Paul Whitney on eBooks
September 16th, 2012
Paul Whitney has completed a new report for Canada Council son the potential impact of eBooks.
1. TECHNOLOGICAL PROGRESS
2. UGLIFICATION OF READING
3. THE ONLY WAY FORWARD
4. NOT REALLY BOOKS AT ALL
5. ALL OF THE ABOVE
The future of books and so-called eBooks—as well as libraries, publishing, bookselling and reading—is undefined and daunting territory.
That’s why Canada Council hired Paul Whitney, former chief librarian for the Burnaby Public Library and the Vancouver Public Library, to investigate the impact of eBooks for Canada’s Public Lending Right program.
Whitney was interviewed by B.C. BookWorld’s Alan Twigg.
BCBW: I just saw someone outdoors in a coffee shop, reading a real book. It was oddly uplifting.
PW: I prefer print-on-paper books, too. I take it you don’t own a Kobo or a Kindle or a Sony Reader?
BCBW: I live app-free and I see eBooks as the uglification of reading. It’s an aesthetic stance.
PW: I’m happy to see folks reading in whatever format they choose.
BCBW: But faster, cheaper technology is not always a good thing. Look at what happened to the music industry.
PW: I don’t think piracy will be as prevalent with the written text as with music. You have to remember publishing has been much slower moving to digital distribution, largely due to paranoia about losing control of the content. The executive director of the Association of Canadian Publishers [Carolyn Wood] pointed out to me that people shouldn’t be surprised by this slow move to digital. Publishing is an industry which has experienced 1.5 format changes in 500 years. And that .5 change was paperbacks! [laughter]
BCBW: So no wonder people are in a tizzy.
PW: In the United States, in the first quarter of 2011, trade print book sales were down 19%. That decline is increasing. Even if you stop and consider the U.S. economy and the bankruptcy of Borders, the second largest book chain in the U.S., much of that decline of sales is attributable to people moving to eBooks. It’s less pronounced in Canada, but it’s early days yet. I worry that conventional trade book publishers will be increasingly vulnerable with more agile eBook-only publishers not encumbered by having to deal with moving physical objects around. But the most vulnerable sector in the short term is the brick and mortar bookstore. I deeply regret that I can’t foresee a happy ending to this story.
BCBW: I was in Victoria recently. They still have plenty of bookstores.
PW: I think Victoria is the exception which proves the rule, aided in part by its demographic composition. Meanwhile the climate for new bookstores in Canada is dismal. Just this summer, one week after being named the specialty bookseller of the year by the Canadian Booksellers Association, the Flying Dragon Bookshop in Toronto closed.
BCBW: Is it true that major Canadian research libraries are now deciding which libraries will specialize in certain kinds of books?
PW: There are discussions taking place on establishing “trusted repositories” across the country to coordinate the collection and preservation of both print and digital works. We are talking about the major university libraries and the two large Canadian “national” libraries [Library and Archives Canada, in Ottawa, and Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, in Montreal]. Some say that they do not have the resources to collect and preserve everything anymore, so they are proposing a solution which distributes responsibility for collecting in certain subject areas. There has been vigorous opposition from the Canadian Association of University Teachers.
BCBW: What is this new, pan-European digital library called Europeana?
PW: Europeans got upset with the Google initiative to digitize all of the books in the world, so they want to control their own content in the digital environment. But currently European Union copyright laws are impeding library mass digitization efforts.
BCBW: French president Nicolas Sarkozy has pledged 750 million euros for the digitization of France’s “cultural patrimony.”
PW: The French always have valued their culture.
BCBW: And the Dutch are now digitizing every Dutch book, pamphlet, and newspaper produced from 1470 to the present. The Japanese Diet has voted for a two-year, 12.6 billion yen crash program to digitize their entire national library. Are Canadians lagging “behind” Europe in your view? Or are we right to be cautious?
PW: It’s not really caution, it’s respecting the law. Right now, we can’t digitize a local newspaper that ceased to publish in the 1950s because of copyright. The Dutch negotiated an agreement with their publishers to enable the digitization of “orphan works” [books still under copyright protection but not commercially available and the copyright owner can’t be traced]. When you have a relatively small group of publishers publishing in a language not widely spoken, such agreements are much easier.
BCBW: Many individual writers feel the emergence of eBooks is a juggernaut and they are losing control of their work. Who is looking after their interests?
PW: Every sector is nervous about loss of control and what the digital future will mean for their survival. For instance, with digital content, libraries can now effectively be denied the right to add content to their collections which is otherwise commercially available. Authors and publishers can dictate what digital works are sold to libraries and under what terms and conditions the work can be made available to our users. If they think availability of their work in libraries is detrimental to their economic interests, through licences they can dictate that the work must be sold for individual private use only and not for lending by libraries.
BCBW: Digitization has thus far most radically affected university libraries, has it not?
PW: Digital collections are now dominant in university and college library collections. That change reflects both the nature of academic publishing and the computer savvy user population. There are now discussions taking place which refer to “heritage print collections” of books to be stored in collaboratively-run, remote, storage centres. Libraries could concentrate on digital collections to be selected and licence-negotiated by a consortia of libraries, often national in scope.
BCBW: Aren’t they planting the seeds of their own destruction?
PW: They would argue that this approach is a pragmatic response to changes in publishing and the needs of students and faculty who often prefer the convenience of digital content in a “learning commons” approach to physical space in post-secondary libraries.
BCBW: Currently the library in Prince George has to pay the same amount for a book as the library system in Toronto that serves 2.5 million people. Can eBooks introduce a more equitable price model?
