Thing-ology on the library ebook market

Thing-ology has an interesting post on the economics of ebooks in libraries. They argue, essentially, that libraries need site-licensed copies of ebooks rather than ones tied to specific physical devices; this will split the library and direct-to-consumer ebook markets and allow for runaway rental/licensing costs for library ebooks. There’s an apt comparison to runaway journal costs for academic libraries.

I think this argument has a lot of merit to it (although I do think the markets aren’t entirely split, and the existence of the consumer market puts a cap on the licensed market; your site license for 25 simultaneous uses can’t cost much more than 25 direct-to-consumer, device-linked copies before buyers start fleeing). It also reminds me of the horrible angst that is the textbook market — it points out that for many books prices are held down because used books compete with new, and this downward pressure stops holding in a rental-based model, because there is no secondary market. There is, of course, a thriving market in used textbooks, but one which publishers vigorously combat via incompatible new editions, included software, and (soon and increasingly, I’m sure) digital textbooks on a rental model — just like the ebooks picture Thing-ology paints for the library.

4 thoughts on “Thing-ology on the library ebook market

  1. I think you’re overlooking something when you say that used books place downward pressure on the price of new books. There is also an upward pressure: The prospect that one can resell a book actually increases its value to a student. See, eg, the chart in:

    I am far from convinced that used book sales cost textbook publishers much of anything on net.

    (BTW, the whole series of posts at is somewhat relevant to your post)


  2. I loathe the notion of digital textbooks on a rental model (which, incidentally, is very much an option today). I can accept that some students won’t want to keep their textbooks, so I’m glad there’s a market for used books out there. But the idea of not being *able* to keep your book, that bothers me. A lot. (And that’s assuming that nothing goes wrong with the DRM in the first place, and that it’s available on your platform, and that you’re happy having a textbook on a reader at all.)

    I’ve started to wonder whether some textbook authors will eventually move toward simply self-publishing PDFs on the web. (I know a Quantum Field Theory textbook that you can download for free, anyway.)


    1. Well, I suspect as a physicist you have a few years yet to wait before having to confront this problem, as I gather the support is still pretty poor for a lot of non-textual content. But I suppose that isn’t comforting. And yeah, I can see how this is a place where people who aren’t well-served by digital textbook rental (e.g. rabid book-keepers like us) could end up shut out by majority preferences (assuming the majority does prefer digital rentals, but I’m guessing that will be the case, barring some cases like premeds).

      Self-publishing…I find it hard to see on a grand scale right now. It is *such* a pain in the butt whenever my father-in-law does a new edition of his textbook (and the publisher has been unable to get him to do a new edition of his other, lower sales, textbook in ages) — there’s a ton of work with writing and image selection, and a huge big deal (admittedly largely on the publisher) with image rights, and then all the back-and-forth with editing…It’s hard to see it being worthwhile for the vast majority of authors to create a free textbook (or even necessarily possible, if they need image rights), and hard to see the publishing houses (who are quite necessary right now if you want an image rights clearinghouse, editor, access to particular distribution networks, etc.) springing for it. (I shouldn’t (although I do it all the time) put long parentheses between the subject and the verb, huh.)


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