July 21, 2024

All Hat, No Cattle: A Call for Libraries to Transform Before It’s Too Late


In too many venues, particularly around the issue of ebooks and publishers, librarians are doing a lot of whining lately. Mostly, it’s to each other. We tell ourselves how important we are, while at the same time complaining that too few other people (big publishers, funding authorities, the media, the public) seem to agree with us.

Such behavior is unattractive and unprofessional. Moreover, it distracts us from the important work that needs to be done.

Out here in the West, we have a phrase to capture those folks who talk the talk, but don’t walk it, who have plenty to say, but never get around to doing anything. We say, “All hat, no cattle.”

What the ebook revolution really means

For the history of publishing and libraries in the United States, we have had a culture of gatekeeping. The costs of production, distribution, and review have been high. That favored the big houses, and helps to explain why we’ve seen so many mergers in the industry.

I’m not the first one to notice this, but we really only need two people in the equation: author and reader. Right now, there are a lot of people in the middle, including libraries. If we can’t figure out a way to improve the experience, or offer greater convenience, then who needs us?

Jamie LaRue, director of the Douglas County Libraries

The significant adoption of ebooks into the marketplace (you’ve seen the figures) changes things. For a long time, even major, bestselling authors made just 10 percent of a sale. Meanwhile, the price of books has risen steadily through the years.

I felt the change the instant I walked a friend through an upload to CreateSpace (Amazon’s ebook publishing platform). He had to answer just four questions:

  • What’s the name of the book? (Amazon didn’t have to ask his name; it knew.)
  • Do you have an ISBN? (If not, click there to buy one.)
  • Where’s your book cover image?
  • Where’s your Word document?

And that was it. Time to get published globally: under 3 minutes.

Then came the kicker, question number 5: was he was willing to sell his book for $9.99? If so, he would make $7 on each sale.

Which would you do? Take ten percent or seventy – when the more affordable price means the likelihood of a higher volume of sales? This fundamental shift in the economics of publishing is now rippling through the whole publishing ecosystem.

The rising tide of e-publishing platforms marks the transition from a market of relative scarcity to a market of abundance. Our old processes won’t work. We need new ones.

Four streams of e-content

I believe the modern library has to devise strategies to deal not just with one stream of e-content, but four. They are:

  1. Mainstream commercial publishing. We’re still going to buy some of the content that our patrons ask for. And they’re still going to ask for what has been advertised. That’s the mainstream. But consider two opposing trends. The first is the proliferation of formats. We buy hardback, paperback, large print, and multiple audio formats for a single title. And now comes the inflated price for the cheapest format of all: the relatively small digital file of an ebook. The second trend: declining library budgets. We can’t just keep pouring more money into an ever smaller number of titles in an ever greater variety of containers, especially not with the explosive growth of the other streams. The fact that the Big Six are unwilling to sell us this format, or make the terms so onerous that we don’t want to buy from them, is a good thing. It forces us to explore a new, and potentially far more interesting environment.
  2. Independent or mid-list publishing. As of this writing, this stream of publishing is now roughly equal to the commercial output, yet still significantly under-represented in our collections. But not only do they produce a lot of fine, far more diverse writing often of keen local interest, independent publishers are also eager to do what the Big Six are not: adhere to something much closer to the traditional First Sale doctrine (which has governed our ability to buy, use, and sell print). We are growing a new market with the independents, building new relationships that will serve us well going forward. They are thrilled to be working with libraries.
  3. Local history. As I’ve learned through ALA’s Digital Content Working Group’s “Library as Publisher” subcommittee, there are a staggering number of digitization projects all across the country. Libraries are producing not just books, but exhibits of scanned photographs, correspondence, and newspapers, not to mention music and video. We’re not just the end of distribution line, we are, increasingly, partners and content co-creators ourselves.
  4. Self-published. It’s hard to fathom the geometric growth of this writing. Self-publishing is the biggest emerging market, and a field rife with possibility.

Right now, most libraries spend virtually all of their collection budgets on the first stream. If we’re to keep up with what’s being written that has to change.

Issues with the Big Six

Let’s assume that people who get into publishing are much like the people who get into libraries. They like books. They believe in quality literature. They are not our enemies.

But they are running scared. They seem not to have grasped the deep wisdom of Princess Leia, who said “The more you tighten your grip … the more star systems will slip through your fingers.” But tightening their grip is precisely what’s happening.

