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I want to break up with eBooks. Don’t get me wrong, eBooks is dead sexy and great arm candy at parties, as well as a magnet for attention and memorable experiences. But man…eBooks makes for a crap boyfriend. This relationship is as dysfunctional as it gets. And I’m too old and jaded to put up with dysfunction. I need a smoldering hot boyfriend who is a wildcat in the bedroom but kisses gently, is unfailingly honest and kind, and sends me cute messages during the day. And that ain’t eBooks.

eBooks is to libraries what that awful boyfriend (or girlfriend) was to you. Think about it. And when I say “eBooks” I mean the whole messed up situation–the copyright nightmares, the publishers, the fragmented formats, the ridiculous terms of service, the device incompatibility, the third-party aggregation companies libraries do business with–all of it. eBooks is the guy who takes advantage of your good nature and generosity only to exploit every last weakness you have for his own personal gain. The guy your family loved the first time they met him, who swept you off your feet, but who everyone came to regard as that unwanted interloper who would never leave. Well, my friends, it’s time to boot eBooks’ ass to the curb. There are better boyfriends to be had.

eBooks ignores you
eBooks totally ignores everything you say. We in libraries have not been included at the table for negotiations on digital copyright, terms of service, licensing conditions, technology integration, none of it. And yes, that stinks. And yes, we’ve complained about it enough. We haven’t been heard largely because we’ve been too polite and too quiet for too long. It’s our fault. We removed ourselves from the equation by not being more proactive as a profession through the professional organizations and lobbyists we expect to speak for us. But even now that some of us are getting louder and angrier, we’re still being ignored by the entire eBooks industry, with very few exceptions (hi Gluejar, you guys rock). So my opinion is that we should walk away and take our fuck-me heels with us. That’s what our moms would tell us to do.

eBooks drew you in with wine and roses, but now makes you fetch him beer and Cheetos
Remember how tantalizing eBooks seemed several years ago? How sexy, how intoxicating? Everything seemed perfect because we were caught up in the glossy image of our desires…not the reality standing in front of us. eBooks…in…the…library! Holy ceiling cat!!!11one! We were like kids on our first trip to the candy store.

Now, eBooks’ idea of a date is ordering a cheese pizza from the cardboard pizza joint down the street. Maybe he’ll turn on some bromance comedy on Netflix, but more than likely he’ll play Skyrim by himself for hours, ask for a beer, and tell you to get lost. For your birthday eBooks might actually put toppings on the pizza (think Penguin’s misguided experiment at NYPL with embargoed popular titles) and buy a bottle of $5 wine. And he expects you to be grateful…after all, hey…toppings! For libraries, our crappy pizza is our crappy eBooks selection. We can’t buy from most of the major publishers, and even for those we can buy from we have extreme restrictions or highly inflated costs. And our attention negligent boyfriend’s actions, in eBooks’ case, are the lack of development of usable download processes, fair-use-friendly terms of use, and privacy options in keeping with libraries’ professional values and ethics. In short–dude…the dates are terrible and yet we keep going on them, hoping that maybe we’ll go somewhere nice eventually. Please, darling. We know better.

eBooks slept with your sister
Remember how eBooks said he could only do so much for you, that he just didn’t have the emotional capacity to truly love but that for you, he was going to try? Yeah, and then he went and slept with your sister. Likewise, eBooks slept with consumers and gave them what eBooks never gave us as libraries–full selection, right-quick downloads, and sharing rights. We got no love at all, but our prettier sister, the consumer, got a better deal. Still not everything, as she also has to put up with restrictive DRM, licensing and not owning, and privacy violations…but in the end she stole our man and our man went willingly. Of course, he still texts us now and again to make sure we’re still interested–hinting that he might come back to us with the same relationship agreement our sister got. Yeah, right.

eBooks says you’ll move in together, but you never do
You’ve wanted to wake up next to someone awesome for a long time–and eBooks keeps promising it will happen. But his playboy nature always wins out–he still wants his own place. Likewise, publishers continually feed libraries the line that they’re “experimenting with different models” and “hope to continue to work positively with libraries in the digital space.” Uh huh.  Libraries and eBooks aren’t shacking up anytime soon, not for real…not as long as publishers continue to falsely view us as a threat instead of a partner.

I feel that we in libraries are actually doing a disservice by offering what’s “barely good enough.” We give people the false impression that they can get their eBooks through their libraries. How many libraries are upfront with information about how we can’t/don’t offer books from the most popular publishers? How many libraries are upfront with the limited formats people can get on their devices of choice? Instead, most libraries tout their subscription to a single eBook service like it’s the second coming. We say “we have eBooks!” and “they work on most devices!” without listing the caveats, perhaps hoping that people won’t notice until they’re already chest deep in the browsing or download process and only then see what the limitations are. Why in hell are we covering for a bad situation? Who gains from us putting the happy face on the dismal eBook situation in libraries? It’s certainly not libraries–we haven’t gained shit. It’s certainly not our users–in fact, they’re the biggest losers. It’s the publishers who gain–who choose to license to libraries under any terms whatsoever (they get our money and we accept crappy prices and use limitations). And it’s the middleman companies who gain–who whore themselves out for the highest profit, lying to both sides by telling the publishers that libraries are screwing them and the libraries that the publishers are the ones doing the screwing. Walk away, my friend. Walk away.

