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ebooks, pbooks, mebooks, and parrots

Yes, I Eventually Do Explain The Parrots

Yes, I Eventually Do Explain The Parrots

Here is a very interesting question others have posed: are libraries that license ebooks through Overdrive violating state patron-privacy laws because Amazon retains user data?

(For context, Sarah Houghton-Jan, who last spring proposed an eBook User’s Bill of Rights, recently taped a video recording her thoughts about the Overdrive-Amazon deal enabling Overdrive books to be checked out on Kindle devices and apps. To save time and  skip over the f-bombs, fast-forward to the 4-minute section, where Sarah talks about the complicated privacy issues.)

Full disclosure: I am a happy Overdrive customer. I do not, unlike Sarah, feel “screwed” by Overdrive. As a customer, I knew (most of) what I was getting into with Overdrive’s Kindle deal with Amazon. I knew in advance that Amazon keeps a fair amount of information about its Kindle book customers. I’m not surprised that they keep this data regardless of how the money goes in the pot – through a direct customer purchase, or an indirect library-purchase transaction.

At the start of the deal, the Overdrive-Amazon deal benefited people who already own Kindles, and presumably librarians don’t nanny the world. But that conversation changes with the first person (or library) who purchases a Kindle in order to check out “free” (to them) library books.

My “what next” thoughts: my take is that this is a prime time for libraries to work with eBook vendors, publishing and library associations, and standards groups to nail in some basic rights for readers AND authors AND publishers. It’s also a good time to review the mishmosh of issues and organizations related to accessibility and eBooks. And finally—and this is a librarian task—we should all look at state patron privacy laws and ask if they provide enough protection and the right protection.

I am setting aside other complaints. There’s a moment during the Kindle eBook check-in where Amazon nudges me to buy a book. Perhaps that should bug me. But I don’t see this as The Man. As a writer, I wouldn’t be offended if after checking out one of the books I’m published in, you then chose to buy it. And that’s because I want people to buy my books (whether through the agency of a library or strictly on their own).  I would be even happier if they actually read them.

Is this a bad thing? As a librarian, I partner with our small university bookstore, which is invited and encouraged to sell books at our readings—the same books available for checkout.  I rejoiced at recent readings when our bookstore manager sold a few copies of a professor’s book—two of them to our library, to fill requests. Isn’t this how it should work?

I see Overdrive as a company brokering a useful but transitional technology for placing current reading in the hands of mobile-technology users, leveraging known processes and practices. Overdrive is quaint—designed around the way fair-use works with print books–but it works for now. When things change, weeding will be a breeze!

However, if Overdrive’s current approach is transitional, eBooks are with us for good. (Am I allowed to again note that I was heckled in the late 1990s when I said the paper-based book would be an anachronism in my lifetime? Oh, and I do want stuff from Overdrive, but that’s another post.)

All of us in the reading ecology need to step back and do some serious rethinking. Some of us already are.  Take a look at Gluejar, where Eric Hellman and other thought leaders are proposing a digitization model for existing books that honors everyone in the process — readers, authors, publishers, and yes, libraries. (Eric’s blog, Go to Hellman, is required reading for all stakeholders in the reading ecology.) But while we’re rethinking, we also need to provide services.

We also need to leave the door open for conversations with data-lovers. The traditional librarian narrative wants me to be outraged, simply outraged that Amazon has all that user data, but in reality, I’m jealous. I’d like to have rich user data. I’d like to understand user behavior better. Frankly, I’m jealous not only as a librarian, but as a writer. Who among us of the writerly tendencies would not like to know more about our readers?  We need to at least acknowledge that this data has tremendous appeal.

I’ve held on to this post because I couldn’t figure out how to conclude it, so I’ll wrap it up with this non sequitur: hey, the wild parrots flew all the way from Telegraph Hill to visit us in the Inner Sunset! I have pics AND a video.