I think there are three, maybe four key principles that libraries must adopt to deal with ebooks. All of them are finding resistance from the Big Six. Ownership: if we pay public dollars for content, then we need to be able to take possession of the copies. Anything else is sheer vendor lock-in, and shirks our obligation to preserve the public record. Discounts: volume purchasers (that would be us) get a break on price. Integration: our job isn’t to make it harder for the public to find content (the misguided notion of “friction”) – it’s to make it easier. One search should bring up everything the library offers. We can’t base our business model on customer frustration.

The fourth principle may be revenue sharing. Again in the name of patron convenience, I’m more than happy to provide a link through our catalog to purchase an ebook. But if we do, I think we should get a piece of the sale. Insistence on that is the only way publishers will take us seriously – and constitutes a powerful ongoing demonstration of our value.

In conversations with commercial publishers, I have learned that they do have some legitimate concerns. The idea that we’re stealing profit from the front list (new titles) isn’t one of them. We have the data: Library Journal’s Patron Profiles, which studied 2,000 patrons, proved that the more people use the library, the more ebooks they buy. The Douglas County Libraries’ study of an additional 4,000 patrons proved the same thing. We don’t steal sales; we generate them.

But there may well be an issue with the backlist. My library spends a lot of money on titles more than a year old: 23 percent of our adult fiction purchases, 32 percent of adult non-fiction, and 46 percent of children’s materials. Much of that is re-purchasing – the replacement of worn-out perennials. The backlist is where publishers see their profit, because these titles have no new marketing or production costs. I’m sure this is what’s behind the HarperCollins buy-again-after-26-checkouts policy.

But that significant revision of our purchasing conditions redefines a purchase into a rental. Moreover, it sticks the library with both sides of the risk: we pay for the books that don’t check out, or check out only a few times, then we pay again for the ones that catch on. Library budgets can’t sustain such a lopsided arrangement. If we have to pay per use – at roughly 70 cents per checkout? – then it should apply to everything, not just what’s popular. Or perhaps it could be paired with ownership: we buy one, and rent extra copies to meet demand.

Alternatively, if Big Six publishers demand that we “buy” again what we’ve already paid for, and don’t quite admit that we’re paying-per-use, then they need to offer us a compensatory deal, the right to sell at discount all our surplus inventory (the 50 copies of a bestseller whose popularity has peaked). This releases to readers precisely as many ebooks as have already been paid for. Library booksales are a potent force for literacy, a market strategy that puts more books in more homes. This is another way for readers to find writers, and start the habit of book buying. There is an incredible value to the secondary market for literature, and its disappearance is dismaying. We could even sweeten the deal, offering publishers something they’ve never had before: a percentage of that second sale. Why wouldn’t a publisher want to make more money on a copy that’s already been distributed?

A really smart publisher would do this: put its whole publisher catalog on a library server, just waiting to be activated through purchases. Library OPACs help people find books. People request what they find, and libraries respond to public demand. Again, precisely when publishers should be making it easier to find and buy their books, they’re making it harder.

I reject the idea that ebooks should be more expensive than print. Indeed, in focus groups with local authors, I’m finding that many of them would be prepared to give libraries one copy of their books, particularly knowing that we’ll buy extra copies based on demand. Authors want to be read, and they know, even if some publishers do not, how important it is that readers find them. The library is a staggeringly effective marketing machine.

It isn’t the job of libraries to keep publishers in business. Publishers are just the means to an end – public access to the work of writers. While a free market may give the Big Six the right to charge what they will, that same market gives us the right to look for a better deal. The market can work for us.


My premise is very simple: it is our job to provide access to the intellectual content of our culture. In order to achieve that, I can suggest at least the following:

