This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

April 2, 2009 - imagine the $20 Kindle

After the Rocky Mountain News shut down, I talked with some publisher and journalist friends.

They noticed when the World Wide Web started carrying news, then ads. Competition! they said. On the other hand, newspapers have been around for centuries. Surely they would survive!

Now, most of them think that traditional print newspapers, excepting perhaps small town editions, will be extinct in 5 years. (Small town rags will last longer because there's less competition for ads.)

Similar comments can be made about the library and the ebook reader -- and have been, by many people within and without the library. The library business model is predicated on print, on "warehousing" materials, they say. Old school! Doomed!

The good news is that we don't print and distribute books and magazines; we're at the end of the supply chain. And the modern library is more about display than about warehousing.

But here's a thought experiment. Take the latest version of the Kindle, today selling for $359. It doesn't take too much imagination to suppose that it will get both more powerful and cheaper (see "Moore's Law").

Now let's say you've got a $20 Kindle -- cheap enough to buy one for everybody in the house. Like today's Kindle, it pulls the book out of the air. There's no question that an electronic book has lots of advantages: more books in less space, searchable, annotatable, displayable in multiple font sizes, etc.

There are some downsides, of course. Unless it's public domain, you can't pass an Amazon ebook along to somebody else when you're done with it. You can't sell it as a used book. You can't BUY it as a used book -- if you want it again, you have to buy it again, same price as the first time.

And here's the public policy question: if you can't afford to buy it, and there really isn't any way to borrow it, then how do you read it?

There's the real question to the business model of the public library. By far the biggest part of our activity is loaning materials. We are a cooperative purchasing agreement for intellectual content. We buy books from publishers, then loan them to readers, including students, the young, the economically challenged.

But the publisher model is built on the idea of recovering the costs of printing and distribution. If it's just electronic distribution, the costs go way down. Surely it's cheaper to run (or rent) servers than printing presses.

As we've learned in the music industry, consumers would rather pay less for a download than to pay a middle man for access.

But can we trust publishers to lower the cost of books to consumers? Right now, it seems to be the opposite: they don't make money on the resale of books now. Under the Amazon model for ebooks, they make money every time it changes hands. That would seem to make books more expensive. Is that good for anybody but publishers and Amazon?

So it's not only the library whose business model is threatened. Do we still need publishers? What value do publishers add to a book if all they have to do is produce an electronic file? Most books these days are created as electronic files, and book templates aren't that hard to come by.

Here's one library response to a new publishing environment: maybe we should buy our books direct from the authors, at a discount that works to the authors' advantage because now we help readers find them. The library becomes not only the publisher of the books ("printing" them to library servers), but also the distribution channel (cataloging and displaying them electronically).

How else might the ubiquitous ebook and reader transform the public library? I'll take up the topic again next week.

LaRue's Views are his own.

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