Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
You know what I like? Money.
Money is such a great, abstract thing. I “have” money… kind of. I have an account with my bank, and my work direct deposits my paycheck into that account. I never actually see the dollar bills they’re crediting to my name. In fact, if everyone tried to withdraw all of “their” money today, we’d probably find out it’s not even actually there. Why? Because money is one place where we use the abstract every day. We “have” it, but the bank also “has” it, and borrowers “have” it (at 7 percent interest, compounded quarterly). It’s like its own three-ring circus.
You know what should be more like money? Ebooks.
Because ebooks, like money, have that strange not-real abstractness about them. Sure, there are physical counterparts—print books, dollar bills—but those things are stand-ins. They’re not really the essence of either concept. You can buy an ebook, but you can’t hold it. You can’t put it on the mahogany shelves in your dining room to show off your literacy to all of your unenlightened dinner guests. And, perhaps most importantly, an ebook—like money—can be in more than one place at the same time.
Unfortunately, we haven’t quite come to terms with that simultaneous existence, as the recent hubbub in the library market proves. OverDrive, the number one e-book distributor for libraries, continues to operate under a print book model: ebooks can only be checked out by one patron at a time. Unfortunately, this is kind of defeating the purpose of ebooks—and, from this library-goer’s perspective, defeating the reason ebooks from libraries were cool in the first place. Because if they just have an ebook, shouldn’t you be able to read the book now, instead of having to be number 300 on the waiting list for the fourth Harry Potter book? (Okay, this is less of an issue now that I’m an adult with purchasing power—but it was a real problem as a kid who lived a few towns away from any commercial bookstores.)
Meanwhile, Freading (though less widely used than OverDrive) offers a model that’s a little more realistic, given this abstract, digital life of ebooks. Freading operates on a token basis: libraries allow patrons to use a certain number of tokens per four-week lending period. Patrons use their allotment to check out as many books as they can, unlimited by who else is checking out the book at the same time. Books are ranked between one and four tokens, meaning that patrons can check out significantly more unobtrusive backlist titles than they can hot bestsellers. Unfortunately, Freading does not offer Kindle versions (which, to be fair, is OverDrive’s real competitive edge).
Librarians, unsurprisingly, are the ones who have really grasped the problem of treating ebooks like physical entities. Because their job is disseminating knowledge, which is exponentially easier and cheaper if they can do that for an entire circulation with the purchase of just one or two ebooks (well… potentially.) They’re the bankers in this hyperbolic analogy, and we’re tying their hands while they’re just trying to spread the wealth around.
Publishers have traditionally been gatekeepers, but the shape of the gate is changing. And I’ll be the first to admit that I’m hazy on the whole finance thing, but I suspect this statement isn’t too inaccurate: financial economies need the money to move in order to work. And I think the intellectual “economy” needs the same thing. Ideas should move quickly, freely, and organically, unhampered by crudely imposed restrictions they’ve inherited from past formats. How will that look? I don’t know that any company has nailed it down quite yet. But I look forward to the readily accessible future that these formats can and will, someday, bring.