Blind Mellendrama

Mellendrama is a hashtag on Twitter to describe what can only be termed as the ongoing saga of Edwin Mellen Press (EMP) versus, well, anyone who has anything remotely unkind to say online, protections of free speech or well established case law supporting opinion articles be damned. The other post title I came up with was “John Cougar Mellendrama”, but in Blind Melon’s only hit song, “No Rain” (a staple of my generation’s high school music and famous for its dancing Bee Girl video), there’s a lyric I can’t resist for this post.

All I can say is that my life is pretty plain,
Ya don’t like my point of view,
Ya think that I’m insane.
It’s not sane, it’s not sane.

I’ll just leave it at that.

If you want the short version of what has happened, avail yourself of this Canadian Broadcasting article that briefly outlines the lawsuit by Edwin Mellon Press against McMaster University and librarian Dale Askey over a less-than-kind blog entry Askey wrote in 2010. (They dropped the suit against the university, but not against Askey.) If you like a detailed timeline loaded with links, check out John Dupuis’s rapidly expanding post which chronicles the whole affair. And if you want to see someone have a field day with this situation, then TechDirt is the place to go. Really, they dissected it and it’s a joy to read.

The latest salvo is a ‘cease and desist’ letter sent to Scholarly Kitchen, the blog of the Society for Scholarly Publishing. EMP actually sent two letters; one for a blog post and another for a comment to that blog post. Scholarly Kitchen posted the letters they received; here’s the one for the blog post itself.

sk-letter01

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(I did not ask permission to repost these images, so SK give a yell if you want me to take them down. My apologies in advance if that’s the case.)

In case you’re wondering what kind of horrible things were written, the magic of the internet allows you to go back in time and see it for yourself thanks to the Internet Archive. Furthermore, the comment in question is #5. Go on, give it a read. Meanwhile, the trackbacks to the current Scholarly Kitchen post continue to grow as the word gets out regarding EMP’s latest move.

This activity comes in sharp relief to a statement within the press release in which EMP drops their suit against McMaster University on March 4th.

“The financial pressure of the social media campaign and pressure on authors is severe. EMP is a small company. Therefore must choose to focus its resources on its business and serving its authors.”

Pair this with a statement given to The Chronicle of Higher Education on the week of March 29th, three weeks later.

Mr. Richardson could not be reached for comment on Friday, but in an interview this week he told The Chronicle that his lawsuit against Mr. Askey would not be the last in his fight to protect his reputation as well as the reputation of the press and its authors.

“It’s going to develop and develop,” Mr. Richardson said. “It’s a little bit of a cyclone, and it isn’t quite clear where the eye of the cyclone is going to form. But the eye could be over the practice of people using the social media to anonymously bully other people.”

This would suggest to me that this is just the tip of the cease & desist/ libel/defamatory legal action iceberg. While you might be thinking about how non-anonymous the blog authors have been so far in this saga, their first (and thus far, only) newsletter dated October 2012 suggests that where they are headed. (You can read their newsletter from their website by mousing over the surprisingly named Newsletter tab and clicking on Current Newsletter link.) This bit was at the bottom of the publication.

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The first link goes to a 2007 post with four comments on it. My guess is the “anonymous bullies” are the posters being referenced to with the second link that takes you to The Chronicle’s forum pages. (I found it much faster to find the forums they were referencing by Googling “mellen press reputation”. Seriously, it’s the top two results. But you can search for “Edwin Mellen Press” in The Chronicle’s forum search box and get the same results.)

There are multiple threads on the press, some of which date back to 2007. Posters on the forums have usernames, which is the next thing to anonymous when it comes to message boards. Is this where the next series of letters and lawsuits is headed? I would guess yes on the basis of the information available right now.

This story isn’t without a twist, however. Roy Tennant posted the discovery of Edwin Mellen Press by way of a pseudonym registering DaleAskey.com, DaleAskey.info, DakeAskey.net, and Daleaskey.org back between October 2011 and May 2012. A Google Document put together by Dave Pattern also shows that the Press had registered “TheMcmaster-mellencontroversy.com/net/info/org” addresses as well back in March 2012. I can’t even fathom a guess as to why either was done. Nope, can’t think of anything.

Overall, it’s been commented that this whole story reads like a case study of the Streisand Effect. In trying to squash the negative press, Edwin Mellen Press has elevated it to a front and center issue that can’t be ignored by librarians, academics, and other publishing entities. To me, the most logical series of events on where it goes from here is this: less reviewers will be interested in evaluating their titles for fear of any kind of reprisal. Less reviews means less opportunities for publicity and exposure in journals and magazines that people use for collection or curriculum development. Less opportunities mean less sales as people never hear or read about the book. Eventually, it’s the end of the business.

