Tuesday, February 10, 2009

E-books: coming soon to a B.C. library near you

Project aims to balance universal access with the rights of publishers – and to promote Canadian content at the same time

Globe & Mail: 2009 February 10

The publishing industry is waking up to the possibilities of electronic books. But even as companies such as Google Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. place bets on the success of the e-book industry, there are many economic and technological hurdles to overcome. What, for instance, is the best way to distribute these products? In British Columbia, the solution could be through the public libraries.

The Best of B.C. Books Online is a project to purchase electronic rights to a collection of non-fiction books by B.C. publishers, and make them accessible through public and school libraries. This pilot project will make about 1000 non-fiction titles, both new and back catalogue, available for free to anyone with a British Columbia library card.

“We want this to be a success story which then translates into more Canadian content being available, generates more revenue for Canadian publishers, and more people accessing these books so the Canadian content doesn't get left behind,” says Mr. Whitney, city librarian at the Vancouver Public Library.

While postsecondary libraries across Canada have had electronic access for years, public and primary-school libraries have lagged behind. Still, B.C. has the infrastructure to make e-books accessible to library patrons. In 2009, 241 of the province's 243 public libraries have broadband, as do 99.6 per cent of K-12 schools.

The Best of B.C. Books Online is run by a consortium of the Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia (ABPBC), the Educational Resources Acquisition Consortium (ERAC), public libraries, K-12 schools and the B.C. Electronic Library Network.

“We started off in a vendor-client kind of relationship when we started this project. It's ended up as a partnership,” with publishers working together with libraries to negotiate the agreement, says Margaret Reynolds, the ABPBC's executive director.

However, the established print-publishing industry is wary of e-books because of concerns about piracy, an unfamiliar marketplace and new technology. B.C. Books Online aims to make it simple for publishers to submit a PDF file and let others handle the conversion and formatting.

Because of this, Mr. Whitney is optimistic about the project's potential for growth.

“What we're hoping is that the publishers can develop a comfort level with how [the technology] is used in libraries – what the implications are, more broadly speaking, for their business model. As that comfort level grows, as the libraries get accustomed and our users get accustomed to accessing it, I think you will see more content migrating to this.”

At the moment, many of the project's details are still being negotiated between libraries and publishers. In this new area, there are no standards, such as the right price for an e-book. Ms. Reynolds and Mr. Whitney say the consortium would purchase rights to titles at a cost equivalent to 90 copies at retail prices, but they also admit it's an arbitrary number and subject to change. Another question is the length of term, which could be an annual payment or a one-time purchase.

Mr. Whitney sees the book industry as ready to learn from what the music industry went through 10 years ago, when fear of piracy made record companies hesitant. “Now we've got the music industry understanding that the notion of restricting content to one platform means it's not going to succeed in the marketplace.” The B.C. project was sold to publishers as a way to have libraries handle authentication and guarantee payment.

The technology is being handled by Gibson Library Connections. Robert Gibson, GLC's vice-president of e-publishing, says the platform for the project is Ebrary, which is already used in every university across Canada.

The e-books will be stored in central servers, and users will log in to library websites with their membership cards and read via an application that runs in web browsers, similar to Google Books or Scribd.com. The program won't allow users to download the files into portable devices like the Sony Reader or Amazon Kindle, but the users will have a limited ability to print pages or copy text to other applications. How much of that would be allowed is uncertain at this point.

Mr. Whitney says that the permissions have to be balanced between the needs of the users and the publishers. “We're not going to enter into any license agreements which don't allow our users to exercise their lawful right with copyrighted content. That would include copying a portion of the work. And then we have the negotiations about, well, is that a chapter? Is that three pages? These are the kinds of things where you've got to start somewhere.”

The “elephant in the room,” as Mr. Whitney puts it, is Google. The Internet giant's Book Search service already includes about seven million titles, and is integrated into the Web's most popular search engine. A service like the B.C. books collection, accessed through a provincial library system, could end up insignificant next to the massive Google database.

Google has been sued for copyright infringement by writers and publishers organizations for scanning books without permission. Google recently settled the lawsuit out of court, and starting in May will reimburse rights-holders for their work. However, users outside the United States won't be able to access the out-of-print books in Google's library.

Because copyright is somewhat stricter in Canada than in the U.S., Mr. Whitney says, Google has not delved deeply into Canadian titles, leaving them underrepresented online. The B.C. books project, however, will clearly own the electronic rights to the titles and will compensate the publisher fairly.

Ms. Reynolds anticipates that the Best of B.C. Books Online will go live in the summer of 2009.