E-book creation and lending
This discussion aims to demystify e-books: how they are made, how they circulate in libraries, and what are the possible benefits to local authors and publishers. It is an important topic given that for the first time in 2016, the Public Lending Right Body, which issues royalty payments to Canadian authors who have books circulating in libraries, will begin tracking and paying royalties on the lending of e-books.
Expozine co-founder and author Louis Rastelli (LR) moderated the discussion, which included: Hugh McGuire (HM), founder of the Pressbooks, an online book publishing platform, and all-around digital publishing guru and technologist who experiments and writes about the changing world of publishing ; Zile Ozols (ZO), MLIS, librarian and active Manager at the Atwater Library and Computer Centre ; and Eric Craven (EC), MLIS, Project Coordinator of the Atwater Library Digital Literacy Project.
LR: When did the Atwater Library begin e-lending?
ZO: We started in 2012 after we got a grant to fund it. To launch it, we offered a free workshop for people to come and learn how to use their e-readers and borrow e-books from the library. A lot of seniors came out for that. We still offer drop-in sessions for people who need help setting everything up.
LR: What is the age group of the average person that comes in? Are they mostly older?
ZO: The people asking for troubleshooting tend to be older, but our library’s clientele in general is older. A lot of our services are used by seniors.
LR: How complicated was it to develop the e-lending—choosing a platform, understanding the contracts with publishers…
ZO: The major choices were made by our head librarian before her current maternity leave, but actually there aren’t really that many choices out there. In North America, Overdrive is pretty much the biggest platform. If I remember correctly, they have about 15000 clients. It isn’t just libraries, they also serve educational institutions and others.
LR: Is Overdrive bilingual?
ZO: It’s very much Anglophone, but they do have books in other languages. Here we strictly purchase our English e-books from Overdrive. I know that the BAnQ and French libraries use PRET NUMERIQUE. There are a few French e-book platforms, if you go to the BAnQ site they have quite a few databases that you can search.
LR: It can be tricky to figure out for the small presses in our Expozine community… So many of them are already slack in getting an ISBN, and many self-publishing authors don’t even know about the public lending right form… E-lending can seem too complicated to set up for many of them.
EC: The problem with something like Overdrive and the digital world in general is that every time you add another distribution channel, you get another small cheque that has to be split 20 or 50 ways, and then you have to calculate the royalties. For publishers where Overdrive is the e-book distributor, once they’ve signed on, they’ll get the royalty cheques every quarter from Overdrive. Then they need to split that up among their authors and decide whether it’s worth it.
LR: But if you go through an aggregator, then I guess it’s split up one additional way.
HM: The problem is the small cheque that you have to split into a hundred different ways to rights holders and other parties. I talked to one publisher who said they had a person come in, full-time for two weeks, just processing royalty cheques. They kind of collapsed afterwards and had to start all over again, every month.
LR: The system is still set up like it had been for physical books, when the amounts weren’t so sliced up. Even for larger presses, it seems outsourcing this stuff is common. One of our sponsors at Expozine that still prints in the tens of thousands of physical books each year decided to outsource the management of e-books a couple of years ago.
ZO: Although Overdrive is based in the States, it has a pretty good collection of Canadian publishers. They have a Canadian portal so when I’m on there purchasing books, it lists new Canadian books like Linda Leith books, Anansi.
LR: So when you do the buying, can you order both print and digital versions of a book at the same time?
ZO: It’s separate: l go to one place to buy all my print books; I do all my e-books on Overdrive; I order DVDs from someone else…
LR: I’m a bit surprised that there’s no overlap, it’s as if the physical book distributors left the e-books to others to worry about, or maybe they decided to wait for some standards to emerge.
HM: In Canada there is an organization called eBOUND Canada, they are affiliated with the Independent Publishers Group, so they are the place where I think the most indie publishers in Canada are going to do their distribution. And then all the big guys are going through, you know, Random House or a distribution company, but eBound is kind of a central place for others…
LR: Like a library distribution?
HM: Well, they would be for sure selling it into Overdrive as an option for publishers who want to sell to libraries, but I’d have to check on that because they actually use Ingram’s digital distribution as their backend, so they’re kind of like a friendly Canadian face on Ingram.
EC: Do you make your e-book purchases based on demand?
ZO: For e-books, we mostly focus on mystery and romance genres, and then we regularly purchase literature or biography. When I buy literature, I go for what’s popular but also more Canadian-based. It also depends on pricing because we have a budget. For example: best sellers we kind of have to avoid, because for libraries they’re $60 or more, sometime $80 to $100, which is kind of crazy! Most of the people using e-readers are reading mystery, it’s actually the most popular e-book genre by a lot. It’s a lot of the “fast reads” and things that just immerse people.