I have to admit that this is the kind of drama that I like to watch unfold on the public stage. First, it doesn’t involve me (although since I linked to the offending posts, who knows if there is a letter that will fly my way. I doubt it but that way this case is shaping up it is not out of the realm of possibility.) Second, it can only get weirder from here on out unless they drop their lawsuits and tactics. The academic librarian community is only so large and they work with faculty all the time when it comes to adding titles to the collection. Wayne Bivens-Tatum gives the best spin on this possibly:

I wonder what damages a publisher the most: someone writing a critical blog post, or a series of lawsuits and threatened lawsuits that target a number of academic librarians, which then go public and anger the very librarians who buy (or now maybe won’t buy) so many of the publisher’s books? I guess we’ll find out.

There is a undeniable ripple effect that is emanating out of this and only Edwin Mellen Press can control how large the waves get. At the rate these waves are increasing and intensifying, the only thing I can say is, “Surf’s up.”

A Fistful of eBook Settlement Dollars

In checking my email after being away for the weekend, I got the eBook state settlement notice. (Quoted in full below) My first thought in opening this email is that it looks a lot like a well drafted phishing attempt. But then I remembered that I had actually bought a book on my iPad when the iBooks app came out. (Sir Ken Robinson’s The Element, which is basically a very lengthy rehashing of one of his TED talks.) I think I purchased the book for either $12.99 or $14.99 which makes me think that any credit will only be a couple of bucks. I’ll be interested to see how they calculate the “right” price.

Here’s the email I got:

Benefits from an Attorney General E-books Settlement Fund

Para una notificación en Español, llamar o visitar nuestro website.

Settlement ID Number: [redacted]

Records indicate that you are eligible for a payment from Settlements reached by the State Attorneys General with electronic book publishers Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster. The Settlements resolve an antitrust lawsuit about the price of electronic books. Apple Inc. (“Apple”) has not been sued in this case. It is assisting in providing this notice as a service to its customers.

What the Settlements Provide

The Settlements create a $69 million fund for payments to consumers who purchased qualifying electronic books from April 1, 2010 through May 21, 2012. If the Court approves the Settlements, eligible consumers like you will receive credits to your iTunes account. The credit can be used on any purchases of electronic books. The amount of your payment has been determined based on the qualifying electronic book purchases identified by Apple in your iTunes account.

How to Receive your Benefit

Because you are pre-qualified, you do not need to do anything at this time to receive your credit. If the Court approves the Settlements, you will receive another email letting you know how to activate your credit. Once you activate the credit, it will be applied to your account by Apple. (If you bought electronic books from more than one retailer, you may receive notices with different instructions about whether you will receive a credit or need to file a Claim Form for that retailer. You will have a separate claim for each retailer and you should follow the specific instructions from each one.)

You also have the option to receive a check instead of your credit. You can request a check by calling 1-866-621-4153, or going to the Settlement website listed below, and clicking on the Check Request Option link. Be sure to reference the Settlement ID number found at the top of this email. The Settlement website is:

www.EBookAGSettlements.com

Your Other Rights

You can choose to exclude yourself from the Settlements and keep your right to sue on your own. If you exclude yourself, you can’t receive any benefits from the Settlements. If you don’t exclude yourself, you can submit objections about the Settlements.

Your written Exclusion Form or objections must be postmarked by December 12, 2012.Please visit the Settlement website for detailed information on how to submit a valid Exclusion Form or objection.

A separate lawsuit against two other publishers and Apple continues and is set for a trial in 2013. Apple denies the allegations in that lawsuit. Your rights in the separate suit are not affected by any action you take in regards to these Settlements.

The Court will hold a hearing on February 8, 2013 at 10 a.m. to consider whether to approve the Settlements. You or your own lawyer may ask to appear and speak at the hearing.

For more detailed information:

Call 1-866-621-4153 or Visit www.EBookAGSettlements.com

LISNews has a copy of the Kindle email that was sent out in case you want to compare the two.

I’d be interested to hear if any libraries that purchased an eReader (Kindle, Nook, iPad, etc.) to lend to their community got a notice for any books they might have purchased to put on it. With that in mind, I’m wondering about the cost analysis between purchasing an eReader, buying books for it, and lending it out versus purchasing the books through Overdrive or another library eBook middle man and making it available through the website. If someone who is better with numbers and ‘what if?” situations could do that, I’d show my appreciate with some link love.

