Publishers v Libraries: searching for middle ground

Today I did some groundwork. I actually went to Bethesda Public Library and asked the librarian about their ebook offerings. When I asked her why they only had about 2,000 titles compared to countless print titles, she told me basically what I already knew: “Publisher’s don’t want ebooks to be given away, they want people to buy them, so they make it a little harder for libraries to get them.”

She then told me about the IT problems we are all familiar with, namely:

  • each different reading device entails a different selection of titles
  • certain formats (namely the Kindle) require third-party accounts or software
  • instructions for borrowing are confusing and often difficult
  • Only one copy can be lent at a time

She said soon they would be getting funding to get one of each type of reading device so that they could provide in-house instructions for patrons wishing to borrow ebooks. “But it takes so long to go over, we would probably have a line out the door” she tells me. And other than that, there are no forthcoming changes in e-lending to speak of.

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It’s pretty obvious that libraries are on the brick wall side of publisher’s walled ebook gardens. Publisher’s ultimate fear is that library distribution will cannibalize sales. But recently critics have been questioning how scary publisher’s nightmare of ‘cannibalism’ really is. (For example, see Peter Brantley’s post in PWxyz Authors: say yes to libraries! or Jane Litte in Dear Author The biggest threat to publishing isn’t Amazon; it’s Angry Birds (why publishers should invest in libraries) ). The brunt of the argument, for which there is significant evidence, is that libraries actually help build greater awareness of titles (leading to sales down the road) and foster more reading in younger age groups (think lifetime customer value for publishers).

This runs down the same vein as another hot topic in publishing–DRM or no DRM? The argument in favor of increased e-lending is essentially the same as the argument against DRM: the more freely content is distributed, the more people it will reach, and the more people who will pay for it. Recent successes by companies like Smashwords are starting to confirm this with regard to DRM. (And honestly, I’ve yet to read any convincing argument that supports the use of DRM). So why not apply that success to libraries?

The status quo never changes without a struggle. I think publishers are too concerned with protecting paradigms of the past and staying in their comfort zone, and are not looking enough to the future. They want ebooks to be just like pbooks, when in reality ebooks and econtent are flipping the old paradigms on their ears. Some people get it. Others don’t.  Protecting e-content might be a good strategy in the short term, but in the long term, dinosaurs will die.

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With regard to the short term, where dinosaurs can keep on living in blissful ignorance, some middle ground has to be reached. But it seems like both sides are being too demanding as well as failing to understand each other’s needs. No one is going to get exactly what they want right away, and that reality has to be dealt with. The first step is to communicate. Thankfully, the UK has recently made arrangements to foster communication between publishers and libraries. The next step is harder: compromise. I agree with this author:

you both knock 50% off your lists and realize from that 50% remaining on each list, you’ll probably only get 50% of that, so 25% from each side…. It’s better then nothing and achieves more then ultimatums and demands…

And what’s in the 25%? Well, who knows until they’ve communicated? But just for fun, I’ll hypothesize. What can libraries offer publishers in exchange for less stringency on e-lending?

Well, one idea is reader data. Reader data can be a great tool for publishers for the same reasons as customer data are useful in other industries. So it seems viable to me that if publishers gave libraries better access to titles in exchange for allowing them to track reader data (already commonplace with for-profit ebooks) then the two might be able to compromise. Publisher’s get a tangible return (data), and libraries have a little easier time with e-lending. All in all, libraries could actually prove to be a useful laboratory for publishers.

Just an idea 🙂

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Publishers v Libraries: searching for middle ground

  1. Fran Toolan

    Sam,
    Great post!
    Did you see the news today that the sci-fi fantasy publisher (a division of Macmillan) Tor/Forge, has gone DRM-free?
    The argument for this had to do with the voraciousness of the aficionados of this genre. It will be interesting to watch and see whether their library policies change as well.

    • SamT

      No I haven’t seen that, but I’ll have to look into it! very interesting, and I’m glad to see one of the big six is shaping up for the future.

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