Morgan Beck reads an e-Book on a Kobo e-Reader in a sunny corner of the Nelson Public Library.

Life is a highway: digitally and otherwise

Anne DeGrace's explores speed traps in e-Book lending in her column Check This Out.

Back in the day we’d walk to the library, browse the shelves, and go home clutching the next great read to our beating chests. When the book was finished we’d return it. When the book wore out, the library would buy a new copy so more library members could have that same great experience.

e-Book borrowing is essentially the same. We browse title lists through our library e-Book supplier Overdrive (in the Nelson library’s case) and find the book we want. Then we download it and curl up with our Kobos or iPads and away we go. Like a library book, after three weeks it disappears — poof!

And yet we are creatures of the instant world of digital interface. We don’t understand why the eBook title we want isn’t available. We don’t understand why that book should disappear from our device. And we don’t understand why the Canadian bestseller everyone’s talking about isn’t even in the catalogue. Some of us even think that if it’s on the Internet, it must be free.

But nothing is ever free. And the world of e-Books is a whole new, bumpy ride for writers, publishers, libraries, and readers.

Fasten your seatbelts: I’ll explain.

When your library purchases or replaces a physical book, the writer receives a royalty. In addition, there’s a thing called public lending right that compensates writers for physical books in libraries. Nobody’s getting rich, but books are getting read and writers feel valued.

But in the e-Lending world, things aren’t that simple. Imagine a highway in which the speed limit and rules of the road change constantly. You’re trying to navigate between a Lamborghini and a camel.

At first, disgruntlement among some of Canada’s biggest publishers meant an absence of many top Canadian titles on Overdrive. That’s been somewhat resolved, but there are still gaps. Books published by smaller independent publishers may be completely missing. It’s not simply a matter of your library purchasing them.

But if more publishers are now playing in traffic, they’re driving in different directions. One publisher charges $90 to make that e-Book available in perpetuity (bad for authors), and another $30 for 26 loans — the number at which they say a physical book falls apart (50 might be more realistic).

Kootenay libraries subscribe to Overdrive as a package deal through the BC Libraries Cooperative, the best navigating solution in this virtual highway where title availability, choice, and price are all challenges, the rules of the road elusive.

These challenges affect libraries, borrowers, and authors, all of whom we need. If there was ever a time for defensive driving, this would be it.

I’m in a unique position as a librarian, an author, and a publisher. I’m also the e-lending liaison for the Writers’ Union of Canada, tasked with advising on how best to achieve fair compensation for authors. At the library end, there is a coalition of libraries and library associations lobbying for fair and consistent e-Book pricing for libraries. Everyone wants a fair shake — and in the middle is you, the reader.

So here’s your e-Book primer-in-a-nutshell:

An e-Book is like any other book. You borrow it, you return it, and just like a popular buzz-book, you might have to wait for it.

e-Books, like physical books, are created by writers who deserve to be compensated for their work. You wouldn’t take out a physical library book to keep forever, would you?

e-lending presents new questions and challenges, and it will be a while before things shake out. Rest assured that your library will keep navigating on your behalf.

So keep your eyes on the road, your hands on the wheel, and be patient. On the virtual highway, camels Lamborghinis, writers, readers, and libraries all just want a happy ending.

Anne DeGrace is the adult services coordinator at the Nelson Public Library. Check This Out runs every other week. For more information go to nelsonlibrary.ca.

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