Update: Amelia from Twitter provided me with the Barnes & Noble letter.

Dear [redacted],

We’re pleased to tell you that you are eligible for gift certificate credits thanks to recent legal settlements between States Attorneys General and three eBook publishers. Barnes & Noble was not a party to the settlements but as a NOOK® customer, you can take advantage of the benefits agreed to by the settling publishers.

Although we are required to notify you now of the settlements, there is nothing you need to do to receive the credits as you will receive them automatically in the form of an electronic gift certificate sent via email. Once the settlements’ claim period ends, the Attorneys General will calculate the amount of your credits. If the Court gives final approval to the settlements, we expect to be able to send you your gift certificate in the first half of 2013.

Once you receive your gift certificate, you can register it on our website,  www.bn.com, for up to one year. Once registered, no further action will be required on your part, and the certificate will have no expiration date and you can use it any time to shop the wide selection of great titles on  bn.com.

You may prefer to receive a check instead of a gift certificate, or you may decide not to participate in this settlement at all. If you want to consider either of these options, we recommend that you review the steps you can take, as well as your rights, which are explained in the attached legal notice.

As always, we appreciate your business and thank you for being a valued NOOK and Barnes & Noble customer.

Sincerely,

Barnes & Noble

Benefits from an Attorney General E-books Settlement Fund

Para una notificación en Español, llamar o visitar nuestro website.

Records indicate that you are eligible for a payment from Settlements reached by the State Attorneys General with E-book publishers Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster. The Settlements resolve an antitrust lawsuit about the price of electronic books (“E-books”). Barnes & Noble has not been sued in this case. It is providing this notice as a service to its customers.

What the Settlements Provide

10/17/12                   iCloud Mail – You Are Eligible For eBook Credits

The Settlements create a $69 million fund for payments to consumers who purchased qualifying E-books from April 1, 2010 through May 21, 2012. If the Court approves the Settlements, eligible consumers like you will receive credits to your E-reader accounts. The credit can be used on any purchases of E-books or print books. The amount of your payment has been determined based on the qualifying E-book purchases identified by Barnes & Noble in your E-reader account.

How to Receive your Benefit

Because you are pre-qualified, you do not need to do anything at this time to receive your credit. If the Court approves the Settlements, you will receive another email letting you know how to activate your credit. Once you activate the credit, it will be applied to your account by Barnes & Noble. (If you bought E-books from more than one retailer, you may receive notices with different instructions about whether you will receive a credit or need to file a Claim Form for that retailer. You will have a separate claim for each retailer and you should follow the specific instructions from each one.)

You also have the option to receive a check instead of your credit. You can request a check by calling 1-866-621-4153, or going to the Settlement website listed below, and clicking on the Check Request Option link. Be sure to reference the Settlement ID number found at the bottom of this email.

The Settlement website is: http://www.EbooksAGSettlements.com

Your Other Rights

You can choose to exclude yourself from the Settlements and keep your right to sue on your own. If you exclude yourself, you can’t receive any benefits from the Settlements. If you don’t exclude yourself, you can submit objections about the Settlements.

Your written Exclusion Form or objections must be postmarked by December 12, 2012. Please visit the Settlement website for detailed information on how to submit a valid Exclusion Form or objection.

A separate lawsuit against two other publishers and Apple, Inc. continues and is set for a trial in 2013. Your rights in the separate suit are not affected by any action you take in regards to these Settlements. The Court will hold a hearing on February 8, 2013 at 10 a.m. to consider whether to approve the Settlements. You or your own lawyer may ask to appear and speak at the hearing.

For more detailed information:

Call 1-866-621-4153 or Visit http://www.EbooksAGSettlements.com

Settlement ID Number: XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

Scraping the Bottom of the Librarian eBook Patience Barrel

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Librarian Patience Has Run out on E-Book Lending Issues, Library Association Says” was the title of the article that ran in Digital Book World last week covering a private meeting between the ALA and the American Association of Publishers. The title was hinting at a strongly worded open letter to publishers that ALA President Maureen Sullivan wrote last week about the current state of library eBook affairs (which is more complicated and surreal than a paternity suit in a Korean soap opera). Even after the AAP made its own reply, it was a chance for publishing executives to get their own digs on Maureen and the ALA position.

I suggest reading the original article since I’m going to pull out some of the “highlights”, a term I use very loosely and probably owe the creator an apology after this post. While the article is not an exhaustive recounting of the meeting, there are some things I wanted to point out.

