artificial scarcity of audiobooks

John Miedema, one of the Slow Library posse, has an excellent blog up called Slow Reading. He’s been talking about audiobooks lately and his recent installment concerns the patron experience with digital audiobooks. His library uses Overdrive. He is techie enough to not have problems with the install experience, and for this installment he was content to listen to the audiobook on his computer. But he did have one observation about the availability of this content that is supposed to resemble books.

My selected title was not currently available, so I placed a hold on it. It struck me as odd that I would have to place a hold on a digital resource. After all, making an extra copy of a digital resource does not cost additional money. I know, I’m being simplistic. The rights holders have to impose some kind of exclusivity on the product so that people will pay more to get more copies. Still, it irks. I was emailed a couple days later that my title was available for download. Nice. I was told I could only have it for fourteen days. Well, I may be a slow reader, but I suppose I can listen faster. Last note on exclusivity — if I finish early, I can’t return it before the “return” date to let someone else have it earlier.

Like John, I understand why this is built into the audiobook mechanism but as a library patron and possible librarian working with this type of material, I find it obnoxious. As a patron, you get the book for two weeks whether you need it for that long or not. As the library, every time the item is checked out it becomes “unavailable” for two weeks whether the person reads it in a day or in ten. The content costs a fixed price which has a built-in limitation of how many times it can circulate. This offends my thrifty library sensibilities.

Add to this the confusing problem of non-label releases like Radiohead’s new album — pay what you want to download it, or you can pay $80 for a boxed set — and libraries are left having to make ad hoc choices about collection development issues because of bizarre market forces not because of what they feel should be in their library. Cynics can argue that this is the way libraries have always been with major publishers and book jobbers accounting for a disproportionate amount of library sales and shelf space but I’m curious if these new technological advances are going to make this problem better or worse.

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