PW: The concept of licencing digital content using per capita service population to set the price is well established with electronic magazine and newspaper databases. Libraries could have a menu of purchase options for eBooks with the price determined by a range of variables: how long do you have the book in your collection? how many people can read it simultaneously? how many total “loans” are permitted? What is the size of your user population? We are still in the very early days of coming to terms with how to deal with this to address the needs of all parties.
BCBW: Should libraries pay more for an eBook than for a regular book? And what is the situation with publisher profits and author royalties?
PW: These are important issues. Clearly there are advantages to libraries with eBooks; they don’t wear out or get lost, they don’t have to be moved around, labeled, emptied from the night return box etc. This could be a justification for libraries paying more. Publishers have lower costs due to no need for physical warehousing and shipping but they have been challenged by the insistence of monopoly distributors such as Amazon and Apple that retail prices are low. Authors appear to be receiving lower royalties in dollars from eBook sales, in part due to the lower list price. This is all a work in progress but it will get sorted out.
BCBW: Even though Amazon now sells more eBooks than print books, public libraries remain fairly conventional.
PW: True. While eBook use is growing quickly in society, it is still very small compared with the borrowing of print books. The spring survey we carried out for the Public Lending Right Commission in large urban public libraries indicated that in January and February of 2011 eBook circulation in those libraries was less than 2% of print book circulation.
BCBW: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 imagined a hedonistic, anti-intellectual America, around now, when books were being burned. The antiquarian bookseller Don Stewart believes we are undergoing a 21st century equivalent of Fahrenheit 451—and libraries are complicit.
PW: I would say there is a big difference between seeking to suppress writing, as in Fahrenheit 451, and in seeking to increase access to writing through digitization. The impetus behind many of the digitization projects underway is fundamentally democratic. The contentious issue is how libraries deal with the overwhelming book glut confronting us all. The harsh reality is that there are too many books in the world and they keep coming in unsustainable waves. Libraries have always discarded low-use titles in order to make room. We have to ensure that the right decisions are made when this is happening. Don has no doubt seen situations where libraries are getting rid of titles which he thinks are worthwhile.
BCBW: Margaret Atwood says “The librarian is the key person you don’t want to remove from a school.” What is the future of the teacher librarian?
PW: I agree with her, but I am not optimistic when it comes to the future of the well-staffed school library. The only way this can change is from political leadership at the provincial level which makes school libraries a priority in labour negotiations. We’ll see how things play out this fall with the BCTF contract negotiations. The necessity of an appropriately staffed and stocked school library should be raised with your local MLA. The Internet alone is not an acceptable replacement.
BCBW: Orca Books in Victoria now offers more than 400 of their own titles in digital format. Readers can purchase a “multi-user digital subscription” for children’s books. But their level of adaptation to the digital environment is abnormal in Canada, is it not?
PW: Yes. Orca and several other publishers are to be applauded for wading in and making an effort. eBook readers were marketed here [in Canada] later and publishers were slower to distribute their content than in the U.S.
BCBW: Do you think the eBooks trade will eventually gravitate towards a single use device, such as Kobo? Or a multiuse device, such as the iPad?
PW: I expect there will continue to be a place for the dedicated eReader which offers a more aesthetically pleasing reading experience, and that there will also continue to be many readers who choose to use other hand-held devices to access eBooks.
BCBW: One of the biggest questions is: Will eBooks deliver new markets or are they just repositioning readers in a different format?
PW: The potential exists to deliver new markets but this doesn’t appear to be happening to any extent as yet. The U.S. January-April publishing revenues showed print down 19% and eBooks up 163% with a combined first quarter decline of 4%. As these are dollar changes, it does not mean that fewer books are being purchased because eBooks most often sell at a lower price.
BCBW: Mike Shatzkin, CEO of book consulting company Idea Logical, claims overall shelf space devoted to printed books in the U.S. dropped 15 percent over the past year. He claims it will only take about three years for stores to cut space for printed books by 50%.
PW: Well, this sounds reasonable to me. Chapters notified Canadian publishers late last year that they would be reducing shelf space devoted to books by 25% and this certainly seems to be happening. Combine this with bookstores closing and it is not a pretty picture.
BCBW: Are all types of books equally successful as eBooks?
PW: Genre fiction sells particularly well as eBooks. This is borne out by the fact that the biggest decline in print sales has been with mass-market paperbacks— down 41% in April in the U.S. In 2010, romance and historical sagas comprised 14% of the global eBook market, 7 times their share of the print market. Science fiction and fantasy have a three times greater share of the eBook market than the print market.
BCBW: So what will our libraries look like ten years from now? And will there be fewer librarians?
PW: I believe public libraries will still be thriving in 2021. They will still be recognizable as libraries to anyone walking in from 2011, or 1970, for that matter. There will still be staff but the focus of some work will change. While the personal contact between staff and library user will remain important, I anticipate our users will be more self-sufficient. The staff number question will be subject to both operational changes—some adopted willingly and some possibly imposed—and at the end of the day the outcome will be determined by political will at the local level and global economic forces. As we are currently seeing in the UK and California, if the money runs out, library service suffers. The political musings currently taking place in Toronto on closing library branches and outsourcing library services should serve as a warning that complacency regarding local politics is not cool. While we are seeing unprecedented change, I believe that writers will continue to write and readers will continue to read. The intermediaries, publishers, retailers and libraries, will experience greater change, some of which will be wrenching, but they will still have a role to play.
BCBW: And what do you think is the future for B.C. BookWorld?
Essay Date: 2011