An executive from Perseus Book Group who did not identify herself said, “our executives are confused as to what is a library?” She cited concerns that the free and wide availability of e-books to library patrons could undercut publisher business.

Perhaps these big time executives do have a point. If we line up five books in an empty postbox or phone booth or anything with a shelf and call it a ‘library’, what does it mean to be a library? This might be what the library eBook debate really needs: a final definition of what it means to be an eBook, to ‘lend’ a computer file, or to ‘own’ a copy. Afterward, we can work on questions like what it means to be an author (“does writing poetry on a napkin count?”) or a publisher (“can I sell that napkin?”). Maybe we can get some MLS students to work on this for us so long as this was a legitimate philosophical question and not the overheard utterance of a crazy person.

As to the second point, it’s the standard unproven eBook canard that allowing libraries to lend eBooks will hurt their bottom line, smother the nascent eBook market, or some other nurturing/parenting allusion that the Big Six publishers are the caretakers for this new market. It has never been proven because the moment it is proven all the future eBook library holdings in the country will be in jeopardy. Since that is not happening, it’s just some boogey man living under the big time publisher bed, waiting for an errant foot to dangle over the side so it can FEED ON THEIR BONES.

Tim McCall, vice president of online sales and marketing, digital sales at Penguin Group USA, criticized the ALA’s supposed stance, as written into its letter earlier in the week, that e-books should should be available to libraries under the same business models as print books.

Well, make up your damn mind. You want libraries to pretend its print when it comes to lending practices (one book, one person). Libraries played this stupid game because of the publisher’s belief that any other lending model other than a copy of the print model would be the end of the world. In order to be able to offer eBook lending, librarians had to ignore the obvious fact that it was a computer file and treat it like a book. The Stockholm syndrome finally took over and librarians suggested that it actually operate under the same business models as print.

But, no no, you can’t treat it the same because it’s not the same media, they say now. Really? It’s not the same? I’ve never had to spend fifteen minutes explaining how someone can hold and open a book the same way I’ve done it with trying to help people download books onto their eReader. Then why are you making us lend it like it is a print book?

“When will the ALA start proposing to us some best practices on what models you think will work from your digital solutions working group? You put a lot on us and it’s created a lot of chaos and clearly it’s [e-book library lending] broken. We have twelve different models,” he said. “You have to come back to us with more than just ‘equitable access at a fair price.’”

As the question was being posed, many heads in the publisher-heavy audience were nodding in ascent. […]

The business model suggestions have to “come from you and [have] to be a lot more specific than what I’ve heard here. I challenge you with that,” said Balis.

Um, no.

Why do libraries have to come up with business models for publishers? We’re the customer. We have reasonable demands: equitable access (being able to offer a library member a book in any format) for a fair price (a recognition that eBooks are computer files and that they should be priced accordingly). Make it work!

But, no. “You put a lot on us.” “It’s created a lot of chaos.” That’s the sound of publishers punting on the issue. Libraries only put “a lot” on publishers because publishers were insistent about holding all the cards when it comes to eBooks. The only thing unreasonable is the fact that libraries pointed out that we had to wait for them to make up their damn minds when it comes to eBook lending. How dare us!

The “chaos” that resulted is what happens when publishers want to create a market but give nothing up. Retention of file ownership and dictating lending policies broach on library territory. And guess what? Not all libraries are comfortable with that. The “chaos” that Balis likes to point out originated from his side of the equation.

Our lack of satisfaction in eBook lending availability and policies is not the fault of libraries, but of big publishers wanting to have their cake and eat it.

Balis again confronted the ALA delegation on the mission of libraries, questioning whether e-book access was for the “less fortunate” that libraries are, in part, there to serve or for “wealthy residents of Greenwich [Conn.] who just want to have a lot of nice, free access to a lot of books?”

My jaw dropped when I read this.

It is a blatant assault on the integrity of libraries to openly suggest that eBook lending access is sought simply so that rich people can have free eBooks. It is the implication that eBooks are and will always be a luxury item reserved exclusively for the Martha’s Vineyard crowd so that they can have something to talk about between polo rounds and yacht sailing competitions. It is, at its most basic, questioning our basic professional principle of ‘service to all who seek it’. I have but one response to this impertinent question:

Fuck you, strong statement to follow.

With the continued price reduction of a basic eReader (Amazon will soon be giving Kindles away for free) and personal computer and the expanding smartphone market, the opportunity for the average American to download eBooks onto their personal device (be it phone, computer, eReader) is continuing to expand. The cost barrier continues to come down allowing for more people to participate in the online market and conversation, including eBooks. Granted, until national broadband because a reality, there will be some people left out. But they will not be left out simply because of their financial situation or to use your phrase, “less fortunate”. (I dare you to ask the people who exist at the opposite end of the Greenwich crowd if they consider themselves to be “less fortunate”.)

