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.

14 thoughts on “artificial scarcity of audiobooks

  1. For overdrive, you can only download the license three times. Which means that you can only check out the item that many times. This isn’t for renewal (can’t renew), but just for a certain period of time. It seems it isn’t clear what that time period is. We go live on Monday with the service.

  2. As a copyright centrist, I see two issues in John Miedema’s post. One is that the software apparently doesn’t allow you to “return” your audiobook early. That’s unfortunate. I can see why they do it that way, but it’s still unfortunate.

    The other is that the audiobook is effectively sold with the same rights as a book or a CD or a DVD, and there’s where “copyright centrist” comes in. I believe that’s appropriate as long as writers (and readers, in the case of audiobooks) and publishers aren’t being paid by The State. The content doesn’t have a “fixed limitation of how many times it can circulate” (at least I don’t think it does)–like any other circulating item, you can lend ***that copy*** as many times as you wish, one circulation at a time.

    That’s not bizarre: That’s the way libraries have always worked. Otherwise, in a state with universal borrowing, Overdrive would sell exactly one copy of an audiobook. I’m not sure that’s a workable economic model (and the anti-copyright “bands should just earn their livings by touring and selling tchotchkes” concept really doesn’t work for audiobook readers and producers–or for writers, for that matter, since most of us really don’t have rock star potential).

  3. I’d be curious to know why Walt “can see why they do it that way,” i.e.- put a fixed two-week loan period into the software. Libraries have never faced such arbitrary restrictions with tangible objects. If a tangible article, say a DVD of a movie, is checked out with a loan period of 72 hours, but is returned within 24, then they are free to send it right back out, ad infinitum. Other than trying to strongarm libraries into acquiring more copies, I can’t think of a reason, but perhaps that what Walt meant.

    I’m offended by all of this, too, but I’m perhaps even more offended by my profession, which signs contracts with firms, and then protests mightily when said firms do something cretinous, as many eventually do (see the Science/JSTOR debacle for a recent example). Once someone has your money, your ability to influence their behavior is very limited. I’d prefer to see all the dyspepsia that vendors cause in librarians occur before the contract is signed, not after. The recent move by the MPG to cancel their Springer contract is a rare example of this, of which I’d like to see more.

  4. We’re still in the “figuring it all out” stage, so things can still change, but just for the record, when I dealt with netLibrary a few years ago, you could circulate their titles as many times as you wanted to simultaneously (I’m not sure if that still holds true). So it wasn’t just “one circ at a time per copy,” and there was always a copy “available.” Of course, libraries paid through the nose for that. Plus, most other body parts. The only way we could get this to work in Illinois was to band together, which is what we should be doing anyway (like those really smart Canadians do).

    I agree with what everyone has said so far, which is the problem in this space. We keep imposing limitations from the physical world and “understand why” without having a better (for everyone, including the writers/artists) model to replace it.

    The only part I’ll really disagree with is dsa’s take on the profession. This is going to be such a huge market in the next 5-10 years that if libraries were to voluntarily remove themselves from the table, then we’ll voluntarily remove ourselves from serving our patrons digital content. I totally agree we need to negotiate these things better, but we just don’t have that much clout (see also “banding together” above). In Illinois and Ohio, we tried to throw a hee-uge chunk of money at Audible to let us circulate files to patron iPods, but it didn’t work because they don’t see us as a viable market. Our influence right now is about the same regardless of whether we are existing customers or not.

    We have to come up with something other than a) blindly signing contracts, or b) walking away until the entertainment industry wants to play nice (see also “hell freezes over”). I have an idea about how to push this issue, but there’s no library in the country that could afford the legal fees to do it.

  5. How often do public libraries recommend free content audiobook sources like Librivox?

    From the academic world, most faculty I speak with know of, if not use, Audible, but almost none of them have even heard of Librivox, Radiohead’s recent release, etc.

  6. I’m a public librarian, and I do mention Librivox to my patrons, but let’s be honest… That’s not what most of them are looking for. They tend to want the newer releases by their favorite authors as read by That Woman With the Great Voice. Maybe someday Librivox will develop enough depth to command more interest (and it IS a good start and highly commendable), but a vast majority of my patrons don’t give a rat’s behind about Librivox right now.

  7. Jenny is correct – NetLibrary (owned by OCLC) uses a different (ie. better) model for digital audio and libraries. Our library pays for “checkouts” on our 2000 or so NetLibrary (mostly Record Books content) titles. It is an annual fee based on our annual print circulation figures. So if 200 people want to listen to/read “The Kite Runner” at the same time it is possible.

    And NetLibrary was much less expensive than Overdrive (mostly due to initial setup costs). But Overdrive seems to be the way public libraries are going.

  8. NetLibrary still sucks, because the DRMS is flaky, and only limitedly usable on portable devices.

    The inability of Overdrive to allow early return of material is plain stupid. It’s a computer. That’s what they’re for: Stuff like managing things that can be measured and recorded in an automated fashion. Click. Done. What the heck’s the problem?

    The limited number of times that an Overdrive audiobook can circulate would be a dealbreaker for me. It sounds too much like another step toward publishers making the reading experience analogous to such ‘pay every time’ models as rollercoaster rides. Another nail in the coffin of the Right of First Purchase.

  9. I have to agree with the general opinion re: Overdrive’s imposed limits on their service. I am part of a Canadian Library consortia and we have 41 libraries involved in our subscription to Overdrive. I am responsible for all the troubleshooting / customer complaints for our library. The overwhelming majority do not understand why they are limited to only 5 check outs at once and why in the world can’t they return a title when they are finished with it. However, our library customers are all over this service, we have doubled the checkouts of any other library in our consortia, so it is definitely a service that they find valuable, even with the restrictions. We are moving to e-books with Overdrive soon. I have a problem with the iPod incompatibility with Overdrive, but thanks to a previous post by Jessamyn I was able to offer some alternatives for iPod owners.

  10. It seems that publishers (and librarians) in most cases are resigned to the status quo in projecting the existing physical attributes of an audiobook into the realms of digital.

    If books were available on a pay per read (listen) model, then surely the best content would prevail.

    On a side note, have any posters here have statistics on the life in years of your typical physical audiobook and also the number of times it gets loaned during it’s life. Also any stats on broken or lost CD’s or tapes?


  11. 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.
    I read a mind blowing book called “76 Days lost at the sea- It is the true story of Steven Callahan alone and adrift at sea for 76 days”. Download this audio book at ”Audio Books”.

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