image The world of academic libraries and scholarly publishers works much differently from the rest of the e-book world.

But the access model it eventually adopts could point the way to a very unfriendly future for all e-book consumers, especially those who value genuine ownership of books.

Toward the downside?

In my last post I told how academic libraries have found themselves with large collections of e-books that, since they cannot be viewed on e-readers and smart phones, remain largely unread.

Now used for searching rather than reading, these e-book collections stand to be made redundant by Google’s more familiar interface and brand.

But as some of the astute commenters on the post immediately pointed out, the next generation of tablet/slate devices, should they contain technology that allows the screen to mimic e-paper (a la Pixel Qi), will certainly bring these e-book collections back to life.

If this method of delivering e-books works for scholarly publishers, it can also work for trade publishers and it may come with a significant downside for the consumer.

Downloadable or flowable?

What is important in this is not the tablet technology so much as the way publishers will be providing content for them. Will it be through downloadable e-books of the kind consumers are beginning to buy in such large numbers? Or will it be as “flowable” HTML of the kind academic libraries currently provide (that is, e-books that are streamed from a server that you must be constantly connected to in order to view)?

Downloadable ebooks work on e-readers and smart phones. Flowable e-books work on pc’s and any device that can maintain a constant connection to the web, including and especially the coming tablet pc’s. Downloadable e-books make the reading device key to the reading experience (how well can you search, annotate etc.). For flowable e-books the reading platform performs this function (think Stanza, or in the case of academic libraries, ebrary).

Naturally the next generation of mobile devices won’t be tied to flowable e-books in that you’ll still be able to download e-books on them. But I’m betting trade publishers are going to start to see what the big academic publishers presumably have already—that flowable e-books have a much greater profit potential because they allow for much greater control.

Gatekeepers and DRM

Contrary to popular belief, DRM isn’t just something stuck to downloadable e-books—vendors of reading platforms love it too. In fact, flowable ebooks and DRM were made for each other. As any undergraduate who’s tried to print extensive sections of their library’s e-books will tell you, DRM can be built into the platform to control what the reader does with the content. This technology empowers the platform vendor, potentially allowing them to charge readers for certain basic functions like printing, copying text or even just taking notes. This isn’t to say that this kind of DRM can’t be hacked somehow. But it can be very effective and annoying, and not particularly sophisticated. On more than one occasion I’ve been asked to intervene with a publisher on behalf of a student or class because the DRM has inexplicably blocked them from viewing the text.

More to the point, the platform becomes the gatekeeper. Access to the text is password protected (or in the case of academic libraries, gated by IP address). Since the e-book is not downloaded to your device, access can be shut off at any time. And you can’t file share a flowable ebook. Although you can share passwords, these too can be easily blocked if it’s determined the user has violated the license (by accessing from another IP address, for example).

This kind of DRM would make a database like Google Books a gold mine for publishers who end up selling their e-books as flowable content only, not ePub files to be downloaded to an e-reader. Creative publishers could start charging micropayments for rentals (say 50 cents for a day’s use). A convenient, smooth rental system might even persuade consumers away from the idea of owning e-books altogether. This may seem far-fetched, but academic librarians have been talking about the virtues of what they call “access over ownership” for years. Ironically, though, in an e-book rental scenario, it would be libraries that end up going the way of the music industry, not publishers.

The Other DRM

The DRM welded to downloaded e-book files seems positively benign to me in comparison. OK, perhaps not benign, but it at least seems to level the playing field a little more between reader and content provider. As long as the file is on your device and the DRM doesn’t screw up (a big “if,” I know), it’s yours, not the provider’s. Of course Kindle owners have reason to doubt this, but given the amount of competition for devices consumers can now make a different choice. They can go for a device that allows you to archive your e-book in a place beyond the provider’s reach.

Will the flowable e-book scenario actually happen? As movie fortune tellers always caution, this is just one possible future. As long as consumers demand ownership of the e-books they purchase, including the right to archive, it won’t. But as the next generation of mobile devices emerge, and as Google Books develops, consumers of e-books should beware: access will always leave you vulnerable; ownership has the best potential for giving you security.

As for academic libraries, they may finally get the value out of their e-book collections that they paid for, but the Digital Industrial Complex keeps rolling on. Only a resurgent Open Access movement and a new, more skeptical generation of library administrators will be able to stop it and ensure that libraries, as the immortal Bob and Doug McKenzie might put it, never get hosed like that again.

Bio: Dan D’Agostino is collections development director at a large research library.


  1. As long as the file is on your device and the DRM doesn’t screw up (a big “if,” I know), it’s yours

    Huh? Not if the DRM is authentication based it is not. Every time you open it there is a requirement for the ebook reading application to contact some database owned by the vendor to let you see the eBook.

    Adobe does this as a standard.

    So no, the gatekeeper is still present and your access is based on their DRM authentication remaining available and some database somewhere not under your control accounting for your long ago purchase.

  2. “Of course Kindle owners have reason to doubt this, but given the amount of competition for devices consumers can now make a different choice. They can go for a device that allows you to archive your e-book in a place beyond the provider’s reach.”

    You can already do that with Kindle. I never use WhisperNet … I simply download books to my computer and copy them over. My computer copies can’t be touched by the provider …

  3. Teddypig: Thanks for this. You make an excellent point and my argument was not as clear as it might have been. It would better be rephrased like this: accessing the ebook via a provider’s server leaves you vulnerable to any number of new charges that are fairly easy for the provider to justify (it happens in my world already). Owning the ebook and having it on your ereader or pc makes you less vulnerable to these charges in that they are much harder for the provider to justify.

    When your ebook is on the provider’s server they can charge you for whatever functions they care to provide. For example, you might get a basic Google Books account for free and then have to pay to “upgrade” to one that allows you to do more with the text — cut and paste it for mashups, print larger sections, one with better graphics etc). More serious are the so-called “maintenance” charges academic libraries already pay for databases they actually own but that sit on the provider’s server. That is, we’ll commonly buy a database with a discrete amount of content that will never be updated, like a journal’s backlist for a one time only cost. Sounds good except you then have to continue to pay annual maintenance charges ad infinitum. These charges are substantial, generally $200 – $300 per year for a database that might cost several thousand. When I’ve asked sales reps how they justify the charge I’m always met with blank expressions, because, I suspect, the charges don’t in any way reflect the actual cost of maintaining the file. Instead, they’re more like the new charges banks seem to sometimes come up with, charging you a dollar or two for some systems related operation that logically shouldn’t cost them more than a couple of pennies. It’s interesting the cost is high enough to be a nuisance but often not high enough that you would consider doing something about it, like taking your business elsewhere.

    Other charges they can come up with would relate to how popular an ebook might be. For a new Dan Brown novel they might charge more because they’ll say it costs more to run a server getting so many hits at once.

    If the ebook is on your device already, I can’t see how the provider can come up with some new way to keep making revenue off it. I’m thinking, you pay for it once and that’s it. Unless they’re adding new content, I don’t what they could possibly be charging for. On the other hand, they will have to constantly upgrade the DRM as platforms and devices evolve…hmmmm…how do annual maintenance charges for updating your DRM sound?

    Dan D’Agostino

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