Review: Fictionwise, Overdrive e-book lending libraries

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One idea that libraries have been experimenting with for a while is lending a collection of e-books under the same kind of restrictions as paper books—no more than one patron using a given "copy" at one time, each copy being "returned" after a set checkout period. (For a while, eReader was owned by a company that offered e-book lending collections to libraries.)

I have learned that both Fictionwise and my local public library now offer e-book lending collections—Fictionwise through its Libwise division, and my library through Overdrive. Today, I decided to take a look at both e-libraries and see what they had to offer.

Similarities and Differences

Both of the libraries offer works in the Secure Mobipocket e-book format. This lets them deliver the books to you with a set expiration date enforced by Digital Rights Management (DRM), so that you cannot read them after they have expired. The library is then free to lend the books out again to you or someone else, knowing that only one person can be reading the same "virtual copy" at a time.

To download library e-books, you must register your Mobipocket application and device serial numbers with the library. Fictionwise’s allows 4, Overdrive’s 3. Of course, you must also create an account with each of them. Fictionwise’s uses your pre-existing Fictionwise account. My library’s Overdrive needed my library card number.

At the moment, Fictionwise’s library is open only to members of its Buywise discount club (though they will also offer guest accounts to library administrators on request). My public library’s Overdrive collection is open only to those who have a local library card (as will be other public libraries’ Overdrive collections).

In addition to Mobipocket e-books, the Overdrive library offers Adobe e-books, Windows Media audiobooks, and others, but I didn’t really look at any of them. The Mobipocket books were what interested me.

Selection

The Overdrive collection from my library did not have a very large selection—only 57 Mobipocket e-book titles altogether. (Edit: As noted in one of the comments below, other libraries’ Overdrive collections may be substantially larger.) In all of that, there were only a handful of titles I wanted: the first two volumes of Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Sharing Knife and a couple of Pratchett Discworlds. The rest were mostly non-fiction or mainstream titles I had never heard of.

image Fictionwise has 543 titles in its library at the time of this writing, broken down into a number of categories. Many of them are short stories rather than full novels.

I did not browse through all the categories, but of the ones I checked, science fiction definitely had the most with 150 titles in it. There were 31 fantasy and 26 romance—but only 7 dark fantasy and 1 erotica (by Robert Silverberg, of all people). And with only 6 “mainstream” titles out of 543 books, one wonders just how “mainstream” they can really be.

It seems a little odd to break “dark fantasy” out from “fantasy” when there are so few titles in either category, but these categories echo those of the Fictionwise store itself, so I suppose it is just as well to keep it that way for simplicity’s sake.

The Fictionwise library has quite a few decent titles, including a book or two I’ve enjoyed in print. There’s another Bujold, this time the Vorkosigan novel The Borders of Infinity. There’s M.J. Engh’s The Wheel of the Winds. There’s Dodie Smith’s The Hundred and One Dalmations. There is a huge number of Robert Silverberg titles, and quite a few Michael Resnicks.

And there’s also Tarnsman of Gor—but then, they can’t all be winners.

In both cases, the libraries have only a limited number of each title to lend out—just like printed books in a “real” library. You can only check out a book if there is a copy that is not being read by anyone else.

The Overdrive collection allows books to be placed “on hold” so that you will be notified and given first shot at the next copy of a book that becomes available. Fictionwise does not appear to offer this feature yet. (Edit: Actually, I have been informed and subsequently discovered that they do, but it was not immediately obvious to me how to do so when I looked at a book that had been checked out.)

It should also be noted that, unlike in my local library’s physical-books catalog, there appears to be no way to tell when a book is “due back” in either Fictionwise or Overdrive. This lack is particularly annoying in the Fictionwise library, where there is no way to place a hold but no way to tell when you should try to check it out before someone else can either.

Checkout and Turn-In

imageTo check out books from the Overdrive library, you just add the books to your cart, then click the check-out link to check them out. You can have up to ten books out at one time, and you get them for a fixed period of two weeks. (Edit: As mentioned in the comment below, number of books allowed and check-out period may vary between different libraries’ Overdrive collections.)

In the Fictionwise library, you check them out one at a time by clicking on “Borrow now.” At the right, a panel appears with a drop-down box where you can select the length of time you will need them—anywhere from 3 to 16 days. This system adds a good deal of flexibility. If you know it will not take you long to read, you can choose closer to 3. If you know you will be away from reliable net access for some time, you can choose closer to 16.