  • Engage. Pay attention – the e-landscape changes weekly.
  • Ask for ownership, discounts, and integration. If you get turned down, if the price goes up, shop around.
  • Note: the price has gone up. Shop around! Start with our list of independent publishers at evoke.cvlsites.org. Grow a market, form new relationships. Your patrons will thank you for it.
  • Calling all library authors. Add this clause to your contracts: you reserve the right to sell your book to libraries. See lawyer-librarian Mary Minow’s suggested language.
  • Become a publisher. Acquire the means of e-content production and management. Build an e-publishing platform as easy to use as Amazon’s. (Again, see evoke.cvlsites.org for information on one way to do that, but there are others.) Team up if necessary, clustering around those with tech savvy staff and bandwidth.
  • Budget for investment in technology. The Douglas County Libraries model, generated from scratch, cost us about $100,000. We’ve replicated it for other libraries at closer to $6,000. So far, we’ve saved $28,000 this year through purchases of content at discount. You’ll make back your investment in technology, you’ll buy more content for your patrons, and you’ll earn a place at the table.
  • Build new acquisition and review systems. Experiment with alternative collection development strategies: building patron-driven acquisition systems, as described above, or crowd-sourcing the reviews of independent and self-published works.
  • Advocate for libraries to authors on tour. They often don’t know the problem, and typically do want their books in libraries. Moreover, they see the value of the marketing force of the library. It’s time to pull the authors into the debate. And note that once we have our own publishing platforms, we might be able to offer authors a much better deal ourselves: 90 percent of a sale to them, 10 percent to us.
  • Reach out to your community to grow authors. DCL has begun compiling author resources to make would-be writers better: writing clubs in the area, writing classes, lists of copyeditors and book designers.
  • Talk to more than librarians! Let’s stop talking just with ourselves. Strike up some conversations with your local bookstore, with local media, with local civic groups. All of these issues are bigger than just library land.
  • Be positive. In public, at conferences, on panels, project excitement and confidence. This is the most exciting time in human history. We are present at a historic change in the generation and dissemination of writing, and no one has any idea where it will lead. Librarians can’t afford to be passive observers and victims. Instead, we have the capacity and will to be at the heart of the revolution, launching experiments of our own, forming vital new partnerships, introducing new writers to new audiences, building a totally new publishing environment.

To put it another way, we need people willing to get out there and corral some cattle. My hat’s off to those who do.

Jamie LaRue is director of the Douglas County Libraries in Colorado. He will be part of a panel on Sunday at the ALA annual conference in Anaheim called Transforming Collections. ALA’s Digital Content and Libraries Working Group will also meet on Sunday. A recent LJ webinar with LaRue discusses the changes that have taken place at Douglas County.



  1. You didn’t tell anyone familiar with the topics anything new while managing to be condescending.

    And whom gave you the job of standing and judging what is professional or not? Just because it isn’t professional doesn’t mean it is not right, or worthy of discussion.

    Please, do give me your criteria for professionalism.

    Do note, it is a little messed up that when you write about something it isn’t whining, but when someone else writes, it is.

  2. Jamie LaRue says:

    Thank you for your contribution to this important topic. I’m sorry, what WAS your contribution?

  3. “Let’s assume that people who get into publishing are much like the people who get into libraries. They like books. They believe in quality literature. They are not our enemies.”

    I agree with you here, and I think there’s a gap between that statement and this one: “I’m not the first one to notice this, but we really only need two people in the equation: author and reader.” This may be true in terms of delivering books, but it’s not true in terms of delivering quality literature.

    Some great indie bands do all the work of writing, recording, producing, mixing, and mastering on their own. Based on (an admittedly small sample size of) examples I know of personally, this is rare. They at least hire an outside producer–a new set of ears who can give feedback, bring in new ideas and musicians, and keep the motor running.

    Authors need this support too. Support doesn’t require signing a deal with one of the Big Six. Of course not. But if you’re committed to producing quality work and not just the vanity of seeing your name in print, you want real feedback. You need an editor, of some sort. Having someone thoughtfully guide a 300-page draft of a novel or an 80-page collection of poetry takes time and effort. Editing is a Real Thing.

    We (libraries) have a huge delivery problem. We can’t deliver popular, front-list ebooks from most publishers. Front-list/popularity doesn’t guarantee quality, but libraries can supply popular books from all publishers in print form, and the disparity in access rankles everyone involved. But I feel like the more effort we put into tending the tiny set of ebooks we’re able to deliver, the more we cede the rest to Amazon, Google, Apple, and other retailers.

    I’m glad to see libraries finding ways to make what’s available easier for their patrons to access, and Douglas County has done a great, inspiring job of leading that charge. But when I read this article, and others that take up a similar argument, I’m left discouraged.

    We’d like to champion self/indie publishing, but we don’t acknowledge the dip in quality that often accompanies them or the value of editorial work done by larger publishers. In my opinion, that means we’re promoting lower quality work, with which we become associated. This hurts our reputation and standing in the community when we’re trying to promote it. Self-publishing and libraries-as-publishers won’t change this quality problem without editors and other workers.

    We agree that crying on other librarians’ shoulders isn’t going to change our situation with the Big Six, but we’ve not been able to bring this debate about delivery to the public forum. Until this conversation is held on that level, it remains an insular conversation. This is the boulder we have to move. Patrons see that libraries don’t have an ebook that Amazon does. Until they know why, the library takes the hit, and we knock ourselves again when we back books that people don’t want (or don’t know they might like) and can’t communicate about the books they do want that are missing.