Libraries serve their communities. Full stop. There is no income restriction or requirement. In duty, librarians strive to be egalitarians, providing service to all who seek it. That’s who we are and what we do. For the record, librarians know a few things about social equality as well.

Mr. Balis, you can question many things about the library when it comes to eBooks, but not our mission of service. It’s a distraction, a craven act of arrogance, and an insult to suggest that library eBook lending relates to income levels. You didn’t deserve the answer that Maureen graciously gave you for your boorish question. You should be ashamed of yourself.

Pivoting back to the purpose of the meeting, I can’t imagine any patience being replenished between ALA and the Big Six members of the AAP. The underlying feeling presented from the article is that those publishers are trying to blame shift to libraries for the state of library eBook affairs when they have been calling the tune the whole time. The challenge to libraries to create business models is just a stalling tactic to pull the heat off themselves and to further a status quo of limited checkouts or outrageous pricing. Beyond that, their beliefs are controlled by fear and conjecture about what libraries could possibly do to the publishing business.

I’m just glad that there are libraries with other projects in play with other (sane) publishers. It shows that this is a problem to which there are excellent solutions. It’s just a matter of finding those who want to work with us and not ones who want us to do the work for them. There is a road ahead, but it may not entirely be through New York.

Jenica Vs. The ACS Volcano

If you work in an academic library and you haven’t been following the Jenica Rogers/American Chemical Society (ACS) story, you really need to clear some time to sit down and work your way through the whole thing. Hell, if you are the person who works with your library’s vendors, you will want to pay attention. There’s a couple of lessons to be learned here, especially in the public relations department. For an overall summary, it went down like this:

On September 12th, Jenica posted an entry in her blog, “Walking Away from the American Chemical Society”. The post details the circumstances and events that surrounded the decision to drop their ACS journal package for 2013. This is a big deal since the ACS provides accreditations to higher education chemistry programs and some of those accreditation requirements include subscribing to journals published by the ACS. (Just let that conflict of interest thought go for the moment, you can always come back to it.)

The short version is that it would have eaten too much of her acquisitions budget (10%) to cover one department at her university, an unacceptable expense. Jenica made the case to the chemistry faculty and worked with them to find a solution that could accommodate their research and classwork. While not a perfect solution, it was an acceptable one that sustains the academic pursuits of the university. Not all ACS publications were eliminated, but it was cut down to the essential ones along with resources coming from other chemistry publishers and providers.

This, of course, elicits a good amount of discussion since no one has done this before or at least written about it in such an open manner.

Skip ahead two weeks to September 26th to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “As Chemistry Journals’ Prices Rise, a Librarian Just Says No”. The writer reaches out to the ACS for a comment and receives this statement from Glenn Ruskin, Director of Public Affairs.

A spokesman for the American Chemical Society said that the group would not offer a response to Ms. Rogers’s blog post or the conversation that’s sprung up around it. "We find little constructive dialogue can be had on blogs and other listservs where logic, balance, and common courtesy are not practiced and observed," Glenn S. Ruskin, the group’s director of public affairs, said in an e-mail message. "As a matter of practice, ACS finds that direct engagement via telephone or face-to-face with individuals expressing concern over pricing or other related matters is the most productive means to finding common ground and resolution." [Emphasis mine.]

And so the descent begins. I’m not wholly familiar with the “We have no comment but here is a comment about why we have no comment” strategy, but it doesn’t seem to really play out very well. It does set the stage for future dismissal of grievances posted online as they can be called illogical, unbalanced, and/or discourteous. But it certainly begs the question as to how Jenica’s blog post (or her overall blog): at which part or parts was her post illogical? How was what she wrote unbalanced? Where was common courtesy not observed?

On the Chemical Information Sources Discussion List (a listserv), Glenn provided a clarification of his statement:

Many thanks for sharing this with me.  Let me assure you that it was not my intention, nor the intention of ACS, to denigrate blogs or users/contributors of blogs or listservs. 

My comment was directed toward the blog that was the subject of the Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) story.  Unfortunately, CHE did not use the totality of my comment as I think it would have been clear that I was speaking specifically to the blog that was the point of the story.  Here is the totality of my statement (bolded section was omitted by CHE):

“We find little constructive dialogue can be had on blogs and other listservs where logic, balance and common courtesy are not practiced and observed.  As a matter of practice, ACS finds that direct engagement via telephone or face-to-face with individuals expressing concern over pricing or other related matters is the most productive means to finding common ground and resolution.  Therefore, we will not be offering any response  to this blog posting or the conversation that has ensued.