I’m out.
So that’s it folks. eBooks and I are done. eBooks in libraries are a non-starter, their path has been set for the foreseeable future, and their future is determined by people who are not us. Not by the people who love books, who believe in their power to change lives, but by those who produce them for profit. No, not by the authors (as we all know, they see far too little profit for their labors), but by the publishers…the, until recently, necessary middlemen in the process between creators and consumers. Now that they’re not necessary to the process anymore, largely due to their inflexibility and inability to change in the face of rapidly shifting market conditions, they have attempted to salvage their failing business model with high prices, limited licensing policies, and technology so locked down that it remains impenetrable to many people.

If I hear one more publisher talk about “increasing friction,” I am going to punch that publisher in the face with a pair of book-shaped brass knuckles and discuss the option of dramatically increasing friction cheese-grater-style somewhere else on their physique. Don’t push me Penguin.

Publishers have painted themselves into a corner, a corner that will eventually eat them alive. But until that happens, until the market shakes out, there is little libraries can do that is in keeping with our core ethics and values.

For a decade now I have been speaking, writing, and advocating on a local, national, and international level for positive eBooks integration and implementation in libraries. I’ve spoken to technologists, educators, publishers, librarians, authors, lawyers, and legislators. I’ve been frustrated by how long it took everyone to start paying attention, but at long last in the past year or two people are finally listening. Everyone on “the right side,” insofar as I see it, agrees that the DMCA needs to be radically revised, that copyright exemptions need to be extended for libraries into the digital domain, but no one has the power or political clout to override the lobbyists’ dollar signs in the capitol. So, what are we left with as librarians in our role to advocate for our communities’ needs? Nada, zilch, zero, zip.

At our recent regional library consortium meeting, I said I wouldn’t give more money to OverDrive, beyond the bare minimum that the consortium’s contract required of us, and only until we can legally terminate our contract–at which point I personally want out of OverDrive.  The title selection is awful and getting only more so month by month, their policies are restrictive, and their business practices are unethical–including trading away core librarian values (user data privacy, no commercial endorsements).  I’m not going to give any money to 3M or Baker & Taylor either unless things change on their end, just for the record.

Yes–our residents want eBooks. But does that mean that we trade away our core values and ethics to provide anything, under any terms? Does it mean that we spend our residents’ limited tax dollars on sub-par products with sub-par usage terms and no ownership or longevity guarantees? Or is the fact that people want eBooks from their libraries and we can’t get them going to turn out to be enough reason to stop the madness and engage in a massive national boycott of the societal conflagration that we are faced with for the future of digital information?

So why keep up the ruse that eBooks are in libraries and all is awesome? Why continue the whitewashing? I’m personally done with the whitewashing. I’ll continue to support positive steps toward eBook independence like Open Library, Gluejar, the Hathi Trust, DPLA, Project Gutenberg, and projects like those undertaken at the Douglas County Public Library and Califa. However, I’m finished promoting an inferior eBook product to our patrons. I’m finished throwing good money after bad money. And I’m finished trying to pointlessly advocate for change when change has to come from places waaaaaaay above my influence level or pay grade.

eBooks, you shitty boyfriend you…you are dead to me.  I will tolerate your continued existence, but will pay you no mind.  You don’t deserve a single byte of my brain’s bandwidth.

So what now? I plan on turning my attentions to the next frontiers of music and video content–places where we just may be able to effect some positive change before things go to hell in a handbasket yet again. Multimedia library licensing situations are even more early-stage than those which we face with eBooks. And so perhaps there is still hope. Do I plan to single-handedly take on the RIAA or the MPAA? No, that would be simpering idiocy. What I do plan to do is to seek out and reward publishers, aggregators, and creators who are willing to distribute their content under terms favorable to both them and to library communities, including insisting on DRM-free content. Yes, this most likely means a lack of popular content–but most of us have zero for popular digital content for music or movies today, at least legally. At least this way we’re offering something to our users, likely content they wouldn’t stumble across on iTunes or Netflix, and we’re rewarding business models that work for us…not against us. Models that work for our users, not against them. And that, my friends, is what we are supposed to do as librarians.

So, to close–fuck eBooks. I’m off to get myself the boyfriend I deserve.

“I’m breaking up with eBooks (and you can too)”

  1. A very mixed bag this month … | How To Write Shop Says:

    […] * I’m a big supporter of libraries, but I wonder about this article… […]

  2. Wendy Hicks Says:

    Um, maybe we need to slide the metaphor slightly. After all, we chose to adopt e-books/e-audio books, and like a parent,
    might hang on during the inevitable growing pains. E-book borrowing is, after all, in its infancy, and in spite of all of all the headaches, it’s good we librarians are in on the ground floor, duking it out.
    Yep, right now, they are spitting up all over us…but I live in hope.

