William's home for discarded gems and concepts-in-progress.

Welcome to William Van Winkle's blog, home for everything from notes on his latest ebooks to leftovers from his articles in CPU, Tom's Hardware, Smart Computing, and other media outlets. Check out his author pages at Amazon and Smashwords!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Library Ebooks & the Indie Author Conundrum, Part 1

"Turbulence is life force. It is opportunity. Let's love turbulence and use it for change." --Ramsay Clark

In case I haven't mentioned it in the last three or four minutes, I have a new book out, and like every independent, fledgling author, I'm trying to come up with different ways to find an audience -- no small trick when your book is digital-only and digital still comprises less than 15% of the total book market.

I'm an avid library patron, and, as an audiobook nut, I've dabbled with OverDrive's Library2Go service over the years. Library2Go (L2G) is my home state's chosen conduit for making electronic media available to library patrons over the Internet. Most people to whom I mention the service have no idea that it even exists...perhaps for good reason. Historically, I've found L2G fairly underwhelming. I had trouble finding enough audiobooks that were in MP3 format, not DRM-constrained WMA, and the titles that interested me were few and far between. I went a year, perhaps two, without looking at the site.

And then something amazing happened. Library2Go hit puberty. We often forget that most librarians, like teachers, have the public's welfare in their minds and hearts, and they work every day trying to help make the world better. I can only assume that it was librarians (and, behind them, a fleet of impatient patrons) responsible for not only a significant rise in the number of quality audiobooks available but also the recent appearance of ebooks.

The last time I touched OverDrive, I was listening to audiobooks on a 5G iPod. Today, all of my listening filters through a Motorola Droid. (For would-be audiobook listeners, I found my 2007/2008 BlackBerry and other "legacy" cell phones inferior to the iPod for this task. This is no longer the case. Media player apps have matured to the point that they're at least as convenient for book enjoyment as traditional music devices.) OverDrive's player app, called Media Console, is available for Windows, Mac, Android, BlackBerry, iPhone/iPad, and Windows Mobile.

Media Console surprised me with both how easy it was to use and how convenient it made the process of downloading new books from third-party sites such as Smashwords or the library. In fact, if you tap the Get Books icon within the mobile app, it prompts you to enter your ZIP code and suggests your closest library systems. Just enter your library account username and password to gain access to the OverDrive catalog (assuming it participates with OverDrive; your local libraries may use a different network). For a site such as Smashwords, if you elect to download a book in EPUB format, your phone will ask you which app you use to view it. Simply select OverDrive Media Console.

Perhaps you're thinking, "There's no way I'd read a book on my phone. The screen's too small!" My experience has been that I would mostly agree. Smartphones in the Droid/iPhone-type form factor, even with their relatively spacious screens (for a phone), will do for short stories in a pinch, but they really do suck some of the enjoyment out of longer format works. There's simply too much page flipping. I haven't tried a tablet yet. I do know that dedicated e-readers, such as Amazon's Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook, provide a far superior experience for full-length books. This is no longer a secret. What I didn't realize is that my local library is now pushing ebook reading via Sony's Reader devices.

The first time I saw this display a few weeks ago, it blew my mind. It's not like Hillsboro Central buried it in the back. This table is fairly close to the main check-out area by the front entrance. The first question that hit me was, "Why Sony?" The answer is probably that Sony has the right mix of deep pockets and third-place market position to fork out for such efforts. Despite being one of the early players in e-readers, Sony has had a tough time gaining traction. This is unfortunate, because the Reader family is decent hardware, and Sony deserves recognition for working with libraries in this way. If other vendors follow Sony's lead here, it might go a long way toward easing public opinion about e-reading.

The second question for me was, "Why is this here? Aren't ebooks the death knell of libraries as we've known them?" This is a much more complex issue. If you fast forward to 2021, it seems increasingly likely that printed books will be approaching where ebooks are today: 15% of the total book market...or less. There are too many factors propelling ebooks ahead of print now. We're at the tipping point, and the buzz is all in digital's favor. Without printed books, why do we need big libraries? With each passing year, attrition will whittle down public printed collections. There will be location consolidations, reduced staff, and a (hopefully brief) period of confusion as libraries attempt to reinvent themselves and find relevance in the brave new e-world.

I applaud the library's willingness to embrace this change by promoting e-reading. It's better to be smaller and still at the forefront of public literacy than the poster child of a dying paradigm.

But I had one more question come to mind: I have an ebook that I want people to read. I'm going to have more ebooks coming soon. How do I, without the help of a publisher or even an independent author's consortium, get my content into this metamorphosing library system? With conventional books, a library might buy five, ten, even dozens of copies of one title per location. With digital, how are authors, particularly independent ones, compensated for library sales?

Suddenly, I realized that this wasn't just about me. This was about if and how the thousands of writers just like me are going to be able to participate in tomorrow's libraries. My best friend is a librarian and has been with Multnomah County's library system for almost two decades, so I asked him these questions.

He had no idea. And that's what will bring us to Part 2 of this blog entry soon...


  1. I had to do some digging on the OverDrive website, but this is how it looks like self-published/indie authors join in libraries buying and distributing their ebooks and other media. https://secure.contentreserve.com/Login.asp

    I suppose this is one way to do it. Another would be for perhaps someone to make an indie author page for libraries to access their books for free. I know I wouldn't mind making my first novel available for download via PDF for patrons, and then subsequent novels say 1 year after they were available electronically. Lost sales could be an issue, but there's always the argument that someone who reads a book at a library wasn't going to buy a copy, anyway. But they are the type of annoying friend who says "I just read this awesome book, you should, too."

  2. Hi, Elizabeth. Thanks for posting. I hope you had a moment to catch part 2 of this topic. I love your idea of there being a resource where libraries could grab free ebook content, especially if that content was by local authors. Unfortunately, it seems that libraries are increasingly willing to hand over all of their digital operations to OverDrive and its ilk. I recognize that with existing budgets and whatnot, libraries may have no choice but to take this path. Imagine the IT headache of having to grow a new asset management system for digital content. But who knows? In 20 years, perhaps these aggregators will have vanished and we'll all be checking out ebooks from the Library of Congress. Would that level of content centralization be a bad thing?

  3. I think if you are hoping to make any money with ebooks, you really need to have them listed at Amazon and B&N, along with print copies of your books.
    Currently, I'm guessing, there is no way to force OverDrive to carry a self published ebook and charge libraries to loan the book.
    When it comes to libraries, I do provide a free copy of my printed books to local libraries.
    Most of my sales now are in my ebooks available at Amazon and B&N