February 7, 2023

ALA Contemplating a Seal of Approval for Ebook Business Models | ALA Annual 2012


The American Library Association’s Digital Content & Libraries Working Group has had a busy year, and it is now halfway through its two-year mission to help guide ALA in its response to all the challenges and difficulties that ebooks are presenting to the librarian community, with a particular focus on public librarians and the Big Six trade publishers.

Robert Wolven, co-chair of the working group and the associate university librarian for bibliographic services at Columbia University, said the series of meetings held over the past year between the Big Six and ALA’s leadership have been fruitful and are ongoing.

“It hasn’t ended with the meetings we had with each publisher,” Wolven said at a meeting of the working group Saturday evening in Anaheim where the ALA annual conference is being held. “The contacts in most cases are ongoing. When publishers are contemplating something they will come and test it out  with the understanding that we are not going to make public pronouncements about what they are going to do.”

ALA representatives, including outgoing President Molly Raphael and Executive Director Keith Fiels, have made three multi-day trips to New York to meet with publishers since the Midwinter conference in Dallas.

Wolven also co-chairs a subcommittee of the working group (the other chair is Erika Linke, the associate dean of libraries at Carnegie Mellon University) that is dealing specifically with business models and licensing agreements and is also trying to develop negotiating positions to be used in these publisher discussions.

One idea discussed Saturday was a “consumers report” approach to various ebook business models, which will likely be part of a report that the committee will circulate to the broader membership sometime in the next few weeks.

“We want to shape the report into a hierarchy of desirable characteristics in business models — and undesirable characteristics,” Wolven said.

The consumers report concept would provide a kind of seal of approval on a business model (or a publisher) and provide a set of criteria for evaluation.

“That might be an interesting way of putting this forward,” Wolven said.

Ownership of ebooks and the ability to move them from platform to platform were “very high in the hierarchy of desirable features,” Wolven said.

Some members wondered whether this applied to Random House books.

“When Random House said libraries own their ebooks they really were not clear about what they meant by own,” said Christopher Harris, the coordinator for school library systems at Genesee Valley BOCES in Le Roy, NY. “But what they seemed to be suggesting is that we would be free to take the ebooks out of one vendor platform and place them in another platform. That is a very desirable feature and I hope that they feel that we applauded them for that even if we moaned and groaned about the price increases.”

“I was also very heartened by that suggestion that you own an ebook and an implied notion that you can reformat it onto various kinds of platforms,” said Clifford Lynch, the executive director of the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI), which is based in Washington D.C. “That also starts giving you very important traction on the preservation side of this.”

Harris and Lynch were referring to Random House’s use of the term “unrestricted and perpetual availability,” which it pointed to as a counterbalance to the steep price increases it instituted in March. 3M does allow the transfer of titles from its platform to another, a feature that was announced during the dispute between Jo Budler, the Kansas state librarian, and OverDrive over the right to do such a thing. However, the contract signed with the distributor could take precedence in such situations. Random House could not be reached for comment.

The working group is also looking at how best to communicate about these issues not only within ALA but also to the public, and how libraries might better position themselves in the self-publishing space. Lynch, of CNI, also urged the group to move past the Big Six focus.

“You’ve mostly dealt with the Big Six players here, but I think it’s very important in this next year to bring in a couple of players beyond the Big Six, because this is actually an opportunity to get some leverage on the Big Six by saying here are other up and coming publishers that are actually well behaved,” Lynch said.

Harris said there were numerous examples of publishers that have “gotten it right” and can be held up as models worth emulating.

Baen Publishers has been publishing sci-fi and fantasy ebooks for 13 years now DRM-free and making a huge business of it with documented sales records that show when they release their ebooks into their free library sales of paperbacks go up,” Harris said.

Canada might also provide some guidance, according to Holly Yu, the electronic resources coordinator at California State University in Los Angeles. Yu pointed to the “request for information” (RFI) issued June 5 by the Canadian Urban Libraries Council and eBOUND Canada that is seeking vendors who could build a nationwide ebook infrastructure, as LJ reported.

The council said that the purpose of the RFI “is to identify potential partners who would be interested in providing a Canadian-controlled infrastructure for the storage and distribution of digital content as well as for the management of lending agreements and transactions between public libraries, publishers and library patrons.”

Yu said Canada was ahead of the U.S. and said the working group might want to think about advocating for a similar type infrastructure, which at the very least might help alleviate some of the frustration that librarians are feeling about the variety of interfaces they have to deal with — something that Nina McHale, the assistant systems administrator for the Arapahoe Library District in Colorado, expressed clearly to the group.

“Even if we have three platforms we’re going to want to present one to the end user and I’m tired of being left holding the bag as the technical person in my library to try to come up with a solution,” McHale said. “I would like to push back a little back on the vendors … it is up to us to deliver our services to our users, but we shouldn’t have to spend tens of thousands of dollars in products that don’t work to provide a unified interface.”

Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.