Thursday, March 17, 2011

More about book publishing, libraries, and the future of books . . .

Jamie LaRue graciously replied to my post yesterday and invited me to visit his blog.

If you didn't read his comment, I want to point out what he said about how libraries operate:
[F]irst, we treat commercial eBooks exactly like a paper book. That is, if we bought one copy, only one copy can be checked out at a time. If we buy two, two at a time. Technologically, of course, a file can be shared simultaneously. But libraries follow copyright, and pay for what we use.
That encouraged me greatly. It means there really is a potential for a long-term market in and to and through libraries. As long as they stick to that kind of high integrity model.

He made another comment, too, about my lack of understanding concerning what has happened in the music industry:
[T]he past two years saw a 55% decline of music publisher profits. People go directly to music sites, or iTunes, for individual songs. Musicians make their money performing these days, not selling CDs through publishers. Obviously, that's different from authors, many of whom just want to write, not give speeches. But the lesson is plain: start making it expensive and inconvenient for people to read, and they seek alternative sources for content.
With those comments, and his implicit invitation to visit his blog, I found his latest post: Your right to read is at risk and realized he is onto something big.

In that post, if you put two and two together, you realize that HarperCollins' policy is mild compared to many of its competitors:
Many publishers in the rapidly consolidating world of commercial publishing - among them giants Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster - won't sell eBooks to libraries at all. Why? Because they believe, falsely, that there's an opportunity to greatly boost their profits while reducing the availability of the product. Sell direct to the consumer, bypass the cooperative purchasing power of the library, and eliminate this whole business of people not paying for every single access.

Under this emerging model, the right of ownership disappears. You simply won't be able to own a book anymore. You will have to have the device, the communications plan, and the money to pay per view. It's like replacing home ownership with a rental -- where the owner has the ability to raise the rent whenever he feels like it. It replaces the DVD with an on-demand subscription. It eliminates booksales and heirloom gifts with corporate lockboxes.
And then he goes on to point out the huge role libraries play (or, certainly, have played until very recently) within the total marketing matrix:
All by itself, Douglas County Libraries has 2 million visitors a year, and another 2 million to our website. Almost all of those people are looking for books. We're just about to roll out exciting new ways to display e-Content, and make it more findable. Cut us out of that eco-system, and all you really accomplish is to make it more difficult for readers to find authors, and for authors to find an audience.

As I alluded to last week, the move from LP album to CD was a similar savings for music publishers, and resulted in a similar grab for money. The result? Consumers rejected the whole system, and went direct, eliminating the middle man, and finding new distribution channels.

Public libraries in the 21st century are busy community hubs. Librarians are active and passionate lovers of literature, of music, of movies. We're even crazy about technology. Librarians will remain relevant and engaged in the acquisition, organization, and provision of public access to creative content. We're good at it. We will survive.

Will the big publishers? When they're reluctant to sell to some of their best customers, to the detriment of their own content creators?
As Lorin commented in reply to LaRue's post:
The giant [publisher]s will [soon, very soon!] simply become irrelevant.
They are shooting themselves in the foot by destroying their biggest (free; no; in fact, paying!) marketers.

It's as if the music publishers were to start viewing radio stations as the "enemy": after all, they are playing songs not just "once," nor, even, 26 times (HarperCollins' new limit for how often a single e-book may be checked out of a library), but they are playing songs tens and hundreds of thousands and even millions of times with every broadcast.

But it was that very radio play that made the modern commercial recording industry possible. It was through radio that most of us (of my generation, anyway!) ever learned that certain songs existed . . . so we could fall in love with them, buy them, and make them hits.

Well, finally, there is this, just posted this morning:
[A]t the Douglas County Libraries [for which LaRue is head librarian], over a third of our checkouts are children’s books. It isn’t uncommon to see mothers and a gaggle of giggling preschoolers tumble out the door with as many as 40 books at a time. Often, that's the haul from a visit that happens every week.
It’s hard not to feel good about that. Families that come to the library together not only spend quality time in each other’s company, they also establish a habit of literacy. Students in Douglas County schools tend to do very well academically. Surely part of the explanation is that many Douglas County children are ready to read long before they get to kindergarten. Libraries help make communities smarter.

What about those families who bring their children to the library? Are they really going to have an eBook reader for each child? Are they really willing to buy 40 books a week, 52 weeks a year?

If our goal is literate kids, the library – and its role as a cost-effective distributor of literature, music, and movies - will have a role for a long time.
Amen! It is many years since our kids were of that age when we would make the family trip to the library and check out dozens of books at a time. But LaRue's description is apt. And his logic impeccable. At least from all that I can see.

I think he is convincing me. And I am deeply grieved at the thoughtless path the major publishers are following.

How soon, do you think, before they will begin to see their revenues fall--and they will blame it all on "pirates" and the "digital revolution," but never realize how they have done much of the damage to themselves?
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