HM: It’s also the voraciousness of romance readers as well.
ZO: It’s like a one book a day kind of thing.
LR: Could someone say: “Hey! I made an e-book, can I donate it to the library?”
ZO: Actually yes. We had one author come to the library, they donated to us the print book and she wanted to donate her e-book and make it available in Overdrive. How that works is that she basically emailed us the e-book file, and Overdrive has a feature where the library can add e-book files. Then we just type in the information and metadata that we had for her and now it’s available—just on the Atwater Library’s Overdrive site—so not throughout all of Overdrive, but our patrons can see it on there and can borrow it just like all our other e-books. It would be cool to develop that further because that’s where we can work on local, unique collections.
LR: For the first time ever, they will be taking native digital e-book titles from authors for the Public Lending Right this winter—meaning, if you’re an author, you can register e-titles now and somehow royalties will be paid. That might make it a little more interesting on the writer’s side, it’s less complicated. Writers already get cheques mailed straight to them for the Public Lending Right for physical books. You were mentioning next time you can do a ‘zine project and there could also be an e-zine version, and add that to Overdrive without costs to the library.
ZO: Yes, it would just be our time and that’s all, really…
EC: With our digital literacy project we get people to scan old photographs and make digital scrapbooks and stuff like that. I think that for some people would be pretty interested—and this is my experience just doing my film digitization this year—that they have really amazing collections that they might want to condense it into something they can share. Everybody has a relationship with photographs—it doesn’t have to be your own photographs—but we could have a collection in the library of that output. It’s also about the older people downsizing this thing where they got their photograph in the library forever… I mean, I would like to look at those on a tablet, just snapshots with little bits of writing, like an e-zine.
Libraries—in the age of over-abundance of information—become more about curating and perhaps helping the community widely in their efforts to create as well. That was the big inspiration of the whole digital literacy project that started 2005—the creation and being a central place where the community could come and find the stuff that was created within the community.
HM: Well, I think we’re thinking of the library as that third space too, it can function very well as a meeting place to do stuff in creative expression. So I mean, libraries have always changed how they connect people to content, and that content used to be microfiche, newspapers and now were going to more digital things, so it’s really an interesting arc.
LR: What about magazines and newspapers, Zile, are they a whole other can of worms? You can come to the library and sit with a physical Gazette or New York Times, yet I’m assuming you can’t log in for free to the New York Times’ website through the Atwater Library’s website?
ZO: No. We don’t have anything like that set up, but I know that at other libraries there are programs—I think one is called Zinea —where if the library subscribes to a magazine or newspaper, then the member can log on to the library’s website and access those from wherever they are. We don’t have the budget for that here.
LR: So, you don’t offer e-magazines.
ZO: No. We have magazines, just not online.
LR: Do any of the magazines that you subscribe to offer a deal on your print subscription if you add a digital subscription?
ZO: Not the magazines. The newspapers, technically as the subscriber, our staff has access, but we don’t give our patrons access. I don’t know how the newspapers would feel if we just let patrons use our account.
LR: So patron’s can’t log on for free on-site by coming to use the computer here? Or have a pay-wall access here?
ZO: No. It’s going to be interesting because—I don’t know if you’ve heard, but—La Presse cancelled their weekly paper subscription, so we might just cancel our subscription completely because we don’t have really that patron-base that would go to that.
LR: So e-lending for dummies: I have a tablet, a library card… do you have to come in to do anything to access the tablet thing at some point?
ZO: No. If you’re at home—and as long as you are a member—you can just download the Overdrive app and then find the library on there, and all you have to do is log in and browse and download at home. Our patrons get to choose whether they want to borrow something for 7, 14 or 21 days, and then once it hits that day, they’re no longer able to read it. If they want to continue reading it, they have to go back to our website and borrow it again, as long as no one else has borrowed it.
EC: So, it gets blocked if someone else has it and they can’t check it out.
ZO: That’s right, but they could put themselves on the waiting list and be notified when it is available.
HM: Why wouldn’t you always take 21 days?
ZO: Well, we have a limit of 5 books per patron at a time, so once you have five books and you download all of them, you have to wait for your 21 days to expire. If you don’t download them and just read them right from the browser, that’s not a problem, you can return them any time. But if you’re a fast reader…
LR: So the Romance readers, I guess you have quite a few that choose 7 days?
ZO: Most people stick to the 14 days.
LR: We haven’t spoken much about the creation of e-books yet. For example, someone comes to you asking how to get an e-book into the library.
HM: Do you know what Pressbooks is?
LR: I know a bit about it but I’d love it if you would tell us.
