What Have Libraries Done For Us Lately?

The interior of HARPERCOLLINS BOARDROOM. A darkened room with a very long shined oaken table. Executives are seated on each side looking towards one end of the table with executives BOB, STEVE, JOSH, and DAVE sitting closest. JOSH stands at the one end, track lighting acting as a spotlight showing that he is standing in front of a white board with graphs marked EBOOKS with the lines going up.

Josh: “So, it is settled. Starting on March 7th, all eBook purchases for libraries will expire after twenty six circulations. This is to prevent undermining the emerging e-book eco-system, hurt the growing e-book channel, place additional pressure on physical bookstores, and in the end lead to a decrease of book sales and royalties paid to authors.”

Bob: “Bravo! We can’t let libraries get in the way of our new business model!”

Josh: “They’d bled us white, the bastards. They would take everything we offer, not just from us, but from all of publishing and lend it out to anyone!”

Dave: “They’d want give eternal lending rights to their children!”

Josh: “And their children’s children!”

Dave: “And their children’s children’s children!”

Josh: “All right, Dave. Don’t labor the point. And what have they ever given us in return?”

Bob: “They buy our books.”

Josh: “Oh yeah, yeah, they do give us money. Yeah. That’s true.”

Rob: “And they promote our authors!”

Dave: “Oh yes, author promotion. Josh, they do tell people about our authors.”

Josh: “All right, I’ll grant you that they buy our books and promote our authors are two things that libraries have done…”

Steve: “And promote literacy…”

Josh: (sharply) “Well yes obviously literacy… literacy goes without saying. But apart from buying our books, doing author promotion and the literacy thing…”

Exec 1: “Reading lists that mention our books…”

Exec 2: “Backcatalog buying… Storytimes with our books… author talks…”

Josh: “Yes… all right, fair enough…”

Exec in the back: “Book reviews!”

Steve: “Oh yes, true!”

Bob: “Yeah. That’s something we’d really miss if libraries didn’t do it anymore, Josh.”

Steve: “Yes, they certainly know how to keep order… (general nodding)… let’s face it, they’re the only consumers that put up with our mood swings and pricing schemes.”

(more general murmurs of agreement)

Josh: “All right… all right… but apart from buying books and backcatalog titles and author talks and promotions and using our books on reading lists and storytimes and book reviews and promoting literacy… what have libraries done for us?”

Bob: “They have more locations than McDonalds and are frequently more present than bookstores in communities all across the United States?”

Josh: “What!? Oh, locations where we would not otherwise have our titles available, yes… shut up!”

[For non Monty Python fans, the reference is here.]

SunSpec: Giving The Reader Their Due

With the tidal wave of talk about eBooks this past week, there has been a good amount of writing about the reader and how these changes would affect them from the vantage of the library. However, I haven’t seen much actual talk to a reader regarding these changes. It’s been in the background of my thoughts since I believe that neither the publisher nor libraries but readers have the larger controlling stake in this discussion. They are the ones who will dictate the market to the rest of us. Libraries will just follow along as they always have.

But in thinking about eBook piracy, DRM, and format, I think that readers have already started the shift when it comes to those aspects. It reminds me of the quote from John Gilmore:

The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.

While this is not a censorship issue, it does share a basic “why can’t I get to my content” aspect. And with the readily available tools that people create to allow them to remove DRM, to convert eBooks into formats they can use on their eReaders, and to share with friends (out of genuine good intent), I think readers are already making themselves known what they think the standard of care and handling should be when it comes to eBooks. While libraries cannot follow them entirely on this path, it indicates to me that the care and interest for books and their availability is a shared concern. So, that leaves me with some questions.

Are we giving readers enough credit in this eBook debate? What is their role in all of this? Will they be able to do what we cannot?

#hcod at Library Journal

In case you blinked and missed it on the front page of Library Journal, Barbara Fister wrote a great overview of the HarperCollins issues and actions. It’s a must read. I say ‘blink and miss it’ because it’s not on the front page anymore nor is it on the ‘latest stories’ link. It doesn’t appear when you use the Library Journal custom Google search on the site.I had to go to the actual Google website and do a site search to find the second time around.

I’m not implying there is some sort of conspiracy is at play here, but in my opinion the current bevy of stories on the front page at writing don’t hold the same long term interest or implications as the #hcod issues. The column should be restored to the front page or latest stories page where people can find it.