I respect and appreciate responsible bloggers, those that thoughtfully engage on those blogs as well as those that utilize listservs.  No insult was intended, and apologies to those that interpreted the comment that way.  These outlets provide important avenues to further dialogue and collaboration and are valuable assets in the ever evolving digital age.

The individual responsible for the above cited blog certainly has the right to her opinion, but that does not excuse rude behavior or her use of profanity and vulgarity in addressing ACS or its employees. While not evident in the most recent postings, I won’t repeat what she has posted in the past.  But I think you would agree that vulgarity and profanity postings do not lend themselves to meaningful, productive and civil discourse, thus our decision not to engage any further with her on this topic. [Emphasis his]

And thus the character assassination begins. Jenica is portrayed as someone who is rude, profane, and vulgar(1); but, oddly enough, not wrong. Instead, the blog post is presented as “her opinion” which, given the content, seems a bit silly. Pricing tiers could be argued as being fair or not till the end of time, but having something cost 10% of your budget is a fact. Unless the budget numbers go up or the price goes down, it will remain at that fixed point.

Jenica posted a very long response to this email which I’ll just link to; it really is too much to grab for a quote and it is quite comprehensive in rebutting Glenn’s clarification. It details the frustrations she has experienced with the ACS and its staff members that preceded this blowup.

John Dupuis has a great “here be all the links to everything” post up right now if you want to delve into the nitty-gritty. I’d recommend reading posts on the subject by Walt Crawford, Iris Jastram, Jacob Berg, and Chembark as well as Jenica’s followup post.

Ultimately, I see this as a “how not to handle public relations” moment. If you’re not going to comment, then don’t. Providing an explanation as to why you are not commenting that takes a shot at someone is, well, commenting. It’s not letting the story burn out on its own so much as it is now putting gasoline on the fire. Even if I wasn’t Jenica’s friend, this story may make her look bad, but it certainly makes the ACS seem worse. It would seem that there cannot be a public dialogue, even without the bad feelings exhibited.

It is yet another cautionary tale for librarians and library vendors and the relationships they seek to build… or break. I admire Jenica standing tall and (to use her phrase) own her words and back them up. As she states in the post that started this, no one generally wants to be the first out of the gate. But, quite frankly, I can’t think of a better person to lead on this topic. Whether ACS likes it or not, the discussion will continue. It’s simply a matter of time to see what results.

 

***

(1) Full disclosure: By Jenica’s own admission she has used profanity to describe how she felt after different encounters with ACS staffers on her personal Friendfeed account, but not found in her blog about the dropping the ACS journal package or other blogs posts. The first two accusations of her posts being illogical or unbalanced still remain unanswered or unexplained.

That Whole Hachette eBook Price Increase Thing

The big news at the end of last week was Hachette, a publisher dipping its toe back in the library eBook market, announcing that it was going to raise prices on its current library eBook catalog by an average of 220%. Here’s a quote provided by Infodocket from an email that Overdrive sent out notifying their customers of the change.

Hachette will be raising its eBook prices on October 1, 2012 on their currently available eBook catalog (~3,500 eBook titles with release dates of April 2010 and earlier). On average prices will increase 220%.

Here’s a post from the Overdrive corporate blog regarding the price increase:

As announced yesterday, Hachette Digital is raising prices on its currently available library eBook catalog (roughly 3,500 titles with release dates of April 2010 and earlier) effective Oct. 1, 2012. Examples of the new pricing include: “Breaking Dawn” by Stephenie Meyer will increase from $22.99 to $34.99; “4th of July” by James Patterson will go from $13.99  to $20.99; and David Sedaris’ “Me Talk Pretty One Day” will go from $14.99 to $37.99.

[..]

We understand that any cost increase comes as unwelcome news at a time when library budgets are tight, but we’re encouraged that Hachette has opted to continue participating in library lending.

Let me pull out my nitpicker for this one. In the first paragraph, they picked out three popular authors to give for the price change example. They represent a price increase of 152%, 150%, and 253%, respectively. Since the average was 220%, there have to be at least price increases of 290% to balance out those 150%’s. Even then, that’s assuming that 150% is the low end of price increases. For every step below 150%, there would have to be a corresponding step above 290% to make it average out to 220%. This does not bode well for collection development librarians across the country.

