15 April 2008

Formatted to fail.

You're browsing books on the library Website and an unfamiliar icon pops up. Ooh! An e-book? Can I do that? Looks like all I have to do is add it to my list and it will download to my computer. Sure, I can't carry my laptop on the subway, but I look forward to nights of happy reading by the warm glow of the screen.

...HA. If only! I recently e-checked out a book from the New York Public Library, and it was such a frustrating experience I would not do so again. I'm warning you this is a rant, but there MUST be a better way to distribute electronic materials. Here's why it drove me crazy:

1. On the NYPL Website, regular books and e-books are separated on the site even though they both come up in the LEO (catalog) search. So you have your list of regular books checked out, and then somewhere else, your list of e-books checked out.

2. #1 wouldn't be so annoying if you didn't also need another login to access your e-books list. I finally learned my 14-digit library card number and PIN, and it won't work on this site of the same website?

3. Although in theory many people could check out the same e-book at the same time since they wouldn't have to physically share, there are usually only 2 to 3 "copies" of each book available. (Or so it was for my book, whose title I'm obscuring only because I'm thinking about buying it as a present for someone who occasionally reads this...) So you have to wait for your turn, just like with a regular book.

4. When your book becomes e-available, the Website sends you a notification. Unfortunately, clicking through to the site gets you to your queue, not any kind of instructions on how to download the e-book. Cut to me opening up 20 pages at once looking for instructions.

5. To e-read the e-book, you have to download a special program from Adobe called Digital Editions.
(a) Adobe Acrobat, which practically every computer has and works across many platforms, is somehow not sufficient. (Gizmodo points out Digital Editions is prettier, but shouldn't I be able to choose between Pretty/Unnecessary and Functional/Preinstalled?)
(b) The Digital Editions download page took me in circles for at least 15 minutes -- this isn't the NYPL's fault, but at some point someone must have okayed this format.
(c) Once you download and install the program, you're ready, right? WRONG. You then need to go back to the Adobe site and create a login name, and to do that Adobe needs all your information so they can sell you junk. I mean, so they can "enabl[e] portability by linking you and your books." (That link points out that logins are no longer necessary, just "strongly recommended.") I didn't even want this program in the first place; I certainly don't need Adobe looking over my shoulder offering me more things to clutter up my computer. (I have used Adobe products like InDesign and Photoshop happily for years at work.)

6. When you can finally download your e-book and open it using the program you will undoubtedly never use again, it is saved to your desktop as something ridiculously general, like checkout or ebook, guaranteeing that you will never remember what it is. If you bought it and then delete it, you may just be out of luck like this blogger.

Is it a DRM thing? A decisions by committee thing? A we don't like technology thing? In any case, I can't imagine the 8 extra steps it would take to load the book onto a PDA, or print out or mark pages. (Oh wait, apparently you can't put it on a PDA or a Kindle. Helpful?)

I quit reading after 3 chapters, the amount I was able to get through in one sitting, because I didn't want to go through the whole rigmarole of signing in and paging through again. What luck is a newer computer user going to have going through these 85 steps? This is not adapting to the 21st century. This is making innovations like e-books so useless, so eBabel as this blog charmingly puts it, that the NYPL can go back to its digital consultants and say, "Well, we tried, but no one wanted to use them!"

ETA: Read my update to this post, Format is not destiny.

ETA 2 [4/8/10]: This comic says everything I just said, but much better.


flyingcupcake said...

Um, yeah I had the same experience with purchased e-books, the NYPL's digital library, and Brooklyn's digital library. I have no idea how to even access Queens' library of ebookness but that may be because I've given up putting effort into figuring it out by this point.

In other words, I feel your pain and I am sticking with reading the old-fashioned way.

Anonymous said...

Ellen, your "rant" is completely justified. You might want to check out David Rathman's "teleread.com" blog, where those of us who are big supporters of e-books engage in similar rants all the time.

The maze through which Adobe forces visitors to its web site to navigate is indeed laughable, and something of an industry joke. I would encourage you to make your sentiments clear to Adobe in an e-mail to its customer service department.

But the most important contribution you could make would be to make the publisher of the specific e-book in question aware of your sentiments. The core of your problem revolves around the fact that this e-book is likely to be encumbered by so-called "digital rights management" (DRM) software. As the e-book marketplace evolves, it's critical that readers make it crystal clear to publishers that we aren't going to tolerate needless hassles like this.

Most readers are not thieves or pirates, and companies who assume we are out to steal their content do not deserve our business. (Besides that, the real thieves will manage to pirate the content despite the DRM.) This is a lesson that the music industry learned in a most painful way, but it is finally beginning to see the light. It's a pity the publishing industry hasn't learned from the music industry's mistakes.

For my part, I simply will not purchase DRMed e-books. While this kind of behavior will slow the growth of the e-book market, it is IMHO the only reasonable response.

Before you give up on e-books altogether, you might consider visiting some of the sites that offer DRM-free e-books, which you can also learn about at "teleread.com". You may not find the specific titles in which you're interested on these sites, but you will find a wealth of unencumbered public domain content as well as some current titles that will download and install easily, the way it should.

Anonymous said...

Yikes! I keep looking at the eBooks my library has available but who'd think there would be so much difficulty in accessing it? For me, half the point of the eBook is that it should be very user friendly.

Anonymous said...

Do what I do, pirate your ebooks. I'm not cheap; I have bought shelves and shelves of real books for the full retail value, but I will not buy an ebook -- not with the DRM bullsh*t that comes along with it. There are plenty of free copies of books out there floating around on torrent sites, and P2P sharing programs like eDonkey. Just take a look and breathe a sigh of relief.

Unknown said...

Ellen, you are absolutely right that these resources should be easier to use. Your experience sounds so frustrating, and I was sorry to read about it. Though some of what you describe in your post -- digital rights management, special software requirements, etc. -- are controlled by the vendor from which The New York Public Library licenses copies of works, there are more things the Library can do to assist users in making access easier. I can think of a few, but I’m sure you could help us even further!

In the class I teach at the Library called “Downloading with Confidence,” we sample the content and review the software and library card requirements for the use of the ebooks and other media. The class is intended to expose people to resources they might not discover on their own and to help them feel more comfortable downloading the free software and content to their computers. The collection of just under 20,000 electronic titles has had more than 320,000 items circulated since it launched in November 2004. Most of the people using it have never taken a class, of course.

The class, while helpful (I hope), should not be necessary in order to use the eNYPL collection, and I regret that you had trouble with access. You seem like a pretty tech-savvy person, and if it is trouble for you, I’ll bet it is trouble for others, as well.

So it sounds like we can make some changes to make the downloading steps clearer, and there obviously needs to be clarity about the use of the library card number and PIN (I admit that I’m a little confused about why this didn’t work for you – I’d appreciate more information on this). Please forward any other suggestions for what the Library can do to help you and others take advantage of these resources.

Ann Thornton
The New York Public Library