Now What? We Do This

Toby Greenwalt’s recent post asked “Okay, Now What” in regard to the HarperCollins/Overdrive debacle along with a couple of very good questions. These questions are important because they signal negotiating positions from where librarians are (roughly) coming from: what our ideal eBook lending environment would be and what price we would pay for that. They are also important because that kind of introspection examines a more basic question as to whether or not eBook lending is even a viable option.

In watching the conversations develop on different fronts, I believe that what I am about to outline is the best course of action moving forward.

Between Now and March 7th

[March 7th is significant since that’s when the new licensing agreements start. Overdrive will move them into their own catalog on that day.]

(1) We work on getting actual communication going with HarperCollins (one blog post statement that simply restates their reasoning is not bilateral communication). I have yet to see anyone post a reply they have received to their messages send to library.ebook@HarperCollins.com, so I’m not sure if that is simply a black hole for people to air their discontent or an actual feedback channel.  If anyone has heard anything, I’d love to see it.

HarperCollins, if you are actually reading this, consider hosting a conference call that librarians can dial into. We’d like to hear from you in more detail and ask a few (dozen) questions. That might be the easiest way to reach a good number of people who have interest in this issue all at once in a short period of time. This email thing is not working too well here.

(2) We expand to contacting authors, readers, library board members, trustees, and friends to educate them on what this change means for us. I’d suggest a sample letter or notice for each group that explains the importance of the perpetual collection and the cultural record that the library maintains. There are other avenues of pressure that should be utilized and we should be looking to expand support for our side.

March 7th and onward

(1) I believe that boycotting HarperCollins eBooks is the most effective tactic at our disposal. It doesn’t deny physical print to patrons and addresses the problem as we see it (the eBook licensing agreement). Since it is a matter of the licensing agreement changes, to make that the recipient of all the protest and attention would be the best and most compelling action.

(2) We continue sending letters and emails to HarperCollins, Overdrive (as a client), authors, library patrons, and readers everywhere. We look to both librarian and non-librarian news outlets and take our cases there. We are not out of forums for our discontent, not by a long shot. It is just a matter of continuing to push.

How long? Till we get the change we are looking for.


Other Thoughts

I think a total boycott is overreaching since the problem is with the eBooks, not the entire line of HarperCollins products. I think accepting these terms and continuing to do business is an even worse decision for it puts the future of eBook collections entirely at risk. As much bellyaching as there is about a disruption to the workflow since all of the HarperCollins titles will have to be reevaluated for purchases when they hit the magic twenty six number, I assure you that NO ONE will be happy when they are doing it for the ENTIRE eBook collection.

For those who suggest that boycotting is against service to patrons or assault on reading, I disagree. Service to patrons is not done in a vacuum; the idea of “giving them what they want” is not without outside considerations for space, staffing, budgets, or means. To ignore the greater issues of future information access in order to give our patrons an eBook now is a complete abandonment of professional principles. The library cannot maintain the cultural record if it surrenders the very materials it wishes to keep to a third party. Art museums do not store their collections at the artist’s studios; neither should we allow publishers to offer eBooks on the electronic equivalent of a yo-yo string.

Service to patrons is also not blind devotion in which parting with good judgment or business sense is a prerequisite.  This myopic rationale surrenders the future of eBook access in favor of what is easy, what is convenient, and simply another chapter of going-along-to-get-along in the history of librarianship. The people today who are flabbergasted by the idea that library did not order more physical copies of their favorite title will think us stupid when it comes to not having an eBook available because of an expired license. And they will be right.


This is a situation in which we as individuals will have to stand together to be the change we want to see in the treatment of eBooks. There is no one who is going to come to our rescue; not the ALA, not our state associations, not authors nor readers. The future of lending and collecting eBooks is what is at stake here. And as they become a greater part of our collections, how eBooks are handled and treated matters all the more. It is important to act now and decisively. It is important for the continued future of eBooks in libraries.

Now is the time. Take action.

Open Thread Thursday: Sparta Edition


[Click the picture for the explanation of the meme]

On the heels of winning the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books lolbrarian contest, I thought another lolbrarian style graphic might be a nice way to kick off this Open Thread Thursday. In working with Sarah to polish up and issue the eBook Readers’ Bill of Rights over the weekend and blogging on the HarperCollins timeline (1, 2, 3, 4 entries), it feels like I’ve been doing nothing but reading and writing in my spare time for the past five or so days. While I’ve been enjoying watching the issue move through the libraryland blogosphere, I took off Wednesday night to do other things and take a break from the keyboard. I really need to recharge the battery for the next round since I think it’s going to get, well, more verbose.

So, as a starter topic for this week’s open thread, I’ll toss out the concept of madness in library science (real or fictional). Bonus points for weaving the HarperCollins stuff or eBook rights into your comment. Triple score if you link a real libraryland behavior to Rita Mae Brown’s quote, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results”.