Once you have set the check-out length, click the “Borrow Now” button and the book is automatically added to your Fictionwise bookshelf. (If the book is already checked out, there will be a “Wait List” button instead, and you will be added to a waiting list. You can tell how many people are in line ahead of you by the number of “person” icons next to the “Checked Out” icon.) You can currently only borrow three books at a time from the Fictionwise library.

Instead of checking Fictionwise library books out, you may also choose to buy them, either for yourself or to add another copy to the library. It is unclear whether you can or will eventually be able to buy and donate copies of Fictionwise books not yet in the library, however.

In both libraries, there is no way to turn in a book early (at least for Mobipocket. You can turn in Overdrive Adobe books early, according to their FAQ) because there is no way for the library to be sure the book has been removed from your hard drive before the DRM’s preset expiration date. In the case of Fictionwise, make sure you are not checking books out for any longer than you need them.

Unlike traditional books, Fictionwise books are “turned in” automatically, by the DRM system. In addition to the standard multi-device lockdown of all Mobipocket books, these books are set to expire in a set period of time—14 days for the Overdrive collection; user-selectable for the Fictionwise. After that time, the files remain on your hard drive, but you will no longer be able to access them. The library is then free to lend them out again.

The Books Themselves

I looked briefly through several titles from both libraries, and there is not a whole lot that really needs saying. These are professionally-formatted, nicely legible e-books in every respect.

My only complaint about the Fictionwise library would be that of the books I downloaded to try it out, only The Hundred and One Dalmations had a table of contents—Wheel of the Winds and The Borders of Infinity did not. But that may be an artifact of the way the books were provided to Fictionwise from their publishers.

Pro: The Convenience

On the face of it, these virtual libraries seem to be a very elegant and cool idea. My rant about HarperCollins’s ersatz “free” giveaway of Neverwhere aside, I have no problem with the idea of a book being yours to read for a limited time and then expiring, as long as it’s clear this is a library-style endeavor without a lot of noise made about how “free” it is. And certainly the ability to “check out” and “turn in” books without ever leaving your apartment is just like having your own private on-demand bookmobile.

Cons: Restricted Platforms

The problems lie in the execution. The first problem is a problem for readers like me: there is currently no DRM-capable Mobipocket reader for the iPhone/iPod Touch, or even Nokia 770, my current mobile reading devices of choice. I will only be able to read the books I check out on my Windows desktop—which is why I doubt I will be making much use of either of these libraries beyond my testing for this review, unless and until Mobipocket comes through with the official iPhone client that their CEO claimed would be out “by the end of the year.”

Useless DRM

The other problem is a potentially big problem for Fictionwise and Overdrive: Mobipocket’s DRM is completely ineffective, and has been for quite a while. The tools to crack it can be found in under five minutes on the Internet. Many e-book-reading consumers already use them to decrypt Secure Mobipocket books they’ve bought so they can read them on unsupported devices. This is illegal in some places, such as the United States, but not everywhere—and even where it is illegal, there is no reason to suppose that people who decrypt for personal use only will ever be caught.

There is no reason why these same cracking tools should not work just as well on library e-books as on purchased e-books—time limit or not, they all use the same DRM system. With the DRM cracked, the books can be read by anything that can read normal Mobipocket books, and will not expire.

Of course, you have to have a certain amount of technical expertise to be able to do that, and the majority of consumers will probably be happy to use the books the way they were intended. But for people of low moral character, these “library” e-books will simply become “free” e-books, and nobody will be the wiser. The real scum of the earth might even go so far as to share them through peer-to-peer.

Conclusion

E-book libraries are an interesting idea, and both the Overdrive and Fictionwise libraries seem to be executed about as well as such a thing can be (though I would give the edge to Fictionwise over my library’s Overdrive for its selection and its user-set check-out periods). Providing time-limited lending copies just as with a “real” library is certainly a laudable goal.

The problem is that the DRM that enables the lending is inconvenient to users who do not have exactly the right devices on the one hand, and ineffective at restricting the use of the books to just those intended by the lenders on the other. These are flaws that are inherent in the very idea of trying to make an electronic book act like a paper book, and I am skeptical that they can ever be solved.

