In July, the New York Public Library rolled out its much-anticipated e-book app, SimplyE, which seeks to solve a problem that has plagued library e-book users by reducing the once-cumbersome process of checking out library e-books to three clicks or fewer. Make no mistake, the app represents a major step forward for library e-book lending. So why then, after a month of using the app, am I still feeling a little disappointed?
Let’s start with the good: I believe the SimplyE app can be the breakthrough its creators envisioned for library e-book borrowing. It is easy to download and use—simply enter your library card number and PIN, and within minutes you can start borrowing e-books. The interface is fairly well designed and easy to navigate—in fact, it looks like any commercial e-book platform. It features highlighted titles with thumbnails of book jackets, organized by fiction, nonfiction, children’s, and YA, for example, as well as highlighting offerings in a range of languages, genres, bestsellers; it even includes staff picks. There is also a search function. But most importantly, as advertised, when you find a book you want to read it takes just a few clicks, and you’re reading (well, sort of—more on that below).
The app comes after years of complaints from library e-book users forced to wrestle with clunky interfaces and processes for e-book lending, all powered by a growing array of vendors. Anyone remember the Tools of Change conference in 2011, when librarian Katie Dunneback famously demonstrated the 21 steps a library patron needed to navigate before being able to access a library e-book? The SimplyE app now puts all of that aside, providing users one simple interface for all ePub-based library e-books, regardless of vendor (such as OverDrive, Bibliotecha, and Baker & Taylor).
Developed by a group called Library Simplified, a coalition of libraries and tech partners (with NYPL serving as lead partner) and supported with a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the app is based on open source code and is available for virtually any public library or library system to use. Partner libraries can improve, tinker with, customize, and brand the app for their own library system. And improvements are already underway.
Currently, the app is available only for Android and iOS—it doesn’t work for Kindle e-books, PDFs, or with e-ink devices. But in an email to NYPL users last month, Johannes Neuer, NYPL’s director of customer experience, said that additional features are in the works, “including a Kindle Fire version, a desktop reader, an mp3 audiobook format, as well as page bookmarking and text annotations.”
So, nearly one month in, what do SimplyE users think? Reviews in the Apple App Store thus far have been mixed. The general consensus: the app is a good start, but it needs more features and has some bugs to be ironed out, which is to be expected for any new app.
But that few of the reviews recognize that the app is a major improvement from past e-book lending practices really caught my eye, and it hits at perhaps the biggest challenge facing libraries in the e-book realm: managing user expectations. In other words, now that library e-book borrowing looks much like any other commercial e-book service out there, readers will increasingly expect libraries to work like commercial services. And, of course, at present, they cannot.
For example, take the book recommendations feature. Discoverability is a major buzzword in today’s publishing business. As any traditional library user can tell you, there is no better way to find your next great read than a good old-fashioned face-to-face Readers’ Advisory session with a local librarian. But replicating that kind of literary matchmaking in the online/e-book world is far more complicated. And as things stand, recommendations in the SimplyE app will never be as robust as their competitors’ offerings in the e-book market, because commercial e-book platforms, such as Amazon and Google, collect and retain mountains of private customer data to feed their marketing machines. Unless libraries can find a way to reconcile the retention of their customers’ personal data (which people seem to lament the loss of, while at the same time routinely forking it over to online retailers and search engines) with patron privacy concerns, library e-book services are going to be at a competitive disadvantage.
Of course, the data collection and privacy questions raised by the debut of SimplyE have been simmering for some time in the library world. In a January 2015 column, PW contributing editor Peter Brantley acknowledged the tension between protecting and safeguarding patron privacy, a bedrock principle for libraries, and using customer data to enable the cool new services that are now expected in the networked age. Libraries have to find a way to thread that ethical needle, Brantley argued.
“If we are to stay relevant to our communities, we must develop and provide services that offer the same kind of fluidity and personalization that today’s data-rich commercial platforms offer,” Brantley wrote, “and that our time-pressed and information-overloaded customers clearly desire.”
Personally, however, my frustration in using the SimplyE app was more immediate: few of the books I wanted to read were actually available for checkout. In almost every case, the book I wanted had wait times, some up to 13 weeks.
Sure, you can easily reserve titles and manage your reservations through the app. But I doubt very much that being able to manage one’s disappointment more conveniently is a very strong selling point. For regular library users, putting a book on hold may be old hat. But for new users—users who are increasingly conditioned by their online experiences to expect immediate gratification—could long hold times turn them away from the library?
Of course, in the early days of e-books, some traditional publishers actually endorsed the idea of customer dissatisfaction as a way of balancing the market and protecting their legacy sales. You couldn’t make it too easy for people to read, the logic went—hold times and cumbersome borrowing processes were colorfully dubbed “friction” and were considered part of the price of reading books without paying.
But frankly, I believe those days are gone. With so many free and cheap options now competing for consumer attention on our phones and tablets—social media, YouTube, self-published books and blogs, and hours of premium movies and TV, including a gold rush of high-quality original programming from companies such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu—is friction still a smart strategy for the book business as it seeks to grow readership?
There are no easy answers, I grant you. But now that SimplyE has made borrowing an e-book from the library as painless as accessing content from any commercial app, libraries and publishers have to get serious about reducing the friction that could drive readers away from books, and the library. Maybe that means finally easing high e-book prices paid by libraries, thus enabling libraries to buy more copies to meet demand. Or, perhaps experimenting with emerging models other than the one-copy/one-user model, even if on a temporary basis, to meet periods of peak demand.
Yes, the library e-book market has come a long way in recent years, and the SimplyE app may be the biggest improvement yet for library e-book users. But it’s time to be a little bolder. It would be a shame if all the work that went into developing an excellent app that greatly simplifies the process of checking out an e-book from the library served mostly to highlight how frustrating it still is to actually get an e-book from the library.