And now, your comments.

An Open Letter to Publishers

Considering how “many months” Josh Marwell states that HarperCollins has been looking at the eBook issues in his Open Letter to Librarians, the first reply to the whole HarperCollins/Overdrive/26 circulations meltdown is remarkably short on details or assurances of recognition for the issues raised by librarians. For a publisher to explicitly solicit feedback and then carefully restate their case for why they are changing their pricing model means they either don’t care or they don’t get it. Rather than give in to cynicism, I’m opting for the latter since libraries have rapidly changed in the last ten years (just like the last time they visited their pricing model). Perhaps it is time for an update.

Within that time period (well, starting before that, but I digress), libraries have moved from information gatekeepers to information gateways. Libraries have lost the monopoly on knowledge content to the information/communication revolution and have shifted to the role of being an access provider. The key word in that sentence is access. It is now our institutional everything.  We facilitate access to literature and information resources to the communities that we serve, whether it is the local grade school, university faculty, or little old grandmothers.

What this new pricing model does is threaten that access arrangement. And for all the things that you can do to libraries and/or librarians, the last thing you want to do is screw with access. It’s one of those things that librarians have incorporated into the Library Bill of Rights. It’s also one of those things that librarians want to keep as a binary answer (“Yes, we have that” and “No, we don’t have that”) rather than make it a nebulous one (“Well, we might have access to that when your turn comes up but only if we decide to renew the license which is dependent on a number of contingencies…”) Access is one of the core values that librarians will fight to the death for. This “26 and done” idea goes against it completely which is one of the major underlying reasons for the uproar that this has created.

You get the point.

Also, I’d like to highlight this other point as written by Karen Schneider:

But libraries are only partly about the here-and-now. We’re also about preserving the cultural record. We cannot preserve ephemerally-licensed “content” that can be wrenched from us at the discretion of giant corporations. Right now, it appears the only safe technology for the cultural record, in terms of traditionally-published books, is the dead-tree format. I am not being technologically-backward to say that; I’m being culturally forward.

This is why perpetuity (a term that was thrown casually out there) of the eBook is important. It’s about maintaining the cultural timeline. Today’s literature will be the seeds of inspiration for tomorrow’s great works of fiction and prose. Libraries are not interested in keeping eBooks forever because we like collecting items, but because it matters in the long term. So, don’t take perpetuity off the table here as an eBook option. It has value far beyond the bits and bytes of the format it is stored in. And that’s something libraries treasure more than transitional formats.

Unlike the Open Letter to Librarians, I am not without an alternate solution for revenue paths. While permanent copies need to remain on the table as per the relatively unspoken “Pretend It’s Print” model, the flexibility of the format and the market makes for some other possibilities. My suggestion would be to offer eBooks that expire after a pre-determined number of checkouts but that those checkouts are not limited by the Pretend It’s Print ‘one copy, one customer at a time’ condition. Meaning, if a library bought a limited license that allowed for fifty checkouts, those fifty checkouts could happen in the first month, the first week, or even the first day. But once they are gone, that’s it.

It’s the equivalent of an eBook rental, the same strategy that libraries do for print books that are in high initial demand. You get to set the price for a set number of checkouts or (since we are in an age of technology and wonder) let the library set the number of checkouts and base the price off of that. You get to sell more eBook equivalents on the front end of a book release and libraries get to play Oprah (“You get an eBook! You get an eBook! Everyone gets to borrow an eBook!” etc.). More importantly, it puts an eBook into the hands of a person who clearly (1) reads, (2) has disposable income to purchase more eBooks (since they can afford the device in the first place) and (3) is timely when a book is new, hot, and riding the hype. If the person likes it, they will either buy it for themselves and possibly starting buying that person’s backlist. I’m sure your sales people can get creative in making bundles of your so called perpetuity books and offering a certain number of these limited licenses to go with it. (Because librarians can’t turn down a bargain.)

If any publisher uses this, I fully expect to get an invitation to one of these mythical librarian advisory boards I’ve heard about.

To HarperCollins, don’t use the time that librarians are investing to tell you what’s on our minds through blogs posts and emails to just be thinking about that next thing you are going to say. There is a reason that this has invoked a rare moment of professional unity. This is a public relations moment that you can rise with; don’t squander it with vague platitudes about the importance of authors and librarians. Tell us how this helps us, you, and all the people that will be influenced by this decision.

This is the beginning of a conversation, not the midpoint of a shouting match.