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?
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.