At the Association of American Publishers (AAP) annual meeting today, a trifecta of librarians presented their views on how libraries and publishers can collaborate—particularly around the vexed question of ebook sales. While expressing patrons’ frustration and confusion with libraries that don’t have ebooks which are generally available, American Library Association (ALA) President Molly Raphael; Jim Neal, vice president for information services and university librarian, Columbia University; and Dr. Anthony W. Marx, president and CEO of the New York Public Library (NYPL) all emphasized that the relationship between publishers and libraries neither needs to be, nor should be, adversarial. “There is a rhetoric of conflict and alienation that seems to overlook the fundamental symbiosis,” said Neal.
In addition to highlighting libraries’ role in discovery of new authors, particularly in a world with fewer bookstores, and citing LJ’s Patron Profiles study that found the most active library borrowers are also book buyers, Raphael suggested that publishers take advantage of data made available under freedom of information laws to learn more about the kinds of contracts libraries have with ebook intermediaries, such as OverDrive. Neal suggested that the longstanding and successful models academic libraries and publishers have long used for ejournals might provide ideas transferrable to ebooks in the larger library world. And Marx offered the NYPL as a pilot testing lab for virtually any ebook distribution model any publisher would like to test, on a scale of three branches to three boroughs and three months to three years. “We can assess it up the wazoo; everything you’re concerned about, we can test,” said Marx.
To “break the logjam” Marx even professed himself willing to “wall off” bestsellers. “I am very comfortable not maximizing free access to the head of the tail,” he said. “I want our focus to be on the tail, on the backlist.” Marx also declared himself willing to consider plans that create additional “friction” such as requiring patrons to come physically to the library to get ebooks—something Neal immediately took issue with.
From the audience, a lawyer for Elsevier pointed out that anti-trust concerns might hamper publishers in collaborating to develop a business model and suggested that these could come from the library side instead; Raphael responded that ALA already had a working group in place to develop such options.