Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The future of publishing for libraries

Jamie LaRue, the head librarian for our county library system writes a regular column in our local paper. His latest captured Sarita's and my attention:
You own nothing

Publishing company HarperCollins announced Feb. 25 that its already restrictive "license" for library "purchases" of ebooks had become even more onerous. Henceforth, an ebook sold by them to libraries can only be checked out 26 times. Then libraries have to "buy" it again.
To be honest, I saw the newly instated policy and thought, "Makes sense to me." I mean, how often can a regular library book be checked out before it is falling apart and needs to be replaced? Print books don't last forever.

Moreover--and I don't know how this works for libraries--it strikes me that printed books can't be loaned out multiple times at once. Are libraries able to lend their "one" copy of an ebook multiple times at once? If so, that will kill book sales.

But then I read on:
It might be useful to step back and talk about how things work now. Douglas County Libraries now spends more than $3.3 million a year to buy a sample of the intellectual content of our culture. That's books, movies, and music.

For most books, we get close to a 50 percent discount. Why a discount? Because we are volume purchasers. Across the United States, libraries account for about 10 percent of all book sales. For children's books, it's more than 40 percent of sales.

Libraries also have another effect: we help authors find readers. A handful of authors will sell all their copies. But for most writers, the problem is getting passed around often enough to start to make a name for themselves.

Then people are more likely to buy one book, and watch for the next one.

What do we do with the books we buy? We talk them up, for one thing. Then we make them available to the public, regardless of age, income, or education.

Libraries make it possible for everyone, for anyone, to find out what's going on the world.

As I discussed in a previous column, physical books take up space, and library space is limited, so we also have to get rid of a lot of books. That process, called weeding, shoves even more books into people's homes. Books often have a second, third, and fourth life, moving through church and thrift stores at heavily discounted prices.

So is this system of library purchase and resale good for authors? Yes. It increases the likelihood that someone will discover them.

Is that good for society? Absolutely. Literacy is better than illiteracy.

Is it good for libraries? You bet. Literacy is our primary product.

Is it good for publishers? Guaranteed multi-million dollar purchases, year after year, coupled with a free marketing force to grow audiences for their books?

HarperCollins doesn't think so.

Here's how the ebook market is shaping up for libraries.

1. We can't buy an ebook at all. We rent it, and the file doesn't even live on our own servers. It remains in the cloud, usually very poorly integrated into our catalogs. That means that people have to look in multiple places for content, which is less convenient.

2. The library price for ebooks, rather than being half retail cost because we are volume purchasers, is often twice the retail cost. Publishers say, but libraries let lots of people read them! We let lots of people read paper books, too, and you can't tell me that hosting a file is anywhere near as expensive as printing and distributing a physical item. Publishers want a much higher price (a 100 percent increase) for a product that is much cheaper to produce.

3. When a book is no longer popular, libraries can't resell or give away things they don't own. That means no more booksale income for the library, and no more cheap copies of reasonably current ideas for the public.

4. Under the HarperCollins scheme some books may disappear altogether. Each title will have a metered use. Want it again? Well, publishers often take books off the market for a while. And publishers may not survive.

5. Some ebooks, such as those from Amazon, are device-dependent. If you, as a consumer, buy one from Amazon, the license says you can only read it on a Kindle. What happens when your Kindle dies? Well, you either buy another Kindle, if there is one, or start building your library all over again. It's like having to buy another copy of a CD for every player you own. . . .

We need both sides of the story. I can see LaRue's points. But I think there are some things to be said on the publishers' side, too.

Again, I need to know a bit more about the way the licenses work, BUT, it strikes me that, right now, with printed books . . .
  • Books with library bindings don't cost 100% more, but they do regularly cost at least 25% more than "regular" books. (Now, most books that libraries purchase are "regularly" bound. Paperbacks, for instance. But, still.)
  • Most books libraries purchase are checked out only very infrequently. (Therefore, to charge libraries extra, because they are libraries, means they will pay a premium for a whole lot of books that will be used only slightly (if at all) more frequently than their privately-owned peers.) However,
  • Bestsellers may be checked out hundreds of times.
  • To meet the demand of patrons for bestsellers, libraries will purchase multiple copies, sometimes many dozens of copies (depending on the books' popularity). However,
  • Even with multiple copies in a library system, patrons may have to wait weeks or months before a copy is available for their use. --Is there any such limitation on how many "copies" of a single "rented" version of an ebook may be checked out at one time? --Obviously from a technological perspective, there is no reason for a limit. But if a publisher is not permitted to put some kinds of limits in place, they and their authors will destroy a major source of purchase pressure. . . .
I must say that I am deeply disturbed by the concept of rented-only copies of intellectual property being stored solely on servers owned by the publishers. The concerns LaRue raises in his first point are rather scary, to say the least! It is nice to have libraries where long out-of-print books are held deep within their bowels. I have done a fair bit of inter-library borrowing in order to find such ancient volumes.

In a digital-only, publisher-sponsored-only environment, that kind of research may definitely disappear!


LaRue concludes:
The way things are shaping up, publishers will try to make it impossible to own a book. They want to monetize the transmission of ideas, to the detriment of author and reader alike.

It's the same strategy championed by music publishers. And we know how well that worked out.
Actually, no, I don't know how well that turned out.

Your thoughts?
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