Wednesday, January 26, 2011

eBooks: the good news and the bad news

Did you get an eReader for Christmas? I did, and so did a LOT of other people. The shelves at most electronics retailers were stripped by Christmas Eve. I still need to get a cover for my Sony Digital Edition--they were sold out, too. Since the holiday, we have been fielding a lot of questions from folks looking for places to download eBooks, especially for free. And while it's exciting to see so many people trying out this new technology, there are some surprising misconceptions that are coming between eReader owners and the full enjoyment of their new devices.

The good news is that there are a lot of eBooks you can download for free. The bad news is that they're not the latest bestsellers. In fact, if a book is still covered by an active copyright, there will be a charge to download. After all, writers write to make money, so they expect to be paid royalties, just as they are for printed books. The free titles are out of copyright, so they will be mostly classics and older titles. A lot of eReader owners are expecting to get all free content, and that's simply not the case.

The good news is that the Merrimack Public Library belongs to the NH Downloadable Book consortium, where even the bestsellers can be downloaded at no charge using your library card. The bad news is that these eBooks are not compatible with the Kindle. Kindle content can only be obtained from Amazon.com, due to the proprietary nature of the Kindle's digital rights management (DRM). More bad news is that with 150 member libraries currently sharing about 1100 titles, the number of available downloads at any given time has become very small. New titles are being added all the time, but demand is outstripping supply, and we don't believe this will change significantly any time in the near future. The NH State Library pays for the consortium infrastructure, while the 150 libraries share the cost of the eBooks. We're all experiencing budget difficulties that will prevent us from increasing out contributions to the consortium for some time.

We understand that there is some confusion over fee vs. free and some frustration over the limits of the consortium. Nancy Vigezzi, our Head of Technical Services, has put together a list of eBook stores. It's now posted on our website, or you can pick up a copy at the Reference Desk. There is a variety of sites, some free, some for a fee, and some a combination of both. Remember, when you obtain an eBook from one of these sites, you will own it, and it will be available on your eReader until you delete it. That's good news. Books from NH Downloadable Books are good for 14 days on your eReader before the digital rights expire and you can no longer access the title. This can be inconvenient if you don't have a lot of time to read. I have 48 hours left to finish a book that I'm only a bit more than half way through. Luckily, some of that 48 hours will be spent on a plane, so I might just make it.*

Finally, you probably know that the whole eReader/eBook scene is changing rapidly. What we're seeing today in terms of available devices, compatibility, eBook stores and digital rights management may be completely different in six months. As librarians, we are trying hard to keep up with things so we can provide you with the information you need to jump on the eBook bandwagon. It's an exciting ride for us, too.

*It didn't work out as I'd hoped. I had a chatty (but very nice) seat mate on the plane, and my digital rights expired with just 30 pages left to read! So I borrowed it from the library and read the last 30 pages in the hardcover book!

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