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One idea that libraries have been experimenting with for a while is lending a collection of e-books under the same kind of restrictions as paper books—no more than one patron using a given “copy” at one time, each copy being “returned” after a set checkout period. (For a while, eReader was owned by a company that offered e-book lending collections to libraries.)

I have learned that both Fictionwise and my local public library now offer e-book lending collections—Fictionwise through its Libwise division, and my library through Overdrive. Today, I decided to take a look at both e-libraries and see what they had to offer.

Similarities and Differences

Both of the libraries offer works in the Secure Mobipocket e-book format. This lets them deliver the books to you with a set expiration date enforced by Digital Rights Management (DRM), so that you cannot read them after they have expired. The library is then free to lend the books out again to you or someone else, knowing that only one person can be reading the same “virtual copy” at a time.

To download library e-books, you must register your Mobipocket application and device serial numbers with the library. Fictionwise’s allows 4, Overdrive’s 3. Of course, you must also create an account with each of them. Fictionwise’s uses your pre-existing Fictionwise account. My library’s Overdrive needed my library card number.

At the moment, Fictionwise’s library is open only to members of its Buywise discount club (though they will also offer guest accounts to library administrators on request). My public library’s Overdrive collection is open only to those who have a local library card (as will be other public libraries’ Overdrive collections).

In addition to Mobipocket e-books, the Overdrive library offers Adobe e-books, Windows Media audiobooks, and others, but I didn’t really look at any of them. The Mobipocket books were what interested me.

Selection

The Overdrive collection from my library did not have a very large selection—only 57 Mobipocket e-book titles altogether. (Edit: As noted in one of the comments below, other libraries’ Overdrive collections may be substantially larger.) In all of that, there were only a handful of titles I wanted: the first two volumes of Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Sharing Knife and a couple of Pratchett Discworlds. The rest were mostly non-fiction or mainstream titles I had never heard of.

image Fictionwise has 543 titles in its library at the time of this writing, broken down into a number of categories. Many of them are short stories rather than full novels.

I did not browse through all the categories, but of the ones I checked, science fiction definitely had the most with 150 titles in it. There were 31 fantasy and 26 romance—but only 7 dark fantasy and 1 erotica (by Robert Silverberg, of all people). And with only 6 “mainstream” titles out of 543 books, one wonders just how “mainstream” they can really be.

It seems a little odd to break “dark fantasy” out from “fantasy” when there are so few titles in either category, but these categories echo those of the Fictionwise store itself, so I suppose it is just as well to keep it that way for simplicity’s sake.

The Fictionwise library has quite a few decent titles, including a book or two I’ve enjoyed in print. There’s another Bujold, this time the Vorkosigan novel The Borders of Infinity. There’s M.J. Engh’s The Wheel of the Winds. There’s Dodie Smith’s The Hundred and One Dalmations. There is a huge number of Robert Silverberg titles, and quite a few Michael Resnicks.

And there’s also Tarnsman of Gor—but then, they can’t all be winners.

In both cases, the libraries have only a limited number of each title to lend out—just like printed books in a “real” library. You can only check out a book if there is a copy that is not being read by anyone else.

The Overdrive collection allows books to be placed “on hold” so that you will be notified and given first shot at the next copy of a book that becomes available. Fictionwise does not appear to offer this feature yet. (Edit: Actually, I have been informed and subsequently discovered that they do, but it was not immediately obvious to me how to do so when I looked at a book that had been checked out.)

It should also be noted that, unlike in my local library’s physical-books catalog, there appears to be no way to tell when a book is “due back” in either Fictionwise or Overdrive. This lack is particularly annoying in the Fictionwise library, where there is no way to place a hold but no way to tell when you should try to check it out before someone else can either.

Checkout and Turn-In

imageTo check out books from the Overdrive library, you just add the books to your cart, then click the check-out link to check them out. You can have up to ten books out at one time, and you get them for a fixed period of two weeks. (Edit: As mentioned in the comment below, number of books allowed and check-out period may vary between different libraries’ Overdrive collections.)

In the Fictionwise library, you check them out one at a time by clicking on “Borrow now.” At the right, a panel appears with a drop-down box where you can select the length of time you will need them—anywhere from 3 to 16 days. This system adds a good deal of flexibility. If you know it will not take you long to read, you can choose closer to 3. If you know you will be away from reliable net access for some time, you can choose closer to 16.