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  1. Bobbi Newman wrote:

    At the risk of tooting my own horn or “hey look at me!” I wrote a post a couple of weeks prior to Sarah’s and I too used the word screwed, but my approach and concerns are different. Not that I’m not concerned about privacy. Like you I’m not surprised at Amazon’s pitch to sell books. Hey you’re getting to read a book for free on their device, and they’ve made it pretty clear all along that it is their device not yours. However. I do think there was a window her for negotiation for statistics and other information that would be VERY useful for libraries to have such as just how many library check outs lead to a purchase. Amazon has that info now. We don’t. As we move forward in the electronic age information like that is going to be very useful.
    You can read more here

    Saturday, November 19, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Permalink
  2. Anne wrote:

    Thank you for saying it, Karen and Bobbi!

    If you have a Kindle, you expect Amazon to do its best to make a little money. And if you have a Kindle and have bought from Amazon, you know they already have your reading tastes attached to your name. You have “opted in.”

    If the state’s laws do not allow the customer to “opt in” in these situations, definitely do something if you want to provide the Kindle option.

    Point well taken about the stats, Bobbi

    Saturday, November 19, 2011 at 5:53 pm | Permalink
  3. Of course you should toot your own horn, Bobbi! Though if you and Sarah want to be heard seriously by decision-makers, language matters. I took a hit for my “OPAC Sucks” series, though it played well to frustrated middle-managers, which isn’t a bad audience. Had I used language such as “Abominable OPACs,” I would have had different readership. It all depends on your objective.

    Sunday, November 20, 2011 at 11:48 am | Permalink
  4. kate wrote:

    I don’t think anyone’s surprised that Amazon is trying to sell library patrons books. But I’ll quibble with your bookstore-at-the-reading analogy. The bookstore is coming to an event sponsored by the library as a guest. They are not selling books at the circulation desk, nor are they hanging out by your book return offering to sell books to your patrons.

    Also, working with your university bookstore, or any local bookshop, is a community-building exercise. There’s a bit of a hard-to-articulate fear of Amazon running through a lot of the commentary on this issue. Amazon is shaping the entire book ecosystem in ways that we don’t know the results of just yet. The buy-it-now link in the email may not be a deal breaker, but it’s part of a transition to what could be a very Amazon-centered book world.

    All that data makes Amazon pretty powerful. There’s a reason they don’t share it.

    Sunday, November 20, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink
  5. James Byers wrote:

    Excellnt article. We agree with Kate and how powerful Amazon is. Amazon is growing very fast.

    Sunday, November 20, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Permalink
  6. Kate, in your second para, you have nailed the conundrum quite well. I still take issue with your first para because indeed, they are selling books (50 feet from) the circ desk, and frankly, I’d be delighted to have signs up from them hawking their wares. I am fine with the bookstore being a hop, skip, and a jump from the library, too. But what I hear you saying (and agree with) is at some point Amazon goes beyond symbiosis.

    It’s the second paragraph where you articulate the problem so well–the subtle reshaping of the book ecosystem. It’s subtle enough that *Librarian* Karen gets it, but *Writer/Reader* Karen, not so much. The delta there is important to reflect on, not only in what we believe, but in how we express our beliefs and get buy-in on them.

    If a patron walks up and asks about e-readers we have an opportunity to educate. How we use that critical moment is key. (The walk-up patron is only an example, of course.)

    The issue about data also needs more exploration. People give away a lot of data these days. They’ve reconditioned themselves, and often for tradeoffs that to them seem quite reasonable. When we approach patrons about these issues we need to appear reasonable, well-informed, and balanced. If we come off as too tinfoil-hat, they’ll tune us out.

    Monday, November 21, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink
  7. laura wrote:

    Oh, the OPAC sucks. So true. And I got in a lot of trouble for using the phrase, too (in informal conversation!).

