10

Funny how quick some people jump to conclusions. On Good e-Reader, Michael Kozlowski slams Smashwords’s new public library program to bring curated lists of its e-books to libraries inexpensively via OverDrive. Kozlowski feels that Smashwords is a slush pile, plain and simple, and it seeks to convince libraries to throw their money away on poorly-written, badly-edited rubbish.

Libraries are going to feel ripped off that they have bought titles that no one will read and if they do, will likely be very vocal about the poor writing quality and in the end, libraries will feel like they have wasted money. Trust me, they are wasting money with Smashwords, if you don’t believe me visit the main smashwords website and select 3 books at random, and let me know if they are any good. Even Mark Coker refuses to measure the quality of his service by doing this, which is a solid methodology to gauge the quality of a self-publishing website.

First of all, Kozlowski gets the price of the Overdrive books wrong, probably confusing it with how much bestsellers from the Big Five cost. He thinks it’s $4, when actually the price varies by what the author wants to set for their library retail price. It can go as low as $1.99 per title. (Due to the way OverDrive works, it can’t support free.)

Joanna Cabot, who called my attention to this story, points out that Smashwords isn’t just for independent, unedited books. Many legacy authors put their reverted backlist out through Smashwords. It offers an efficient way to get them into multiple e-book stores at once, as well as getting around the problem of needing to own a Mac to publish through iBooks. (For example, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller publish a lot of their separate and combined backlist that way.)

Furthermore, Mark Coker points out in a comment that Smashwords is building curated lists of bestselling titles using sales data from the retailers through which Smashwords distributes, including iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and others. Kozlowski isn’t impressed, noting that outside those lists, nonetheless 200,000 of its 300,000 titles are available and they can’t all be good.

Effectively, all you have to do to be eligible for library purchase is to publish your non-erotica title in Smashwords’s Premium Catalog. (Which means your book has to follow the formatting guidelines from the Smashwords Style Guide; have a validated EPUB file; have good metadata, cover, and copyright page; meet the Smashwords Terms of Service,;and be a complete work.) To be fair, that means an awful lot of rubbish probably will be available in the catalog, Sturgeon’s Law being what it is.

However, what Kozklowski misses is that libraries are not required to buy that rubbish, any more than they’re required to buy every title on offer from the Big Five publishers. They can pick and choose titles, or order just those titles their patrons specifically request. Indeed, they’re not required to buy even the curated lists if they don’t want.

And whether we’re talking print, Big Five e-book, or indie e-book, librarians don’t pick titles for their libraries by throwing darts at a list. They can do research on the titles on offer to find out if they’re actually any good before they shell out for them. It’s not as if it exactly takes a lot of time to google the book title, glance at reviews, and read a few pages of a sample chapter—and that’s leaving aside all the other bibliographic resources to which librarians have access. (And hey, you know what professionals ordinary people turn to when they need to do research? Librarians!)

As one of my friends who is a practicing professional librarian noted, deciding what goes into their collection is part of a librarian’s job. I also asked my parents, both retired librarians, their opinions, and my father stated:

Book selection is and has always been the great challenge of the acquisitions librarian, who is responsible for seeing that the library’s budget goes for wheat, rather than chaff.  The pre-e-book environment in which I worked was dominated by old standby publishers, large and small.  Even in those days there was plenty of chaff to avoid, and we relied on certain selection tools to light our way to worthwhile books.

He did note that he personally wouldn’t welcome a resource like Smashwords that was likely to have such a higher percentage of chaff than wheat when there were still so many good print books available, but admitted that was probably his own pre-e-book generation prejudices talking. My mother said, “I see the Smashwords resource in OverDrive as being something that large libraries might use, but probably not small ones like Barry-Lawrence [the small public library where they live], or high school libraries, which mostly have not ventured into e-books, at least around here.”

In offering a wide selection of titles, plus selection tools to help pick out the best of it, Smashwords is giving libraries a wider range of choices, and low prices at which to acquire those choices. Maybe caveat emptor is the order of the day—but then, as my Dad points out, it was back before e-books were invented, too, and still is, with or without Smashwords. So it’s not as if this is changing anything.

 
10