Shh! eBooks and the Quiet Conspiracy against Public Libraries

February 23, 2011

Last evening I wrote to a colleague who runs a regional association of trade book publishers. I thought I would share the letter:

Hi xxx,

I thought of you when I read this just now in today’s Wall Street Journal:

I think it’s a very good article just because it presents the unvarnished truth about ebooks in American libraries today. The author, Katherine Boehret, is wide-eyed and open-minded and just checking what’s out there. Several things trouble her:

  • the small selection.
  • little availability of bestselling titles (for borrowing).
  • difficult to find what is actually available from her library.
  • unnecessarily complicated registration requirements.
  • tight limits on how many books you can borrow and how long you can borrow them for.

I’ve found an additional challenge not discussed in the article. Patrons need to go through a wide variety of disparate digital portals to get at ebooks. In my local library the current number of portals for Ebooks & Downloadable Audiobooks is 14! Right now the library catalog doesn’t help much in navigating around these (although they’re trying to build a new online catalog), and if I found separate registration networks for each, then aaargh (eventually there will be one point of access, but…).

This is the big worry that I mentioned at our lunch a couple of weeks ago. Libraries are being marginalized by the shift to ebooks because their existing infrastructure doesn’t enable ebook lending. They’re receiving only tepid support from publishers, none from authors, and none from Amazon. The email I showed you that I’d received from the Massachusetts librarian demonstrated his efforts to prove that publishers and authors benefit from having their books available in libraries. That’s important for publishers and authors to realize. Amazon would I think be thrilled if public libraries failed in lending ebooks, not because they’re worried about theft (OverDrive, ebrary et al, protect their ebooks with more robust DRM than Amazon does). Amazon wants to sell ebooks in volume at low retail prices to the broad public, not just single copies that public libraries can lend multiple times.

I believe that publishers and Amazon are content to take advantage of this ebook confusion to undermine the public library system.

When you read Mike Shatzkin’s recent post about the rapidly increasing sales of ebooks (and the commensurate decline of paper book sales) you can see a fierce storm cloud forming.

Meanwhile 8 of the 20 top paid Kindle books in the U.S. are .99, $1.99 or $2.99.

If you look to the right of those inexpensive Kindle ebooks you’ll see another column demonstrating how many free ebooks are available. Who needs to engage in the fruitless frustration of trying to borrow ebooks from a public library when there is such a variety of free titles available, and many more for $2.99 or less?

A Google search on Amazon AND “public libraries” delivered links to several books about libraries for sale on Amazon. It also delivered the pages the next images are clipped from.

Added February 27: If you don’t think publishers will be happy to see ebooks kill public libraries read: HarperCollins Puts 26 Loan Cap on Ebook Circulations

In the first significant revision to lending terms for ebook circulation, HarperCollins has announced that new titles licensed from library ebook vendors will be able to circulate only 26 times before the license expires.

Good commentary here:


Update, April 20, 2011

Thad McIlroy
Amazon FINALLY announced Kindle Library Lending — to allow borrowing of ebooks from over 11,000 libraries in the U.S.

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Think Good Thoughts About Adobe Acrobat

February 11, 2011

(The title of this post is inspired by one of my favorite books of cartoons by one of my favorite New Yorker cartoonists, George Booth: Think Good Thoughts About a Pussycat.)

I’ve been using Adobe’s Acrobat technology forever, and I’m a huge fan of the underlying technology. The user-facing software, however, stinks.

It’s the same problem that you find in Microsoft Word, or in web portals: when you try to be all things to all people you end up being valuable to none.

This is now a big intractable problem for the folks at Adobe and at Microsoft and at Yahoo. The future of software is dedicated apps, just as the future of publishing is targeted, contextualized content. The days of all-purpose software are evolving to a close.

Right now I’m trying to scan a nasty IRS income tax notice into Acrobat X (pronounced “Ten”). The #1 reported feature of Acrobat X is its new, simplified user interface. I always have trouble when engineers decide to simplify interfaces. One person’s simplification in another person’s leap into the obscure.

I’m trying to use Acrobat “Actions” to scan. Actions simplify the interface by combining several steps into a single action. Good idea! But there’s no preprogrammed action for scanning. There are actions for several things I’ll never do, so I decide to create a scanning action. Of course the Action interface is relatively complex. AND I can’t find even the menu item for scanning as it’s now buried deeply under the simplified UI.

Oh well. There are simple and free third-party tools to achieve the same goal. Adobe is a great company with great technology and some powerful but tough-to-learn software. Which third parties greatly appreciate.

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Customer Service and the Future of Publishing

February 7, 2011

Communication is as challenging as it ever was.

The exchange was prompted by a post on Dan Gillmor’s excellent journalism blog on When I saw Dan on the Mac version I did the requisite Google search for an answer and got the usual spam-filled and out-of-date search results.

Like David Pogue at the New York Times I’ve been using Dragon Naturally Speaking since before Nuance bought it (he wrote Mac OS X: The Missing Manual, Second Edition using Dragon on Windows). Unlike David Pogue, I could never get it to work satisfactorily. Until Version 11. It’s amazingly good. I’m 99% happy with it (the accuracy could always be better, but it is still miraculous). At the same time, I’m continuously besieged by my very-well-meaning Macintosh buddies to return to the Apple fold. I think they’re right, but after struggling with Dragon for a decade, I don’t want to step backwards. (Would the Windows version work just as well on a MacBook Air?).

Update, February 8, 2011:

Update, February 11, 2011:

After receiving today the comment from Gene Gable (below) it struck me as odd that I’ve not received a response from Nuance. The new rules of engagement for companies in this era of social media are to respond quickly to blogs, tweets, Facebook postings and comments about your products. Last September I posted a very minor complaint about the company on Amazon, and Peter Mahoney, SVP & GM, Dragon responded the same day. When I later commented on the product, ditto. It appears he still works there, so why doesn’t Nuance’s electronic press clipping service pick up on this post? (As you see above, it’s cross-linked to Dan Gillmore’s far-more-popular blog, so it shouldn’t be tough to find.)

My guess is it’s mainly because Google is now worthless for most product searches: it has been too thoroughly gamed by the SEO hordes. A Google search of blogs on “‘Dragon Naturally Speaking’ AND Nuance” produces just garbage and noise.

(When I Googled “too thoroughly gamed by the SEO hordes” to find an appropriate link, I found that search had been gamed as well, and most of the links were to “gaming”.)

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