Thursday Threads: Kindle Library Lending, Ebooks #1 in Sales, Recommendation Engines

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I tried to stay away from ebooks again, in this edition of DLTJ Thursday Threads (I managed to do so last week), but the threads of announcements and conversations are too crucial to ignore. Just yesterday Amazon and OverDrive announced plans to lend library ebooks to Kindle users. The press release and subsequent discussion is full of ambiguity and missing details, but what was officially said is enough to be tantalizing. And why not? The Association of American Publishers said that ebooks are the leading format among all trade categories in the month of Febrary. At least by sales volume, not by total revenue. The last thread this week is how recommendation engines are finding their way into another corner of the lives of undergraduates -- helping you pick your course schedule.

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Amazon to Lend Books Via OverDrive

Amazon today [April 20, 2011] announced Kindle Library Lending, a new feature launching later this year that will allow Kindle customers to borrow Kindle books from over 11,000 libraries in the United States. Kindle Library Lending will be available for all generations of Kindle devices and free Kindle reading apps.

The Kindle Library Lending program will integrate into [a library's] existing OverDrive-powered ‘Virtual Branch’ website. Your existing collection of downloadable eBooks will be available to Kindle customers. As you add new eBooks to your collection, those titles will also be available in Kindle format for lending to Kindle and Kindle reading apps. Your library will not need to purchase any additional units to have Kindle compatibility. This will work for your existing copies and units.

The Kindle Library Lending program will support the existing business models that [publishers] have already set in OverDrive’s catalog. The Kindle eBook titles borrowed from a library will carry the same rules and policies as all other eBooks. As usual, users will still need a valid library card from a participating library, school, or college to check out an eBook for Kindle Lending.

Amazon and OverDrive announce that they are making the Kindle devices full participants in library ebook lending programs. To this point OverDrive has relied primarily on Adobe Digital Editions digital rights management to control the lending of ebook items, which left out Kindle devices. (Kindle devices/software uses an Amazon-specific DRM encoding that no one else uses.)

Now there are some interesting questions that need to be worked out. The Amazon press release says that if you make notes or highlights, then "you check out the book again, or subsequently buy it, your notes will be there just as you left them." So it sounds like that means that there will be some tie between an OverDrive patron account and the userid associated with a Kindle device/software. To me that says that Amazon will be able to link your OverDrive lends to the personally identifiable information of your Amazon/Kindle account. This crosses a boundary that makes me nervous. Of course Amazon has all of information of books that you buy or sample from the Kindle website, but library lending records have always been held to a higher privacy standard. At this point, I don't think OverDrive knows much about me. If I "check out" an ebook or audio book that is available, OverDrive will know the IP address of the machine I used to download the checked-out file. If there is a waiting list, then I have to give OverDrive my e-mail address to notify me when the check out is available. To the best of my knowledge, OverDrive does not have any other personally identifiable information about me (unless my public library is transferring information to them in some sort of back channel based on my library card number).

What does this mean for the HarperCollins/OverDrive 26-checkout-limit controversy? Not a thing, as near as I can tell. The OverDrive blog post for publishers says that "Kindle eBook titles borrowed from a library will carry the same rules and policies as all other eBooks," which I expect would include the 26-checkout-limit imposed by HarperCollins on its titles. And I also expect it would be 26 total checkouts regardless of format; you wouldn't get 26 Kindle formats and 26 Adobe Digital Edition formats.

E-Books Rank as #1 Format among All Trade Categories in the Month of Febrary

For February 2011, e-Books ranked as the #1 format among all categories of Trade publishing (Adult Hardcover, Adult Paperback, Adult Mass Market, Children’s/Young Adult Hardcover, Children’s/Young Adult Paperback). [...]

For the year to date (January/February 2011 vs January/February 2010), which encompasses this heavy post-holiday buying period, e-Books grew 169.4% to $164.1M while the combined categories of print books fell 24.8% to $441.7M.

[F]or many readers, it may be less that we're buying more books, but that we're buying books in a new format, taking away from the revenue from the sale of $25 hardcovers that have long floated the industry and now purchasing our books in $10 digital formats. That means the publishing industry has to sell a lot more e-books to make up that difference.

Here is another reality check on the importance of ebooks. The way I'm reading this Association of American Publishers press release is that unit sales of ebooks has surpassed that of print books, although -- as the ReadWriteWeb post indicates -- total revenue for print books is nearly three times higher than that of ebooks. I sense the pace of change just kicked into a higher gear...

Recommendation Engine Used to Help Undergraduates Pick Classes

When Netflix suggests movies based on how much previous renters liked them, all that's at stake is a night's entertainment. Now a handful of colleges have begun using similar recommendation systems to help students pick their courses—a step that could change GPA's and career paths.

- The Netflix Effect: When Software Suggests Students' Courses, by Jeffrey R. Young, The Chronicle of Higher Education

I picked out this thread because it is another cases where recommendation engines -- relevance ranking derived in part by a searcher's previous activity -- is coming closer to the norm. In this case, "when suggesting a course, the automated system considers each student's planned major, past academic performance, and data on how similar students fared in that class." Librarians have a strong professional ethic to hold confidential the activity of our patrons, typically through the most expedient solution of "don't keep patron activity." Increasingly, though, I think this response is going to harm the perceived performance of our search tools relative to other systems our patrons are using. While the use of anonymized data, such as Ex Libris' bX Recommender Service, can bring us part of the way there, we are going to need to figure out a way to use patron-specific past activity data to improve that patron's future search results.