In the second paragraph, it embodies an aspect of the librarian debate over eBooks that I really, really hate: people arguing that continued participation is some sort of magical mitigating factor for bad behavior. It’s not. The idea that librarians should be happy, nay, grateful that publishers are still allowing library eBook lending and that it should negate some really shitty actions and attitudes is absolute insanity. If you went to friend looking for relationship advice and their first response was that you should consider yourself lucky that someone is willing to date you, you’d kick that friend’s ass. It’s a worse argument than saying that libraries should provide to every member’s needs, costs and contracts be damned. And that’s saying a lot.

I do have to admit that I liked the ALA response if nothing more than setting the tone for future action. Pull quote:

After these tentative steps forward, we were stunned to learn that Hachette plans to more than double triple its prices starting October 1. Now we must ask, “With friends like these …’

“We are weary of faltering half steps and even more so of publishers that refuse to sell ebook titles to libraries at all. Today I have asked the ALA’s Digital Content and Libraries Working Group to develop more aggressive strategies and approaches for the nation’s library community to meet these challenges.

I’ll be interested to see what sort of follow-up comes out of it, but I am left hopeful. For a refresher of the previous ALA/Hachette meeting, here’s the ALA statement about meeting with Hachette back in May of this year:

We had a very promising meeting at Hachette. As you may know, Hachette discontinued offering their new ebook titles to libraries as of April 2010, though Hachette continues to sell its backlist (i.e., titles with publication dates prior to April 2010). Going in to this meeting, we were hoping to establish a relationship with Hachette and to persuade them to give serious consideration to providing libraries with access to its newer titles.

It quickly became obvious that Hachette Book Group executives and digital strategists have spent considerable time thinking about the library ebook market. Hachette sees libraries as strong partners because of our benefits as direct customers and marketers of their titles, and they recognize libraries’ place as an integral institution in communities that must be supported.

More specifically, we were pleased to learn that starting this spring, Hachette is conducting a pilot with two ebook distributors for libraries, which will bring a selection of HBG’s recent bestselling ebooks to 7 million library patrons. These pilot programs will help HBG learn more about library patrons’ interests, usage, and expectations, and help the publisher devise the best strategy to reach the widest audience of ebook readers in libraries.

My, how times flies.

The esteemed eBook guru and Douglas County, CO director Jamie Larue has the best take on the price increase I’ve seen so far. Money quote:

“When publishers shoot themselves in the foot, why do they keep looking for a bigger gun? Here’s the deal: the job of the library is to gather, organize, and make publicly available the intellectual content of our culture. By pricing themselves exorbitantly, a publisher will lose library sales, and lose the exposure their authors might otherwise have experienced. Nobody wins, everybody loses.”

He makes the same basic case that has been made before with the Random House 300% price increase and the HarperCollins limited checkout. Libraries are deep into the reader market. If it doesn’t reach our shelves (real or virtual), it won’t be something that can be passed onto the market share that comes to our locations. Libraries will still support authors and readers, but that support will be found elsewhere with the materials that can be reasonably purchased.

Game, set, match.

Jamie is a hard act to follow, so I won’t go on and repeat the same arguments for affordable eBook pricing and liberal eBook lending policies. I will add something else to the mix that I noticed.

I have yet to see anyone write or report about it, but the date that Hachette stopped selling eBooks to libraries (April 2010) really stuck out in my head. Then I found an article that made the connection:

On September 6, U.S. District Judge Denise Cote approved a $69 million settlement to be awarded to consumers who purchased agency-priced ebooks between April 2010 and May 2012, as part of a state antitrust suit filed against HarperCollins, Hachette SA, and Simon & Schuster. [Emphasis mine]

There couldn’t possibly be a coincidence between the date they stopped library eBook sales and the adoption of agency-model pricing, right? In taking away the library eBook option away from the consumer, they would have no other choice but to purchase the artificially inflated agency priced eBook. Considering how publishers get a higher royalty per eBook while authors lose out, it makes sense that the better royalty (eBook) be subject to more controls in regard to distribution and pricing. This could also explain why Hachette insists that authors who publish the same title in different markets with Tor Books (a ‘no DRM’ publisher) to have DRM reinstated on their Tor books. Finally, this library eBook price increase nicely dovetails with the multi-million dollar settlement they just signed. “With friends like these…”, indeed.

If this is how they plan on nurturing and growing the eBook market, then we (libraries, consumers, readers) are in for a bumpy and vastly uncomfortable ride. And if your library isn’t looking for alternatives to this arrangement, now is the time to do so.

