A few weeks ago I shelled out $9.06 for Fallen: Confessions of a Disbarred Lawyer. Sleazy lawyers fascinate me. They’re entertaining caricatures of the “honest” ones. Give me Body Heat‘s Ned Racine over Perry Mason any old day. Alas, too much of Fallen reads like a legal brief, and the publisher used the loathsome Adobe Reader format. But the story overcomes all. Anyway, who can resist gems like, “Not only was I incompetent beyond repair, but I was also crooked, a con artist, perhaps a sociopath. I took the case for the money.”

But should a TeleRead-style national digital library system, or local ones for that matter, buy amateurish e-books like Fallen when so many professionally done titles are out there? And what about “Get Rich Quick”? Will good tax money go for what TeleRead CTO James Linden has called “e-book spam”? A I see it, the best single cure for library spam isn’t that different from the best single solution I can summon up for the classical e-mail variety. Filtering. And I don’t mean the kind that moralistic opportunists in Washington want to inflict on our local libraries. Instead filtered searches could reflect quality levels as determined by librarians or others whom readers trusted, including bands of other library users with similar tastes.

Readers could specify that searches be done on keywords or otherwise, but with inferior works weeded out–the selectivity being determined by the quality level specified. Many of the best searches might happen with quality filters turned off. In this world, the books you read could be like UseNet postings, a mix of the brilliant, the so-so and the atrocious. Interested people–yes, only the interested–could peruse the equivalents of mere manuscripts as opposed to edited books.

But what about tax dollars? As I’ve often pointed out, TeleRead couldn’t pay for everything. The solution would be a mix of different business and library models–and a hierarchy based on a mix of quality, importance and popularity, the same criteria that influence public library acquisitions today. Starting from the bottom, we might have:

1. Yes, James, the e-book equivalent of spam, “Get Rich Quick” and all that. Interested readers would have access, just as they do to sleazy sites on the Net; but public libraries would not pay a penny for titles they judged to be in this category. Readers would have to cough up the cash, and so might the publishers–one way for libraries to find money for better books. Most of the spamsters might not even wish to be in the system. The default in most filters for items at this level would be “Ignore.” My own theory is that the most popular QFs–my abbreviation for “quality filters”–would be none other than those provided by local or national librarians. So, yes, as a practical matter, the spam would be invisible to readers who didn’t appreciate it.

2. Books like Fallen that were amateurish but interesting. When first posted, most of them would be accessible only to paying customers, since librarians might hesitate to spend tax money. Still, exceptions would exist. If enough readers went for Fallens, then librarians might in fact include such titles in formal collections. No, Jacqueline Susann wasn’t Flaubert, but her books did find sufficient fans for librarians to hold their noses, as, in fact, they do for so many similar titles today. Keep in mind, too, that local librarians should be a tad partial to local writers and not quite hold them to the same standards as for out-of-town authors. Libraries are local institutions, and local writers often have voting and taxpaying relatives.

So what about the lending model for “amateurish but interesting”? If budgets allowed, the better of these books would be eligible for the permanent checkout approach (also identified as the “perennial checkout approach”) that I described earlier in this blog. If not, there would be borrowing time limits for such books and restrictions on how many readers could access them at once. The distinctions would be made case by case. Library patrons who wanted to keep the time-limited books could buy them outright through the library system at prices set by the publishers.

3. Mediocre midlist books. Unfortunately for writers but luckily for libraries, individual MMBs don’t find that many readers. So the “permanent checkout” approach would generally work well. “Midlist,” by the way, means that a book isn’t either an old “backlist” item from the past or a “frontlist” bestseller.

4. Good midlist books. Even more often than with mediocre midlist books, librarians would use permanent checkouts, so readers could build personal libraries of these books on their own machines.

Oh, but doesn’t the above list of options leave out best-sellers? Just what to do? Well, as with mid-list books, public librarians could try to apply the “permanent checkout” concept to the best of the popular titles. Ideally all of the better blockbusters would quality for “permanent checkout.” But realistically that might not happen for budgetary reasons. Of course, as the popularity of the best-sellers waned, then permanent checkouts might be possible after all.

How about rotten best-sellers? Librarians in such cases would be more sensitive to budgetary limits and more likely to apply the model of “Limit the number of readers and zap after two weeks.” I’m not the biggest fan of time limits for library patrons checking out e-books, and ideally none would exist in a TeleRead system, but, reluctantly, I’ve concluded that it’s better for books to be offered this way than not at all.

See a pattern here? Yes–one of maximum choices for readers and at the same time a chance for librarians to exercise their acquisitions skills in new ways.


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