    I’m not a happy Overdrive customer, nor am I happy about the Kindle deal, but others have covered that more than adequately. I’m fascinated by your question, “Who among us of the writerly tendencies would not like to know more about our readers?” I’ve never given it much thought. Certainly I blog far more than I submit to literary journals because I can watch who reads my blog (and because I’m big on instant gratification). But on a larger scale, I’m not sure that’s data I want to have in mind when I write.

    Monday, November 21, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Permalink
  8. kate wrote:

    Karen, that’s it exactly – a partnership with your local bookstore is a wonderful thing that strengthens your bookish community. All of your community, really, but it makes the reading/book/information culture at your university stronger. A partnership with Amazon is… not quite the same.

    That delta is exactly what makes it hard to get people on board with issues libraries care about. Even when we care about things like privacy and data sharing professionally, we slide into the same habits as our patrons do as writers and readers.

    When I lived in an area overrun with indie bookstores, I was good about only shopping at indies. Now, I barely live near a Barnes & Noble, so I end up on Amazon a lot. I’m breaking the habit, slowly. But Amazon knows more about me than Google does. And I get suckered by the convenience and cost-saving.

    But that means that Amazon knows more about everyone’s reading and buying habits thank pretty much everyone. Factor in the volume of sales – think about what Wal-Mart has done for the supply chain, generally – and I start to feel okay with spending a couple of extra bucks on that blender.

    It’s not that Amazon is bad or ill-intentioned. They’re the most powerful force in the book ecosystem right now on a scale that we haven’t really dealt with before. Of course libraries want to figure out a way to loan books to Kindle owners, but I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think we’re going to do it any way but Amazon’s.

    Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 10:24 am | Permalink
  9. Greg wrote:

    College bookstores are getting killed by the Intertubes. My kids are in college and very rarely visit the bookstore, they get deals on Amazon and other used book sites for books they have to have but will never look at again in a million years.

    I have engineering books from my undergrad days mumbledee mumble years ago that I paid hundreds of dollars for then. I kept them because I thought they might be an investment but now they hold open my window in the summertime.

    I would think that a relationship with the library would be win-win for both. Especially for works done by staff.

    Keep on keeping on.

    Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 11:05 am | Permalink
  10. Greg wrote:

    Sorry, the statement should read “I would think that a relationship between the library and campus bookstore would be a win-win for both. Especially for works done by staff”

    When I grow up, I am going to be a editor.

    Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  11. Niall wrote:

    Thank you for the post. I too have mixed feelings about Amazon’s collection of user data. I’m not so inclined to jump to the assumption that it might be used against users, since I think the motivation is to enhance the reading experience. As you mentioned, it is a rich source of user information behavior. What does bother me is how libraries are forced to compromise privacy standards to accommodate this model; it goes against some of our very fundamental principles. The issue I suppose is lack of vendor options.

    Friday, November 25, 2011 at 11:17 am | Permalink
  12. James wrote:

    How about starting with disclosure? If your library’s policies state that circulation information is not kept after a book is returned, could you tell a patron with a straight face that this is true for borrowed ebooks?

    Wednesday, November 30, 2011 at 2:02 am | Permalink
  13. The question is how that is done. Do we put a statement on our ebook website that some ebook suppliers retain personal information of the borrower?

    My own thoughts are yes we need to educate people, but we need to do it right. The path to patron education has to be clear, professional, and tinfoil-free. If we come off sounding like wack jobbies (apologies here to any wack jobbies reading this blog), we will Let The Enemy Win. I haven’t seen any educational efforts to date that effectively communicate the facts.

    Another question is what if the patron shrugs and says “so what?” Do we grab his lapels and insist it is a problem? Also, do we present the other side–the potential value of this data, and the services it can enable (and of course, what the companies get out of it)? I’m not saying we brush off the concerns, but do we present the issue in a balanced manner–you know, like librarians?

    Wednesday, November 30, 2011 at 9:51 am | Permalink

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