It’s that time of year again, when advertisers tout the latest e-readers while reviving the mantra that printed books are so close to obsolete, it’s only a matter of time before everything is digital.
Which means, of course, all brick-and-mortar bookstores will fold, as will a huge number of libraries. But after thousands of e-readers and millions of e-books have been sold, Christmas will finally arrive. Within a few weeks, the ads will stop and all will return to normal until next holiday season.
I use digital works daily and I publish hard copies of books. My position now is the same as it was last year at this time: digital is great and it’s very useful, but there’s also a strong future for printed books. I took some heat for that view last year, but before you pile on, someone with a much higher profile in the book world is now touting the same message. Digital might someday take over, but it won’t be anytime soon.
It’s jolting, to say the least, hearing that from the likes of Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon. His opinion on the change to e-books was quoted recently in PC Magazine (which itself has gone solely digital): “[It] will go on for a very long time. Our heaviest Kindle e-book buyers also buy lots of paper books, so they’re buying both. For many people, it’s not an either–or choice. If you go out into the future far enough, paper books will be luxury items, but that’s quite a distance.”
It is, in fact, the same vision he has for newspapers. Bezos recently purchased the Washington Post and revealed his belief that someday, printed newspapers will be luxury items.
One thing that newspapers and books have in common is that both are available daily from many libraries. With the future of printed magazines, newspapers, and books in flux, the repositories must change as well.
Another major factor in the future of libraries is the massive digitization projects that have been ongoing for a decade. With more than 20 million books scanned, the likely outcome is a vast reduction in storage of print copies and a move to digital databases. And if that’s the case, how many book databases will be necessary? What further changes will community libraries have to make in order to stay relevant?
As a child, the bulk of my time was spent doing three things: playing sports, reading, and going to the library. I’ve had outstanding relationships with librarians, and I can immediately think of three who changed my life, or at least deeply influenced it.
A local library can be many things: vital to a vibrant community; critical to public education; fantastic for entertainment; a center of learning; and just plain fun. I’ve done fundraisers for them, donated book profits, and done author events at libraries. I love ’em.
My concern is that the exciting changes in the world of books might negatively affect the author-library relationship. Mass digitization programs are the issue.
In pre-digital days, the sharing of books among local libraries might involve several steps: request the title, pull it, document the loaner, package, ship, and deliver. After picking it up and reading it, the patron then reversed the process to return the book.
With digitization, and with the planned sharing of digital collections by multiple libraries, most of that effort will be supplanted instead by a simple series of mouse clicks.
For an author, what could this mean in the not-too-distant future? If a library has a copy of your book and digitization occurs, conceivably ANY library could have a copy of your book instantly—without having paid for it. Selling to libraries is a $5 billion-a-year business, so the stakes are high.
Unlike previous sharing, digitization has introduced unforeseen ease of access, and the law has yet to catch up. In the meantime, the future has arrived. Until the legality of mass digitization is determined, widespread scanning continues. Among those involved is a group of libraries representing more than 10 million scanned books, many of which are currently copyright protected.
The group decided that until the copyright status of those digitized files is clarified, they won’t share them with other group members unless that member already possesses a hard copy (which represents a past purchase that benefited the author). They recognize the devastating impact widespread sharing could have on authors, and the powerful disincentive it could be for producing future works. For now, they’re self-policed, waiting for legal rulings.
Others aren’t revealing the extent to which they have shared scanned books. Court cases addressing possible copyright infractions are not yet settled. Their outcome will determine many future developments in the book world. Here’s hoping that the author-library relationship doesn’t become collateral damage as industry behemoths battle for control. The court’s decision could potentially make it a bad thing for an author to have his book in a local library—or any library, for that matter.
Photo by John Warren