Once you have set the check-out length, click the “Borrow Now” button and the book is automatically added to your Fictionwise bookshelf. (If the book is already checked out, there will be a “Wait List” button instead, and you will be added to a waiting list. You can tell how many people are in line ahead of you by the number of “person” icons next to the “Checked Out” icon.) You can currently only borrow three books at a time from the Fictionwise library.

Instead of checking Fictionwise library books out, you may also choose to buy them, either for yourself or to add another copy to the library. It is unclear whether you can or will eventually be able to buy and donate copies of Fictionwise books not yet in the library, however.

In both libraries, there is no way to turn in a book early (at least for Mobipocket. You can turn in Overdrive Adobe books early, according to their FAQ) because there is no way for the library to be sure the book has been removed from your hard drive before the DRM’s preset expiration date. In the case of Fictionwise, make sure you are not checking books out for any longer than you need them.

Unlike traditional books, Fictionwise books are “turned in” automatically, by the DRM system. In addition to the standard multi-device lockdown of all Mobipocket books, these books are set to expire in a set period of time—14 days for the Overdrive collection; user-selectable for the Fictionwise. After that time, the files remain on your hard drive, but you will no longer be able to access them. The library is then free to lend them out again.

The Books Themselves

I looked briefly through several titles from both libraries, and there is not a whole lot that really needs saying. These are professionally-formatted, nicely legible e-books in every respect.

My only complaint about the Fictionwise library would be that of the books I downloaded to try it out, only The Hundred and One Dalmations had a table of contents—Wheel of the Winds and The Borders of Infinity did not. But that may be an artifact of the way the books were provided to Fictionwise from their publishers.

Pro: The Convenience

On the face of it, these virtual libraries seem to be a very elegant and cool idea. My rant about HarperCollins’s ersatz “free” giveaway of Neverwhere aside, I have no problem with the idea of a book being yours to read for a limited time and then expiring, as long as it’s clear this is a library-style endeavor without a lot of noise made about how “free” it is. And certainly the ability to “check out” and “turn in” books without ever leaving your apartment is just like having your own private on-demand bookmobile.

Cons: Restricted Platforms

The problems lie in the execution. The first problem is a problem for readers like me: there is currently no DRM-capable Mobipocket reader for the iPhone/iPod Touch, or even Nokia 770, my current mobile reading devices of choice. I will only be able to read the books I check out on my Windows desktop—which is why I doubt I will be making much use of either of these libraries beyond my testing for this review, unless and until Mobipocket comes through with the official iPhone client that their CEO claimed would be out “by the end of the year.”

Useless DRM

The other problem is a potentially big problem for Fictionwise and Overdrive: Mobipocket’s DRM is completely ineffective, and has been for quite a while. The tools to crack it can be found in under five minutes on the Internet. Many e-book-reading consumers already use them to decrypt Secure Mobipocket books they’ve bought so they can read them on unsupported devices. This is illegal in some places, such as the United States, but not everywhere—and even where it is illegal, there is no reason to suppose that people who decrypt for personal use only will ever be caught.

There is no reason why these same cracking tools should not work just as well on library e-books as on purchased e-books—time limit or not, they all use the same DRM system. With the DRM cracked, the books can be read by anything that can read normal Mobipocket books, and will not expire.

Of course, you have to have a certain amount of technical expertise to be able to do that, and the majority of consumers will probably be happy to use the books the way they were intended. But for people of low moral character, these “library” e-books will simply become “free” e-books, and nobody will be the wiser. The real scum of the earth might even go so far as to share them through peer-to-peer.

Conclusion

E-book libraries are an interesting idea, and both the Overdrive and Fictionwise libraries seem to be executed about as well as such a thing can be (though I would give the edge to Fictionwise over my library’s Overdrive for its selection and its user-set check-out periods). Providing time-limited lending copies just as with a “real” library is certainly a laudable goal.

The problem is that the DRM that enables the lending is inconvenient to users who do not have exactly the right devices on the one hand, and ineffective at restricting the use of the books to just those intended by the lenders on the other. These are flaws that are inherent in the very idea of trying to make an electronic book act like a paper book, and I am skeptical that they can ever be solved.

 
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