    Is there a library or organization that’s making progress on this front? Or are there successes in similar circumstances from other fields that we could use as models?

  4. Jamie LaRue says:

    Good and thoughtful points. ALA has actually taken a lot of steps to get in and talk with the publishers that we (librarians) stopped talking to, because we were focusing instead on distributors. The Urban Libraries Council and some of the larger New York public libraries are stepping in, too.

    I agree that the production of quality literature isn’t easy. But two comments: firstly, there are things we can do to help, as above. And secondly, alas, it isn’t necessarily quality that drives demand. Exhibit A: Fifty Shades of Gray. USUALLY what drives demand is advertising budget. And that’s the barrier indies face. How to get noticed. And I think we can help there too.

  5. I hope I haven’t misread your article…or perhaps I really do hope I have and you aren’t accusing us of fighting change..
    Many of your points were well thought out, but, if I am reading you right I think you are giving librarians a bad rep.
    We live in a terribly exciting time for libraries. Not since the creation of the printing press has there been such wide and sweeping changes. The author’s words are more accessible than ever to a wider audience of readers.
    I have only heard a few librarians carping about e books. Mostly the complaints were with the restrictions and the apparently arbitrary changing of the rules. Or the fact that they had trouble with uploading on one kind of reader or another.
    Of course all change is a little uncomfortable at first. And there will be those who have a bit of trouble setting their minds to the newness of it all. Heck I head similar complaints when we retired the old card catalog system and went to databases.
    But for the most part we welcome the e books. With this addition we can eventually expand our collections exponentially without having to resort to over crowding our shelves or forced expansions of our buildings.And while there will probably always be a great demand for traditional printed books, most of us welcome the chance to expand our horizons and reach a greater number of patrons.
    Please do not continue the stereotype of crotchety ol’ librarians who resist change and shush people for our jollies.

  6. Joneser says:

    “Right now, most libraries spend virtually all of their collection budgets on the first stream. If we’re to keep up with what’s being written that has to change.”

    What really has to change is the decrease in library collection budgets. I don’t know what it’s like “out West”, but most places are having problems just meeting the first stream of demand.

  7. Thanks for your comments. It’s certainly the case that libraries are underfunded. And it’s exacerbated by the fact that we already buy multiple copies of a single title (hardback, paper, large print, audio). Most libraries are SHIFTING their declining budgets into e-content, further eroding our ability to keep up JUST AS independent and self-publishing is taking off.

    And I’m not trying to give librarians a bad rep by appealing to stereotypes. I have been in quite a number of meetings of either just librarians kvetching to each other about these issues (which doesn’t change anything at all), or in public sessions with publishers where librarians again just complained, without proposing anything (which just further disengages the publishers). I think real and positive action is possible. And the need is urgent.

  8. Jack of Frost says:

    The article suggest is just another version of how great “we are as administrators.” Let all board the ebook train, Woot! Woot! Some how this man thinks that ebooks are the holy grail of big house libraries. However, as a volunteer at a local library I’ve ask patrons who use the computers what is the intention behind their computer access. The answer: Not future ebook purchases. On the contrary, the number one thing for patrons who I talked to is using the internet as tool for job hunting and social media. Secondly, I call to question the following,” the more ebooks they buy. The Douglas County Libraries’ study of an additional 4,000 patrons proved the same thing. We don’t steal sales; we generate them.” Perhaps, this bodes well with Douglas County but I hedge my bets to say with the average income of Americans hovers around 34k annually, I highly doubt folks are rushing out to purchase ebooks, e-readers and other electronic devices. It pure rubbish.

    Another point, to access e books, patrons must have the tools to access materials. Not all of the patrons can afford computers or have internet access. The need of a library to change is urgent but to change into an ebook consortium that caters to those who can afford services is a once again failure from the gatekeepers to see what is needed for all patrons in the local area.

    • Jack of Frost

      ……your pure rubbish quote about the future of ebooks reminds me of Tom Watson’s quote of the PC industry while he was CEO of IBM…”I think there is a world market for maybe five computers” – Tom Watson.

      I suggest you look up the word denial or ignorance – see dictionary.com

      …well written Mr. LaRue – I too have seen the lack of vision and innovation from many, many librarians as those who fail to embrace the changes now with be left reeling from another word…relevancy.

