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


“it’s not clear”

May 23, 2009

Wired weighs in on U Mich’s renegotiation with the Google Books library project, and the title pretty well sums up their interpretation “UMich gets Better Deal in Google’s Library of the Future Project.” (Is that what’s called now? Cripes. All your book are belong to us.)

What cracks me up is the final, puzzled line.

Google will sell full-text access to all the books in its index to libraries and institutions, but critics say the price of that will be set very high . . .

That’s why giving UM (and possibly the other scanning libraries) some method to contest the price matters. But it’s not clear why UM would protest the pricing of such institutional subscriptions, because the changes also mean Google will subsidize the entire cost of UM’s institutional subscriptions.

Man, these guys truly do not get libraries!


why information literacy is a hard sell

July 19, 2008

As they are wont to do, a bunch of random ideas have just caromed off each other. This is your brain. This is your brain on a billiard table.

First, I was mulling over a funny thing that happened on a writers’ list. Someone asked a question about a medication. Another member, a librarian, pointed out a couple of wonderful resources where you can get answers to questions like hers. A third member said “here’s the answer. I’m a doctor.” And the chorus of replies was “Thank you so much! I always turn to experts! If I do my own research, I have to read too much and it’s confusing and some of it may be wrong.” Basically – “damn you, librarians, and your your tools of ambiguity; your solution requires judgment, and I don’t trust mine. Also, it’s work. Bah!”

So here’s the trouble with this thing we librarians believe in so passionately and have named so badly – information literacy. “I don’t want to think for myself, because its hard work and I might get it wrong; I just want an answer. Libraries are useless because they have far too many.”

That particular doctor was no doubt trustworthy. But what about those times when he’s not there, or it’s not his specialty? On this list you ask and hope someone who sounds credible pipes in with an answer.”Here’s a good place to look it up” is not a welcome suggestion.

What this collided with was in my billiard-table brain was some campaign folderol in the past twenty-four hours. McCain made a speech blasting Obama for only now going to Afghanistan. How could anyone possibly hold any informed opinion about a country in conflict if he hadn’t climbed off a plane and stood on its soil surrounded by cameras and heavily-armed security?

My immediate thought was “well, Obama does know how to read.”

I’m not saying expertise or first-hand experience is unimportant. But we have to make judgments all the time about things that we don’t know first hand and haven’t made our profession. We have to read and we have to winnow and yes, it’s work. But doing that work is the only way we can be free human beings. Weighing evidence is a skill everyone needs. You can defer to the experts, but sometimes they’re wrong or they’re biased or they’re lying, something Karl Rove turned into a science.

Sometimes, you have to think for yourself.

How do you learn to do that? That’s the hard part, but it should be what education is all about.

photo courtesy of jpstanley


Library as a Cask of Amontillado

June 3, 2008

Nice profile of Jim Huang at the Indianapolis Star. He is not only the owner of the legendary Mystery Company in Carmel, he is a publisher and a wonderfully thoughtful philosopher on the importance of books and reading and the independent local bookstore as a catalyst for literacy. Though I have to give some thought to this comment . . .

Books are like breathing; it’s part of your life. There are many customers, folks who’ve walked in the door, who love books and feel about them as I do, and yet I still feel that books are under-represented in this community. We build these absolutely beautiful libraries, but I sometimes think we wall up books in institutions like that. I love the library here; I’ve done a lot to support them and they’ve done a lot for me, but you sometimes want to just get books out there.

On my route to a signing at the Mystery Company, I visited two stunning libraries, the main library in Indianapolis and the lovely, spacious, elegant library in Carmel. (I’ll try to post some photos here soon.) They’re vibrant, gorgeous places, but do they wall their books up?  Do glorious settings stifle the urge to leave the place with your arms full of books?

Hmmm…..


what if you ran your library like a corporation?

October 9, 2007

Well, now you can! Fire those librarians, lock the doors, starve your communities of books and information – then hire a for-profit company to run it. That’s what Jackson County, Oregon is doing.

One of the head honchos of the LSSI Corp that got this contract once wrote a truly disturbing article for American Libraries. The title asked an interesting question – “What if You Ran Your Library Like a Bookstore?” I thought of some of the wonderful independent bookstores that could teach us a thing or two – like Once Upon a Crime or Uncle Edgar’s in Minneapolis. But no, turns out he meant “like B&N.” Have all the books selected by a head office somewhere else, get rid of reference assistance because it’s not popular enough, hire low-wage workers, sell expensive coffee. Well, he took his own advice. Now he’s running public libraries like a corporation.

Public libraries in the US have always had a local flavor and have been considered a public good – like public safety and education (not like trash collection and road maintenance, two often-outsourced government functions mentioned in the article). This just stinks.


out of the wilderness

September 21, 2007

I totally missed this charmer until I saw it posted at the BookBitchBlog.

None of the theatres or video rental shops in Waco wanted to carry a documentary about Dixie Chicks, Shut Up and Sing. Too controversial. Okay, you could buy a copy, or get it from Netflix. But what if you think it’s something your neighbors might want to see, too? Well, there’s one more phone call you could make . . .


DIY censorship

September 19, 2007

mrtwismbookburing2.jpg

Do you want to get a book removed from your public library and find yourself thwarted by those annoying first amendment types and their tedious policies?

There’s a new do-it-yourself method that’s catching on! Check the book out and refuse to return it! Tell all your friends!

Seriously – I just saw this American Libraries story about a girl doing this in Georgia just hours after catching this similar Boston Globe story about a woman doing the same in Maine. We’ll probably see more attempts to improve our communities by theft.

Is this the new way to celebrate Banned Books Week?