Monday, March 07, 2011

What do publishers dislike more than libraries?

There was a meeting of Ohio's metropolitan library directors in Cleveland last Friday. Of course the state budget and SB 5 dominated our discussions. We also talked about the future of eBooks.

During our discussions we touched upon a recent Harvard workshop on a Digital Public Library of America.

I didn't attend that conference and from what I've been told there weren't any public librarians invited to speak. I understand that it was more academic in nature and didn't address in-the-trenches work of ensuring access to the most popular eBooks for the public library patrons. One critic described a plan for a national eBook library as successful as one for a national swimming pool.

One of the big take-a-ways from this meeting on Friday and a number of discussions I've had with others around the country recently is that publishers don't like libraries. They unfortunately don't see the added value we bring to promoting their authors and triggering traditional sales.

The eBook market doesn't guarantee a place for libraries, particularly in the exploding realm of best sellers and popular non-fiction. Some publishers still refuse to allow licensing of their works to public libraries. No sales. No licensing. No access.

I am certain Amazon, which finds itself at a competitive disadvantage in an eBook reader market where everyone else supports library lending, would rather see library licensing die.

There are places for national repositories of eBooks. Unfortunately, for the titles public library patron's desire the most, the publishing industry isn't convinced that to share its crown jewels is in its best interest. As long as the publishers think that libraries will bastardize retail sales, they will keep the door closed or demand onerous restrictions to access.

The idea of a national eBook library can take two forms. If it is just a collection of historical, out-of-copyright, free-to-the-world works, then the publishers can disregard it as a literary graveyard -- something to value and honor, but nothing spend their days thinking about. Researchers and genealogists will value it and high school students forced to read and analyze Herman Melville's "Bill Bud" will find it of use.

But if the idea of a national eBook library is one that contains free access to copyrighted materials, then this is the worst fear of the publishers. Q: What is the only thing that publishers dislike more than libraries? A: It is consortia of libraries. Their nightmare is that only one copy of a book is sold. A national consortium of all libraries can just keep lending its one copy to every library patron in the country.

Of course there are plenty of ways in which publishers can keep that from happening. The easiest way is for them to stop selling access to libraries. For public libraries, popular materials will get harder and harder and hard to obtain. Technological barriers still exist and are getting bigger for some public libraries are charged to serve. For every American with an iPad or a Kindle there are hundreds and hundreds who aren't even in the game. Some publishers are dropping physical formats (e.g. CD-ROM versions of audio-books are being replaced by downloadable only versions.) Physical CDs for and DVDs for video are expected to disappear sooner than they demise of the physical book. With eBooks we are already seeing a new form of digital divide.

In the past libraries have paid dearly for content. They must continue to do that in a digial world. Today there are millions of copies of recent best sellers and popular non-fiction that are sitting on shelves scattered around ten of thousands of public library branches in this country. Six months or a year ago these were in hot demand. They had read value then. Now they collect dust. Such is the inefficiency of the physical book. But for best sellers and popular non-fiction this is exactly what the publishing industry wants and needs.

This inefficient but time honored mechanism for the sale and distribution of physical books represent a significant revenue stream for publishers. But in a digital environment, that doesn't exist. They have their nightmare scenario. Advocating a national eBook library may only fuel that fear.

HarperCollins recently announced that it will limit licenses for eBooks to 26 downloads per copy. This is not very popular with most librarians who hoped to buy one copy of an eBook and then be able to lend it in perpetuity. But some form of revenue generation (and re-generation) has to emerge. The alternative is that we won't have access to eBooks at all.

We would still have access to a national eBooks library. Have you read "Billy Bud" recently?


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