  9. Amy Krahn says:

    I think it’s beyond naive to suggest that all you need is an author and a reader. Having watched a friend self-publish a book and try to market and sell it himself, I can tell you there’s a world of support and effort that comes between the writing and the reading of a book. Sure, you can take 70% of a $9.99 price, but who is providing the publicity, setting up author tours, sending your book out for reviews, talking to librarians and booksellers? A lower price doesn’t automatically equal more sales.

    You need to engage a different group of librarians. The librarian I talk to are frustrated and upset – but not for themselves. They’re angry on behalf of their patrons, who are being cut out of the ebook equation by the big publishers. It’s not like we haven’t fought this battle before. Anyone remember the effort to keep libraries from circulating videos? Publishers have demonstrated that they simply don’t understand how the library market works, and how much they benefit from the exposure libraries give to their titles and authors.

    Librarians have always been advocates for their patrons – and THAT’S what I see happening with ebooks and technology. We’re not whining because we hate change. We’re fighting to be able to provide the content and service our patrons want and need. If that’s what you consider whining, then you are barking up the wrong tree in asking us to stop.

    It is absolutely correct, however, that we need to do a better job of outlining the issue for the public. I don’t understand why we have let ourselves be the punching bag for the lack of content available to our patrons. ALA has made an admirable effort to work with the publishers, but has not done enough to educate the public.

  10. Shar Zeefas says:

    Seriously, a few patrons still prefer non-electronic books or cannot tolerate electronics or wireless emissions (electro-sensitive). Please do not let these readers get lost in the shuffle to promote new technologies. A basic backup collection of old-fashioned books is also not a bad idea for those nasty times the power grid is disrupted or EMP takes out electronics. Read “A Gift Upon the Shore” (by Wren) for a sense of the importance of a physical library in preservation of knowledge and culture. (and I am only half-joking)

  11. I’m interested in the staff infrastructure and expertise it required to set up the first system that you said cost $100,000. Also, how many staff and how much staff time is currently required to set up subsequent libraries? How much do you estimate would be needed for other systems to get set up – how many tech staff, what expertise, and how much time? Do you have a break down of those numbers? This is the part that intimidates me more than $100,000 for technology.Or maybe I’m wrong to assume the $100K did not include staff time. Thank you.

  12. A few more comments. First, although I do most urgently believe we need to get ready to manage digital content, that doesn’t mean that print isn’t important today. My library still buys books (and movies, and music). But the fundamental economics of publishing have changed; we’ll have to change, too. I agree that we need to put pressure on the big six publishers to sell ebooks to libraries — but I think the best way to do that is to start buying from the many, many new publishers and writers out there who represent the future of literature.

    Lorie, we spent $10,000 to buy an Adobe Content Server, and $90,000 for a Vufind programmer. We set up the second and third installations (for a consortial library, and a standalone public library) for about $6,000 (but we offered them hosting on our server). This work is done by the programmer. He did it in two months, with the support of one person at each institution. Bottom line: way easier than migrating an ILS, and probably a smarter investment at this moment in history.

    • Thanks for the info, Jamie. I heard second or perhaps third hand that you had 11 tech staff working on the original project.

  13. leslie madge says:

    Speaking as a reader and lifelong lover of libraries (there’s an alliteration!), one thing I have never heard mentioned is a subscription service for elending. I, for one, would be very willing to pay an annual suscription to my library(ies) of choice, including anywhere in the country, not just my local or state library, to gain access to their digital content. This would allow me access to the widest possible array of content no matter where located, and give the institution an additional revenue stream. I would even accept a subscription model within the current residency constrictions, allowing me to suscribe only to my local/state library system.

  14. Char Zehfus says:

    I am electromagnetically sensitive since the wireless explosion and a retired librarian and a reader/researcher/writer. For what it is worth, people with ES feel ill in places with WiFi. They also prefer to research on wired systems. They need areas without a lot of cellphone use nearby. They will not be able to access books on devices for long periods.

    People with ES are covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act. We are a minority, but our numbers will continue to grow as more people become over-exposed to radiofrequency/microwaves. This is more futurist than the push for wireless/digital. The wave of the future is fiber optic and wireless-free areas.

    Planners of wireless infrastructure for information and communications have made NO provisions for people with ES. Places with WiFi and 4G phone use can cause cardiac, cognitive neurological and other problems for users. Does diversity include individuals with ES? Will society step in to insure access to public places in specified areas? This is a true test of diversity and compassion and commitment to access for all…