics and Prose, and wants to figure out how to solve a pesky problem: bringing books and readers together without destroying small booksellers in the process, because a bookstore like Politics and Prose is a little like a library – a community resource and a cultural space that brings people together and helps them encounter new ideas. So with a grubstake from the MacArthur foundation he came up with a solution. Put e-books in the bookstores.
It’s too soon to know if something like Caravan will work. It’s a way to retail new books in whatever format the customer wants – printed, audio, large print, and any variety of digital format. So far a handful of presses are in on the experiment, including some university presses. You want a book on X? I know just the thing. Hang on a minute while we download the version of your choice.
Will academic libraries ever plug into an idea like this? Could we help our readers discover what they’re interested in – and get it for them right now, in the format of their choice? We’ve made interlibrary loan so efficient, we sometimes forget it carries a price. But it’s quicker to borrow a book from another library than to go through the traditional acquisitions and cataloging process. (Come back next semester, maybe it will be on the shelf by then.) Maybe we should try something different. And maybe, if publishers can help us think this through, we can come up with ways to sell digital books to libraries in ways that make them both usable and reusable.
Peter Osnos tells me that Overdrive is currently partnering with Caravan and NYPL as something of a testbed library market. But how many academic libraries use Overdrive? It’s primarily marketing audio books to public libraries, and while a report by Tom Peters says it’s more useable than NetLibrary, it has met with patron resistance because the format is incompatible with iPod (not the fault of Overdrive, but patrons tend to think the library is incredibly out-of-touch and stupid).
Academic libraries have different users with different needs. Handling a university press book the way a big publishing house handles its popular bestsellers doesn’t really make sense. What if we could purchase a bundle – a digital copy in .pdf format tied to our IP range for a limited time to fulfill the immediate need, and a print order to be available and browseable on our shelves? This way publishers wouldn’t print and stock inventory in warehouses, hoping libraries will order it; libraries will put books on their shelves that they know people want, and readers will be able to get the books they’re interested in right now.
And as times change, we could adapt the model to whatever format makes sense. But right now, we’re saddling e-books with DRM that makes them nearly unusable. (What? I can’t print this section? This library is incredibly out-of-touch and stupid!) Academic publishers are missing sales. We’re buying books in hopes they’ll get used. And our users aren’t getting what they need unless we’re clairvoyant enough to buy it before they know they need it.
Peter Osnos has an idea for indie bookstores. What’s our idea?