Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Psst - want to borrow an ebook?

Whether you are an author or a reader, ebooks have taken a bit of getting used to. But there is no doubt after years of posturing about the death of paper books that ebooks have finally taken off. It has been interesting to hear politician Margaret Hodge in her campaign to avoid using corporate tax dodgers like Starbucks, Amazon and Google that she has said that she loves her Kindle and is finding it a real pain going back to paper books.
Lovely ebooks! Borrow your ebooks 'ere!
Rip off an author!

I am not the kind of person who throws my hands in the air and bewails the coming of the ebook, nor one who forecasts the demise of paper books any time soon. Bear in mind 25% of the UK population doesn't even use the internet - I suspect a significantly higher percentage will resist ebooks for a good number of years to come (though admittedly some technophobes will not be enthusiastic readers). But I do think we need to keep an eye on the pros and cons of ebooks.

One aspect that has come to my eye recently is the facility called Overdrive that allows you to borrow ebooks from libraries.

At the moment (from my library, at least) the facility is fairly limited. It provides a small selection from popular authors, but mostly its pretty obscure stuff. However it won't necessarily stay that way. We could in principle see every ebook in existence available for borrowing this way. And what happens to the author's income then?

In the UK and a number of other European countries (but not in the US) there is a facility called PLR. This provides a small payment for the author (currently around 6p in the UK) when a book is borrowed, or rather it is based on the scaling up of borrowings from a number of sample libraries. It's not something that will make you rich. I just got my Irish PLR and it amounted to £6.50 for the year. But the point is that you are being paid for the use of your books.

The danger with ebook lending is that it is much closer in nature to buying ebooks than conventional library lending is to buying paper books. With an ebook you don't really care that you don't have anything to treasure and own, and unlike a library book it will be no more battered after its 1,000th loan. It could mean a whole lot fewer people buying ebooks. So if it is allowed, there need to be a number of restrictions.

One is that you can't lend the same ebook to many people at once - it should be (and the system allows it to be) a check-out/check-in resource. It is also possible that ebooks for loan should cost a lot more than for purchase. This isn't impossible - the same has always applied to videos/DVDs, where a loan copy cost the hire shop or library much more than buying a personal copy for yourself. And the final essential is that ebook lending is taken into PLR. And here we have a problem.

The UK government agreed in the Digital Economy Act 2010 that PLR could be extended to audiobooks and ebooks, and that audiobooks and ebooks counted legally as books for PLR purposes. But it has since announced that 'It will not be extending PLR at this time' and so PLR 'remains restricted to books which are printed and bound.' This is ludicrous and arbitrary. So it's time the government got its finger out and caught up. Otherwise ebook lending should be disallowed until they can get their act together.

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