HM: It’s an online tool: you go onto the Internet and you stick your content in and generate formatted outputs. The .pdf output is built to go to printers: you can just dump your content in to Pressbooks, then you can send that .pdf to a print-on-demand company or printer. Then there’s an equivalent web version—.ePub—which is what you would provide to Overdrive, and there’s an equivalent .mobi version which is for Kindle readers.
LR: Aside from .pdf, are these all DRM formats? (Digital Rights Management, which means a digital file can’t easily be copied.)
HM: The DRM is baked into the formats, into how they’re distributed. We don’t do any DRM-ing, but when a .mobi file goes to Kindle, they will wrap DRM around it. I’m sure Overdrive does this too.
LR: Is the ePub version, the web version, something where the text is searchable?
HM: Yeah, it’s totally live-on-the-web. Pressbooks is actually built on top of WordPress, so the web version is natively web. The model is that every book is its own blog—sort of a self-contained blog.
There is also a “deck” made for publishers, all your book files in one place. You could have 20 or 50 or 100 different books on a Pressbooks system. It’s relatively easy to use. The interface looks sort of WordPress-y so you can import doc files. They need to be prepped a little bit beforehand—it’s built more for text with some images. It would do a zine well enough, but if you’re doing like a coffee-table book or a graphic novel it’s not the ideal format.
There is a content management system that again, looks like WordPress. You keep your different chapters in it, you can edit your chapters at any time. You can make an edit and re-export all your different files.
There are also a lot of different templates. They’re more built for non-fiction and categories like mystery or romance. A lot of university presses do stuff with us, so we have a lot of templates adapted for their needs.
HERE IS A LINK TO THE SLIDESHOW PRESENTATION that Hugh McGuire gave about Pressbooks.
LR: Do you set up a WordPress page on your own first or do you suggest going through a developer to install it?
HM: It’s not hard to install on your own. Any developers can work with this too, for example the University presses use a lot of footnotes and floating images. We’ve done some work with The Wall Street Journal… so these are books that they give away to their subscribers as a gift, and they like Pressbooks because we output in .pdf, which is what their users prefer.
LR: Speaking of that market, is there any way of having these kinds of e-books updated once downloaded?
HM: That depends on how you’re getting it, I think Kindle can update books that were already sold… but if you’re getting it through Overdrive, then you’re just getting whatever they’ve got.
Pressbooks works best if you’re using it not as a conversion tool to get from some finished format to e-book, but rather if you’re using it instead to make the e-book from scratch. Getting a print format into e-book is kind of messy in general, there needs to be a lot of touching up of the code and formatting so it’s not a mess.
Our clientele is made up of a lot of self-publishers, a handful of micro-publishers doing 3, 5, 10 books a year, and then a handful larger publishers. Some are using this for new books—Fortress Press for instance totally jettisoned their existing production process and replaced it with Pressbooks. They cut their costs by 70%, it increases speed and reduces cost.
What happening is that a lot of specialty publishers and University presses—for instance, anyone a large number of books with small runs—are starting to print this way. 50% of those sorts of books are just pulp within a year anyway.
LR: Computer manuals are one thing I’d be happy to see the back of, for how quickly those get out of date.
HM: Exactly. Pressbooks exists partly just to do that, but actually I think the more interesting world is one we’re nowhere near yet, when book content is actually native on the web and is query-able on the web…
LR: It’s been a long time coming, it seems…
HM: It still is! (laughs)
LR: One thing that is interesting is how it used to be really expensive to create a book with a ton of different font treatments, layouts, images under text on every page etc., but then with desktop publishing, Photoshop, it got super easy. But now it seems like we’re coming back to square-one: for these formats to work on e-readers or on the web, you really have to pare down the design. You do not have 5000 fonts at your disposal, because that’s just how the web is set up, that’s how eReaders are set up. So my big question is, will these design possibilities gradually come back? This relates to how we were talking about how some genres are just exploding in e-books—mystery, romance, whereas other types of books still sell in the millions on paper. Do you see it getting to a point where it’s totally hybrid and you can replicate whatever print experience in an e-book…
HM: Well no. I think that there are different formats for different purposes, and I think that a coffee table book exists as a coffee table book for a particular reason. It’s not meant to be read from front-to-back. What I find most extremely frustrating as an e-book reader is when I can’t get a particular book in digital form, it drives me crazy. I think particularly on the zine side and independent publishing, there is a real reason to think of digital as the place where the indies can just spread wider, reach way more readers.
Interesting story: The guy who runs the kobo self-publishing portal now—the Chapters/Indigo e-book competitor to Kindle—ran the McMaster University book store for a long time, and he bought, at some point, an Espresso book machine. It’s basically just a giant Xerox machine that prints and binds a book and spits it out in five minutes.
