A few pieces on the sometimes adversarial relationship between libraries and publishers when it comes to e-books have come to my attention. First, there’s this piece covering Cory Doctorow’s appearance at the American Library Association Conference in Chicago, complete with a four-minute YouTube video.
Doctorow notes that the most powerful interests in the book industry today do not have writers’ best interests at heart. Amazon wants to sell more books, but only because that makes them money. “Not because they’re evil, but because they’re a for-profit corporation and that’s their thing.” Publishers, on the other hand, want to sell books to make money, too, but only the books that sell well. If your book isn’t making them money, they’ve lost your interest. There are indie bookstores out there who hand-sell works, but they’re only a tiny fraction of the market now, and getting smaller. Says Doctorow:
There’s only one powerful voting block out there whose only interest is in promoting authorship, books and knowledge to the exclusion of things like shareholders or Kindle e-book sales and [platform] lock-ins, or ad sales, or the invasion of privacy, and that’s libraries.
Doctorow compares the high prices publishers charge libraries with the anti-trust practices they and Apple recently got in trouble for, and says we should be supporting libraries in this matter. Librarians are the ones who actively recommend books to big readers day in and day out, Doctorow says. “If it’s not a librarian, who’s going to do it?”
Then a couple of days ago Lynn Neary of NPR’s Morning Edition covered the matter more in depth, with a seven-minute piece (plus text transcript) on the strained relations between libraries and publishers. Publishers want to charge libraries high prices for temporarily licensing e-books because e-books never wear out.
The publishers contend library e-books are a threat to the publishers’ and authors’ continued well-being. Carolyn Reidy, CEO of Simon & Schuster, asks:
[Do] we really want to have one, huge database available across the whole country – of all of our books – that consumers can read for free? You know, one of the questions we asked at one of our early meetings was, why would anyone ever buy another book when they could get every book for free?
Neary discusses a pilot program Simon & Schuster has put into place with three New York City public libraries, allowing checkout of any book in Simon & Schuster’s catalog, one checkout at a time, and giving library patrons the option to buy the book instead. But on the other hand, Douglas County Libraries in Colorado has created its own e-book program (which we’ve previously covered), dealing with Smashwords and over 900 smaller publishing companies to create a 40,000-title e-book catalog.
Jamie LaRue, head of Douglas County Libraries, points out the benefit:
Of course, they come in because they have heard about the best-selling books, the popular books. They ask for those; and we say, “Well, you know what? That costs $84, so we don’t have a whole bunch of those. But what kinds of books do you like to read?” And they say, “Well, I’m a romance reader.” I say, “OK, you know what? We have lots of available romance books that are quite good.”
Other libraries are starting to apply the same model. And, LaRue points out, having a distribution system in place for other publishers’ e-books means that libraries could start publishing e-books themselves.
And in a related note, today on The Bookseller, Lisa Campbell writes about a report by academic publisher Sage, working with institutions in 12 developing countries. The report concludes publishers and academic institutions in developing countries need to work together better.
In particular, the study advises that publishers and librarians needed to work together to build awareness of existing routes to international journals and books for academics. Publishers could also think about adapting their websites to enable greater access for libraries in developing countries, the report said. "Part of this includes the adaptation of marketing and online resources to enable greater access," the report said.
Good luck with getting the publishers to work better with libraries in developing countries when they can’t even get their act together in developed ones!
I just checked at my own library, and it was hard to find any e-books there that I might want to read. When I attempted to place a hold on one, I was told that my library card had expired. My local library system requires me to stop in at a library every few months to renew the card and assure the people there that my information is still valid—a bit of an obstacle to someone who doesn’t have a location conveniently near and hence doesn’t stop in a lot, but does want to use their web services from time to time. Why can’t I do this over the web? They want to be sure I really am local, I suppose.
In some ways it’s hard to take sides in this fight. From the publishers’ perspective, it doesn’t make sense to allow a library to pay it the same price as a single person buying an e-book, and then let several, several dozen, or even several hundred people read it who might otherwise have paid for it themselves.
Even if not all of those checkouts would have resulted in sales (just as not every instance of piracy is a missed sale), some of them could have, and even a handful of sales can make a difference. I saw in my Facebook feed last night a post from an author who said she was no longer going to sell books at a table at conventions, in part because those sales don’t get counted for bestseller lists and she and her publisher thought that the bite convention sales took out of bookstore sales might have made the difference between some of those books showing up on a bestseller list and not. It’s understandable that they might be just as concerned about the bite out of sales from libraries, and prefer that libraries not have their books at all. (Misguided, given that library presence is probably responsible for as many or more ancillary sales than it might cost, but understandable.)
The thing is, libraries are an important part of our culture. They have, historically, been a place where people who were too poor to afford to buy books of their own could go and read them. And as books turn into e-books, they’re going to be even harder for poor folks to buy—partly because they require the initial investment of e-reader hardware, and partly because unlike paper books you can’t recoup part of what you paid for them by reselling them. I don’t anticipate e-books pushing out books altogether for decades, if at all, but even if paper books don’t vanish altogether they may reach a point where only the most popular titles come out in them. How are those on the wrong side of the digital divide going to read if libraries can’
t afford books?
A system like the one Simon & Schuster is field-testing might be the best bet. Turn libraries into e-bookstores and help support the library with sales commissions at the same time the library directly helps sell books. But at the same time you have to wonder how well a system geared to making sales can really coexist with a system aimed at making books available for free. Does this system have a way to account for demand, temporarily making more copies available of books with longer wait lists, the way that libraries can buy more copies of popular titles? Can the need to sell be balanced with the need to make free?
In a very real sense, we’ll just have to wait to find out. It’s an interesting time for libraries, and probably in a few years we’ll look back at this period as The Time It All Changed. The question is whether the change will be for the better or worse.