I Want it Now.

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?

About Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

5 thoughts on “I Want it Now.

  1. The elephant in the closet, of course, with the idea of print on demand, is binding and preservation cost. Doing this on a title by title basis for university libraries alone is HUGE – and most small libraries simply can not afford it, and do not have *any* in house facilitaties outside of table and basic book repair supplies to work with!

    Until this issue is resolved, it is going to be very difficult for libraries to justify the cost of paying for what will amount to printing a one time use book.

  2. Actually, I was envisioning simply placing an order for the book, as we normally would once we identify a title we would like to have in our collection, but meanwhile have access to a .pdf file of the book so that the person who needs it now has access and the press, meanwhile, has made a sale.

    Even so, it’s not exactly practical – we’d have to convince a lot of scholarly publishers it’s worth it and they would have to synch up their content with fulfillment (which is no doubt done through a vendor) and so it’s a completely absurd idea when you think about it. BUT it’s also a completely sensible one.

    I mean, what if members of the AAUP decided they would do this, libraries would be able to go to one Website and place orders, we’d be able to browse contents of their backlists and then actually read entire books that we’ve paid for …

    Oh, forget it… that’s just waaaay too easy.

  3. I don’t think this is crazy — some people have already been doing at least part of it. U of Michigan Library, for example, digitized some 10,000 books in their Making of America collection. The full texts are freely available online, and people who want a hard copy can order it (via a print on demand vendor). These are 19th-century books, not available in most libraries and certainly not in print from publishers.

    For new books, National Academies Press makes their entire list available online for reading, and offers buyers the option of getting hard- or soft-cover, PDF of the whole book or chapters, or a bundle of hard copy and PDF.

    Why don’t more publishers do this? I could guess at a lot of reasons — they figure they’ll ruin their print sales with complete free online access, or worry that PDF copies are too easily shared. Also, neither of these services offer texts that particularly nifty to read online, nor do they have huge audiences, so they haven’t created a groundswell of demand for a killer app (like, say, YouTube.) We’re talking about the realm of non-profit publishers, remember. They don’t have a lot of spare cash, slick programmers on staff, or room to take big financial risks.

    Years ago an editor I know predicted that someday every college bookstore (or library?) would have a little printer-binder, from which students could get paperbacks made up of whatever digital files they’d selected and paid for—think custom course-pack. It was then (15 years ago?) a problem of waiting for the technology to be cheap enough and the publishers to figure out how to cover their costs selling by their books in digital chunks. Still waiting…? Caravan seems to take us only partway there — I see how Osnos wants to support bookstores, but I suspect that buyers of digital books will wonder precisely why they should go through a bookstore to buy them.

  4. I think the only way Caravan really makes sense if the discovery of a book happens at a store. Otherwise – why go to the trouble of driving there, parking, etc.? I think what he’s anticipating is the sale a bookseller loses when a person in the store asks about a book that isn’t there. In the case of academic libraries, we really have a bit of an edge in that we could not only enable discovery, we’d purchase the book for the reader! This is why my mind jumped immediately to a collaborative that would make the contents of UP books browsable in libraries through an interface that would also facilitate quick acquisition of the book for the library and some sort of immediate and useful digital copy the patron could use until the print copy arrived. (I hate those “missed sales” as much as Peter Osnos!)

    What’s interesting is that there is evidence to support the idea that making the contents free online actually increases sales (from both NAP and from Amazon). But there are costs involved in creating a site like NAP’s that integrates secure online browsing and sales. And of course, it’s designed more for consumer sales, not library sales and we’re so used to going through our usual jobbers. But what if NAP (or some other “we know how to do it” publisher) was able to host digital book content for other university presses and what if they served as a distributor for library sales and what if we all made it easily browsed on our library websites and … [okay, take a deep breath...]

    With journals – that’s different. We have such a tangle of vendors already doing e-content with university and society presses. But the books – that’s where I think we’re relying on an old way of doing things that could be improved. Enormously.

    There’s a wonderful list of projects going on at the AAUP’s site. MOA’s not listed, and I have to admit I didn’t realize there was a chance to buy copies of the books in that project.

  5. Barbara — I like it! I’ll toss the idea to a few UP pals and see what they think.

    For the moment, Caravan isn’t going to demonstrate a whole lot, I fear, as there are only a few titles available. But I’m not going to sneer at a new effort. I’ve been known to be wrong… and the brains behind Caravan are good ones.

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