  3. Barb H Says:

    I am retired from the library. Now I am a patron/user. I read ebooks, borrow, buy and get for free. If not available I try print–but often the print is too small these days and even fewer books available in large print via the library. Sometimes audiobooks. I like the ebooks because they are all potential large print. I figure I will use a variety of formats. I like ebooks and I hope as time goes on that things get worked out between the library world, the authors and the publishers. I think it is important not to give up.

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  5. Elizabeth McCoy Says:

    And then there’s — I’ll admit, Smashwords can be quite the seedy bar. They’ll let nearly anyone through the door. But I’ve found out of print books by authors I read as a kid and teen, tucked away in a tidy booth there, and they just recently started some library programs — no DRM, unlimited uses of each “copy.” Still hoping for “one copy, one reader at a time,” but libraries are on the honor system for that, not the fight-with-DRM system. (And their new dashboard controls let authors offer special library prices — some authors may charge more for forever-use, while others, like me, dropped prices for libraries.)

  6. Priscilla King Says:

    Elizabeth Barrette shared this link. My comment to her was that, as a library patron, I have NO use for e-books. I’m most likely to turn to light reading, which is most likely to be a library book, when electric power is out (which can happen almost daily in the mountains). And, as a taxpayer, I haaate seeing my money wasted on electronic gimmicks that will be useless in ten years; I don’t buy the gadgets demanded to “read”/watch/hear this junk, I see it as toxic waste waiting to fill up the landfill. So, plaudits to you, may your tribe increase, and another supportive link should appear on my Blogspot soon. I’m not actually attached to paper in the event that some sort of algae-derived plastic becomes more practical, but I do want books to be available to everybody, independent of gimmicks and gadgets, requiring only light.

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  8. Ray Gulick Says:

    So, your real problem is this: libraries (the physical, bricks and mortar kind that employ helpful librarians) are an outmoded anachronism (actually, is there any other kind of anachronism?).

    A more entertaining cry in favor of “buggy whips,” however, I’ve not heard. Bravo!

  9. Carla "Ink" Eaton Says:

    Yay! Back to tangible print books! 🙂

  10. Ms. Yingling Says:

    E books for personal use that people buy are great. I haven’t had much luck in checking them out of the public library, and am not about to mess with them on the middle school library level!

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  13. Catherine Voutier Says:

    Interesting article from the publishers point of view. They want libraries to come up with a few economic models they could negotiate with. I also got the impression that ALA is a toothless snake …


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  16. Brian Thomas Says:

    I just listened to your panel discussion during The Digital Shift conference. Sarah, you are fantastic! I’m inspired by your stand against DRM encoded ebooks. I wish more librarians would be vocal about how inconsistent digital rights management is with the core values of libraries. Don’t listen to the nay-sayers — you are right on target!

  17. Bibliotheken en E-books: ‘it simply doesn’t work..’ « WebbiebNL Says:

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  21. Carlo Says:

    Send that guy to the curb. With the other dogpoop.

    Don’t even bag and toss him.

    Great post, Sarah.

    The ONLY advantage I could think of came up the other day when I picked up another weighty tome [I’m 62], thinking “oh, this is going to be heavy.” However I have discovered that another book makes a great bookstand, so I don’t really have to hold it up.

    And besides, I love books too much.

    Please don’t tell my wife I have a boyfriend, OK?

  22. Cate Levinson Says:

    You are my hero! and if I one more person tells me that checking out ereaders is the wave of the future I’m going to scream!

  23. The E-Book Dilemna » Public Libraries Online Says:

    […] step, but does it go far enough?  Sarah Houghton writes poignantly and metaphorically on her blog about the betrayal of e-books.  Would it be too extreme to boycott print works from publishers who […]

  24. Papermine Says:

    Yes, you do need a boyfriend you deserve, no more Cheetos or cold pizza. With all the advancements in the publishing realm, meaning the stride to become digital, I think authors and readers deserve more. I am not focused on “increasing friction,” but more so creating an easy and fluid experience for authors AND readers. That is what we strive for with the launch of our private beta. Large publishing houses have more on their mind, which creates a disconnect and magically changes the wine to beer… becoming that boyfriend who doesn’t want to introduce you to his parents all of a sudden. Ha, that should be our tagline ‘we will keep serving wine and truffled pasta and always open the door.’

  25. Melissa Mannon Says:

    Hi Sarah,

    I’m wondering if you have a perspective on “Here be Fiction”? I’d love to hear it . I just learned about the site and will be exploring it for my high school library

  26. James Robert Smith Says:

    It only took me a few weeks to realize that ebooks are the worst thing to happen to English literature. The whole micro-publishing, self-publishing world is a wreck of garbage. I can only hope the fad dissolves before it destroys the traditional publishing model.

  27. ebooks, then and now | lis.dom Says:

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