Wednesday, October 03, 2012

E-books in Libraries: They Still Don't Get It

This is a guest post from a librarian who emailed me about his dissatisfaction with the way the ebook future for libraries is shaping up.

I agree with him 100%. He didn't want to use his full name because he might get into trouble at work, and I've changed his first name to make sure this doesn't get linked back to him.

So here's Librarian X....

Librarian X: Before we get started, I'm going to step down from speaking in my official title because I'm going to use some language that could get me in trouble at my next annual review. My name is X. I am a published author and I work for a mid-sized library system in South Carolina and I'm going to talk about the Association of American Publishers (AAP) and their current pissing contest with the American Library Association. There has been a post about ebooks and libraries here already but I wanted to bring up some points that have come to light since and were not talked about.

For those of you who have known librarians, you know weren't not a confrontational sort and it takes a lot to get us worked up but we, as a profession, have about hit our proverbial boiling point. The current President of the ALA, Maureen Sullivan, along with a committee have had numerous meetings with the Big 6 publishers in efforts to reach some form of standardized agreement on pricing and loaning of e-books. As a result of these talks, we've had HarperCollins impose a twenty-six loan limit on a e-book before we have to buy it again. Funnily, we don't have to buy print copies after they have been read X number of times. HC has tried to argue that since e-books don't wear out, they never have to be replaced. Which begs the question why are e-books being treated in the same way as a physical item? You can see how well this strategy has worked for the MPAA and RIAA.

Random House tripled the cost of all their books so, for me to buy a copy of a $7.99 backlist title now costs me $23.97. To buy a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey would cost you $9.99 - that same copy costs a library $47.85. Hachette, beginning October 1, will be increasing the price of their titles by an even greater margin from early accounts. Oh, and Hachette won't sell frontlist titles to libraries at all - we can only buy backlist (and very old backlist at that). Which drew the reply from Sullivan: “Now we must ask, with friends like these...?” I couldn't have said it better myself.

Now the AAP is "disappointed" by the ALA's open letter. Let me quote the relevant part of their response:

"Publishers recognize libraries’ interest in serving their customers and we want books to have the widest distribution possible.  The issues surrounding e-lending, however, are not as simple as [ALA president Maureen]. Sullivan claims.  Publishers support the concept of e-lending but must solve a breadth of complex technological, operational, financial and other challenges to make it a reality.  Each publishing company is grappling individually with how to best serve the interests of its authors and readers, protect digital intellectual property rights and create this new business model that is fair to all stakeholders.  And while the 9000-plus library systems’ non-profit status permits them to convene, debate and reach consensus on these issues, commercial publishers cannot likewise come together due to antitrust restrictions."

This is bullshit. Made even greater so by that they are now trying to use the DoJ lawsuit as a reason for it. Publishers (and I mean the Big 6) do want the widest distribution possible for their books - just as long as they are getting paid for every single person who reads that copy. The elephant in the room is that publishers don't like libraries. They cost them sales.

"And while the 9000-plus library systems’ non-profit status permits them to convene, debate and reach consensus on these issues" 

I nearly pissed myself laughing when I read that. Do these people even know a damn thing about what they're writing about? It is a minor miracle within a single department in a library building to get consensus on anything and, yet, we seem to have this magical ability to organize and become a mythical threat like the homosexual agenda. No, I'm afraid the real reason is that your policies against us have become the proverbial straw.

They do have one thing to think about though: 9,000+. At the rate of bookstore failures, how long will it be before the library becomes an individual's main source of reading material? Since the publishers seem to want to prop up their dead tree business as long as possible, dicking around with libraries is not a good decision. We tend to have long memories. What does this mean for e-books? It means that no one person is going to buy everything they want to read - especially in the economic climate we are currently in. They can't afford to buy it and they can't get it through the library so they don't bother reading it. Sure, publishers will say, they weren't going to buy it anyway so what? The what is that your author now has an even smaller number of people reading them which doesn't bode well for follow-up books, you who are so concerned about the bottom line.

If you don't sell us your frontlist authors, what will happen in time is that other authors will show up who will take their place who are just as good if not better and the odds are that these others will be self-published or publish through a smaller publisher who doesn't view libraries as enemies. Speaking personally, I don't buy e-book titles from any of the Big 6 any longer. Why bother? I can buy titles from smaller publishers and authors for less than $10 through OverDrive and, in my studies of my circulation figures on those titles, they circulate just as well as the more expensive ones. Why should I care? With my purchasing decisions, I'm buying more titles and showing a return on investment far sooner. My boss is happy and I'm more than pleased to be doing my part to twist the knife even if only a little.

"Commercial publishers cannot likewise come together due to antitrust restrictions." 

Wow. So you're still trying to justify the agency model? Try some common fucking sense. It isn't hard. Cheaper books = more copies sold. More copies sold = better chance of said author selling more copies of their work in the future. If a buy a copy of a e-book and it suddenly starts getting lots of holds on it, I buy more. If a new title comes out from a author and his previous one circulated very well, I buy more copies. All libraries work this way.

Jesus Christ! Libraries are not out to destroy publishing. We kind of have a vested interest in publishing continuing in the future... but it doesn't necessarily have to be with the current Big 6. We would like nothing more than to buy all your books and champion your authors to as many people as we can but you're doing your damnest to cut off your nose to spite your face.

Joe sez: I'm currently working on the third novel in the Codename: Chandler series which is overdue to Thomas & Mercer, but when I'm finished then Blake Crouch and I are going to finish up creating purchase orders and library contracts and offer our catalogs to library systems as I described in my previous post. $3.99 per title, the library owns it forever without DRM and can make copies.

I've also gotten lots of emails from authors who want to offer libraries the same terms.

The problem is organization. We need someone to act as a liaison between publishers and libraries to run something like this on a big scale. And I believe that person should be paid. How big a job this will be, and how much of a cut they deserve, can be discussed in the comments section. But indie authors need to come together to offer libraries their books, and dealing with 9000 different library systems would be a full time job.

As for my personal view on how publishers deal with libraries, I think Librarian X heaped an appropriate amount of scorn upon them. Greed is hurting libraries, and authors. The Big 6 seem to think they still have control over the industry, and readers, including librarians, will pay whatever high price they charge.

The Big 6 are wrong. More and more libraries are going to stop buying your expensive, expiring ebooks. And that will accelerate the end of the bestseller I predicted years ago.

Libraries want ebooks. As authors, we may soon be in a position to give them our books at fair prices.