6 Comments on Review: Fictionwise, Overdrive e-book lending libraries

  1. DRM: in the end it has to be social type DRM, cos the bright kiddies will ALWAYS manage to crack any DRM… it’s like doing a crossword to them & the harder the better… Firms and Authors and Artists have to get people on their side so no one will WANT to cheat DRM, or distribute stuff illegally. I’m not sure what the answer is but I’m sure the percieved inequity of the current system, big bucks for a few and precious little for anyone else) does not help…The perception that the public had been ripped off for years by the record companies did not help them and as for Metallica’s complaints that we were ripping them off (Multimillionaires as they were) CERTAINLY was counter productive…

  2. As a person who uses their local library’s Overdrive system regularly I just wanted to clarify that each local library will have slightly different access to books depending on their contract. My library has approximately 3490 Adobe PDF books (returnable anytime); 2380 Mobipocket books; 4650 WMA audiobooks (a few of which are burnable to CD); and just recently they’ve added 330 MP3 audiobooks playable on iPods. With my library’s contract all books are checked out for 21 days and I can check out up to 20 books at a time. There are many “mainstream” books available and books are added all the time. My local library also has video and music available but I have not used that portion of their Overdrive system.

  3. Hi.

    I love the idea of the lending libraries so I don’t have to buy every modern book I read. I have spent some time looking at online ebook libraries specifically for mobipocket books.

    The fictionwise library software is available for libraries to purchase, you can find who has them by looking up “libwise.com” in a search engine. Most require your local library card number to check out books. Each library can choose how long books can be checked out and how many books at a time.

    This one is free to everyone and specializes in SF genre. http://www.libwise.com/loqui/ I believe they only have 42 books at this time.

    Libwise does let you put a book on hold if it’s checked out. It doesn’t give you how many days you have to wait, but does indicate how many people are in line before you.

    Few of the ebook collections I’ve looked at, either on Overdrive or Libwise have large mobipocket collections yet. I think New York public libraries have a large collection, but they want $100/yr to join, and they neglected to reply to emails I had sent them.

    Some of the Overdrive libraries (maybe some of the Libwise libraries too?) will sell you a library card for a year if you don’t live in their district, but in my opinion they are mostly asking way too much money and their collections are way too small for it to be worthwhile.

    I have learned that while my local library system doesn’t have ebooks available, I can get a card from a larger parish (county) nearby on some kind of interlibrary trade system. I haven’t done that yet because I have to drive to the distant library to get a card (they won’t do it by mail) and their small collection doesn’t make the drive worth the time and money and effort. Just saying . . . maybe there is some way others can gain access to online libraries in their area for free or for a reasonable amount of money.

    Thanks for this post. I hope these online libraries become much bigger and more common in the near future.

  4. As mentioned in your review, ebooks available vary greatly from library to library. PDF format ebooks, opened in Adobe Digital Editions can be returned and immediately come off your checked out list, and most libraries carry far more ADE format ebooks than mobipocket format.
    DRM is a very sticky issue. While I would never share an ebook on which I have broken the DRM code, I also do not have anxiety over using a DRM hack to allow me to read an ebook on my choice of devices at my leisure whether I have purchased the ebook or borrowed it from my library. The DRM set by the lending library controls how many times a year an ebook can be checked out, so why do I have to be limited to when I read it. In both cases, I have “purchased” the product – (the library through taxes). Hacking the DRM is not stealing unless you share the product with persons who have not paid for it.

  5. I belong to the local library, as well as the one in the northern part of my state. I belong to the second because its selection of mobipocket ebooks is significantly better than my local library’s.

    I’ve emailed both – one to praise, one to question – and was basically told that the library systems give them a limited amount of money to buy ebooks. My local library contact told me they weren’t buying any more mobipocket formatted books (although they do show up new on the site every now and then) because the majority of borrowers want Adobe.

    The second thanked me for my interest and said they’d continue to offer them as long as there was interest in the format.

    I appreciate their concern – but in my mind it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Don’t offer mobi, and mobi users won’t come looking for them. I almost never visit my local library’s ebooks site any more. It just isn’t worth the time. The sad thing is, I won’t know if they ever change their policy…

  6. MY complaint is that,

    1. for International payers, Fictionwise FAILS to state monies are in USD so if you pay 20 bucks Au you’ll find double gone from your bank.

    2. Fictionwise is all about using the people’s money but a lot of socalled ebooks wont download and they keep your money while you get sweet nothing. This is equivalent to a crime.

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