on fairness: authors, libraries, and our future

January 27, 2013

kids reading

I’ve been reading tweets from the ALA midwinter meetings, and before that catching tidbits from Digital Book World, and of course hearing daily from librarians about the various ways that the ebook models emerging from the head offices of publishers are bizarrely borked. A few days ago I was trying to explain this tangle to a blogger who wonders what people can do to support the ability of academic libraries to satisfy multiple student learning styles and preferred reading platforms. The example he gave was a book he wants to assign in class that comes from Harvard Business Review, which won’t even allow faculty to assign articles in journals the library licenses for the campus. That site license only applies to articles you don’t have to read. If a teacher says you have to, somebody has to pay per semester, per students. And we’re supposed to police all this nonsense. It’s enough to make a pacifist a little stabby.

The combination of insanely complex limitations being placed by different publishers on what libraries and the communities they represent can acquire and share and the general perception that libraries aren’t good for the book business is frustrating. But it’s equally frustrating to hear from my fellow authors that librarians have to be patient. This is just a bump in the road until the industry figures out what’s a fair business model.

I ended up ranting a bit when this came up on a discussion list populated mainly by writers. This idea of chilling out until the fairness thing gets worked out pushed a button, the one at the top of the keyboard with an icon of a mushroom cloud on it. Funny how often that button launches a blog post. So here is my discussion list response, tidied up from my morning not-enough-coffee-yet, too-much-excitement sprawl.

on fairness

Full disclosure, I am a librarian, though I work at an academic library, where we don’t generally get to buy fun books. This issues we have with digital books are different than those public librarians have (which is itself a bit worrying, the gap between trade publishing and scholarly books growing even wider, but that’s another issue for another time). My beef here is more as a reader and writer than as a librarian.

Here’s my question: Is it unfair that libraries can loan print books until they fall apart and don’t have to throw them out when publishers say so? Is it unfair that libraries don’t have to pay three or four times the cover price for a book? Is it unfair that libraries are allowed to loan out frontlist and popular titles? All libraries want to do is what they’ve done in the past – pay a reasonable price for a book and let one person at a time read it. Publishers say that’s not fair. Not enough friction (a fancy word for artificially-induced inconvenience), not enough profit. Could bring the business to its knees.

Really? Then the survival of publishing is a freaking miracle. People have been reading books borrowed from libraries for quite some time. Going to a library is not so full of friction that hardly anyone does it. A majority of Americans have library cards and have checked out at least one book in the past 12 months. That hasn’t ruined the book business, it’s helped it. Being able to check out digital books from home – or, more commonly, fill out a form to get in line to borrow a book as soon as the 47 people ahead of you have had their turn – isn’t going to suddenly mean borrowing a book is so insanely easy that nobody will buy books in future, anymore than being able to check books out of a library before the Internet was invented  led to the sudden collapse of all bookstores. Also, bear in mind there wasn’t a button on the library shelf where a checked-out book had been saying “if you want to avoid waiting in line, push this button and you can buy it instantly.” There is a button like that on many digital library shelves. And it’s still not fair enough for publishers.

The only threat libraries pose to the book industry is if they are prohibited from fulfilling their role of introducing new authors to readers and developing an appetite for reading among young people, which is what will happen if publishers get to define “fair.”

Library users are book buyers. This isn’t anecdote, there’s hard data to show this is true. Publishes are unwilling to consider existing evidence that libraries are a keystone species in the book ecosystem. That’s an inconvenient distraction from the new power they wield to control how and what communities can read, and from their understandable obsession with Amazon’s power.  Libraries are the dog they can kick when the Department of Justice tells them to stop bullying Amazon.

But forget that data, let’s just do some simple numbers. If libraries are required to pay three or four times as much for an ebook so that publishers get their “fair” price, that means libraries will buy one ebook and will not buy three other books. Three sales gone, three discovery opportunities lost. Those books not bought are likely to be the ones library patrons aren’t already begging for. The ones ripe for discovery.

Some publishers want to “window” library use by selling access only to backlist titles. If libraries can’t stock a variety of frontlist books, readers won’t have the opportunity they’ve had in the past to discover authors who are not already well-established or have published a blockbuster best seller. If you are a traditionally published author who hasn’t spent a few weeks on the bestseller list, the public library is your best customer, because it will introduce your work to a lot of people who won’t hear about it otherwise. And if they like it, they will become your customers, too.

You can’t pay for this kind of word of mouth. But you can price it too high or make it wait too long to matter, long after you tried to get a contract for your next book but couldn’t because your sales record wasn’t strong enough.

As citizens and taxpayers, ask yourself if it’s fair to let publishers redefine who gets to read these days, and under what conditions. As business people … well, I hate to break it to you, but book publishers are not really that clever at figuring out what’s best for the book industry. So it’s not just whether it’s fair, it’s whether it’s good for the business they claim to represent. If you care about the future of the industry, don’t let publishers cut libraries out of it. We’ll all be sorry.

So endeth the rant. Peace be with you. Go forth and read.

photo courtesy of courosa