LR: They have one at McGill.
HM: Yeah, my understanding is that they all break down, and no one actually knows how to run them for very long, but he is one person I’ve talked to who had a very successful experience with it. He ended up buying two machines because of all the new traffic that came into the bookstore. People who were publishing their book would run off 100 copies from the machine and then do a launch party right afterwards. I just love that kind of model.
There’s actually something very valuable about the physical space of a library, which is a place people come to, to somehow interact with information and with each other in that community spirit that’s engrained in the DNA of libraries. We just started partnering with a company out of Charleston, North Carolina that does stuff with libraries across the U.S. They’re piloting this program to see if libraries can offer a self-publishing possibility using Pressbooks; they have a platform for the e-books that can serve the libraries. It would be a great development to have libraries get involved in publishing in their communities.
LR: We’ve briefly touched on the limitations for now of the kind of content you can see in e-readers. One of the things we’ve discussed on the Expozine team for years now is whether the newer generation of self-publishers doing zines, many of which are are mind-boggling zines combining different printing techniques and formats, fold-outs, bindings, just wild stuff –will they come up with something for e-books that is totally unexpected? Who knows, maybe some of them will come up with ways to subvert or pervert some of the standard templates, identify functions in e-readers that are mildly hackable and do different things with them. It might not be happening that quickly because e-readers aren’t exactly cool… until they get more exciting or interesting, not a lot of creative people are going to go there. Which is a vicious circle…
HM: The e-book platform is terrible, they’re all awful, awful… what’s been happening is, the web exists, and does all the things that e-book readers do, but instead, the answer was to take a website and zip it up and wrap DRM around it so that it behaves basically like a book, and in doing that, a lot of thing you should expect to be able to do on the web, you can’t do in an e-book, just because of standards and decisions that have been made. So to me, when you talk about people doing cool stuff with ‘zines, what I see there is that blog style content is so accessible and inundates us that it become interesting to look at unique objects in the physical space that can give you something different that what digital does. I think there’s always going to be that interplay.
The Kindle platform has kind of moved towards supporting graphic novels and stuff, but I long ago got annoyed with their e-book ecosystem. It does a very limited set of things. If you want to be reading non-fiction in a serious way, writing notes in or marking pages, it’s also kind of annoying, because your book just disappears after you’ve read it. There’s lots of improvement that could be done without even thinking about really weird and interesting artistic expression, just the fundamental of “how” we’re allowed to use our digital books… that system, I think, is broken.
There is a big movement to improve this in academia, towards open textbooks. It’s about replacing the big, expensive textbooks in academia with faculty blogs, free and open textbooks and just exploring what kind of reading environment you would like to have. There is a lot of interesting stuff going on but the problem is twofold: One is the publishing industry is very conservative generally, and not very enthusiastic about new technology, and then you have Amazon which dominates probably 70% of the e-book market and they have the incentive to do what ever it is that helps Amazon but not necessarily others in the process. So you kind of have these two forces that don’t really want to move things, but they’re still pushing in different directions.
LR: It’s ironic that we think of ourselves in a fast-moving age but in looking back at the history of technological changes like radio or TV, this has been more than twenty years of long, slow period of transition with the Web and even longer with the Internet. Yet the way we are talking about it, it might be another 5 or 10 years before e-books reach their potential and mature as a format, and that speaks to a lot of entrenched interests and business models that people are hanging on to…
HM: Yes. I think the book world looked at what happened in music and said: “We don’t wanna go that route” and so they’ve worked hard to do something different which was: “OK, we’ll provide you these things, and we’ll charge you just as much as we used to charge you, and we’re gonna make it so that you can read on different devices.” It seemed to please book buyers relatively well, but maybe that’s why there is a leveling-off of sales of e-books, because the actual experience isn’t that great. I mean, I am an e-book reader because I like the reading part, but all the rest that goes around your reading life is completely ignored by the print ecosystem. I hope it gets better, eventually, in 50 years maybe.
LR: At least books are still there!
HM: The explosion of sales at kobo—their biggest publisher in number of units sold, their biggest account, is not Random House or any of the big publishers, it’s their self-publishing core. That’s where most of the new content is coming in…
LR: Serialized fan-fiction is helping things too.
HM: I like this development where younger zine-makers are using .gifs creatively, because in a way it’s like the same thing when I was young, like people subverting mimeograph machines or pushing photocopies as far as they will go, you know? Taking the technology and doing something new to do with it…
LR: Like drawing a naked woman on a Commodore 64 using only letters…
EC: ascii-art! (laughs)
To find out more about some of the formats and technologies cited here, check out our resource page.