Libraries and eBook Publishers: Friend Zone Level 300

In returning from vacation last week, today’s social media catch featured a wonderful juxtaposition of library eBook oriented links: the ALA’s Digital Content & Libraries Working Group report, “EBook Business Models for Public Libraries”, along with Library Journal’s Francine Fialkoff’s editorial “Too Many Ebook Cooks: Ineffectual Committees Aren’t Fast Enough To Ensure Robust Access”. The report is an all too brief recounting of the current state of library eBook affairs, a showcase of current models as well as a handful of points to help ‘make our case’ to encourage publishers to allow library eBook lending. I can only presume there is a larger report to follow, but I’m not sure how one will be able to stretch the benefit of “Readers Advisory” into longer than three sentences. Francine’s lament editorial calls upon the ALA to stop forming committees, workgroups, taskforces, interest groups, battalions, and pep squads to talk about the eBook situation and, well, do something. Despite the fact that there will be no “one size fits all” eBook solution, she points to two gentlemen (Jamie LaRue and Patrick Losinski) who are doing something about the eBook issue in their respective communities (the former pioneered a library eBook ownership and lending model, the latter formed an ebook advocacy organization which I guess doesn’t count against Francine’s original ‘too many groups’ complaint.)

These two articles provide an excellent bookend to a brilliant blog post I read before I went on vacation, Sarah Houghton’s “I’m breaking up with eBooks (and you can too)” (Take a look at the link itself, folks!) Sarah’s post about eBooks paints them as a crappy boyfriend, but I think the relationship is more akin to being put into the friendzone, an term that could be broadly defined by one party looking for more in a relationship while the other is unwilling to consider a change in the status quo.

Consider the situation: unless the publishing industry has been living under a rock, it knows that public libraries have a keen interest in lending eBooks. Publishers certainly like libraries (and have sent out the rosy platitude laden press releases to prove their fond rapport) but balk at allowing them to lend eBooks. “Sorry, libraries,” they are saying, “We like you very much, but not in that way.” On top of that, libraries get to listen to publishers complain bitterly about their relationship with the retail giant Amazon about how they are getting a ‘bad deal’ in the eBook arena. Really?

Personally, my sympathy train doesn’t stop at the station anymore for the love-hate-love-hate-hate publisher-Amazon relationship dynamic. It’s a liaison that is so awful and so terrible that publishers were forced into collusion with each other and another eBook retailer (*coughApplecough*) in order to save their archaic business way of life. It must have been agonizing to conspire to artificially inflate eBook prices while cashing Amazon’s checks for their part of the sale in a market that has seen record sales increases over the past few years.

I’ve grown tired of the oft expressed line when it comes to the Big Six publishers and eBooks: “We just need to talk to them.” Uh huh. I guess sending a top ranked ALA delegation to meet with them in New York City, having a major library trade publication provide actual research into member borrowing/buying patterns, and countless news articles, blog posts, and social media utterances just hasn’t reach them yet. Like some wide eyed naïve Jerry Springer guest, librarians feel that publishers will change if only they could only listen to our hearts, hear the purity of our cause in the name of literacy, and let the love overcome their fears. Yeah right.

For the record, I will fess up to being one of these If-they-only-knew-us-they-would-love-us types desperate to make that connection, that breakthrough in which publishers suddenly see the light and start allowing reasonable library eBook lending. Thankfully, this is has given way to cynicism, bitterness, and that crazy little notion known as ‘reality’. I’m sure those big publishers hear us for vast and many reasons and rationales, they just simply don’t care or don’t want to change the relationship. Case closed.

Quite frankly, I’ve heard enough about a demand for leadership to rise up and lead the Pickett-like charge for library eBook lending. I want to see leadership for the “walk the fuck away” camp, an ideology centered around not wasting time, energy, and resources on deals that don’t serve the library as an institution, the community as a dependable and enduring resource, and our stakeholders as a wise investment. There are other publishing entities out there that are worthy of our attention and our budget lines. Let’s find them and build ourselves a better relationship.

It’s time to get out of the eBook friendzone.

The Latest on the DOJ eBook Anti-Trust Suit

Today, the Department of Justice filed a response to the public comments on its settlement with three of the publishers in the case U.S. v Apple Inc., et al (also known as the price collusion case). They also established a webpage that has the response and all eight hundred and sixty comments submitted during the public comment period. I spent a little time today reading some of those comments (ok, skimming the legalese ones since they put handy summaries in the headings and at the end) and checking out the highlights of the government response. It’s a lot to take in, perhaps too much, and it paints radically different pictures of the eBook market future.

If you believe Apple, Barnes & Noble, and the Authors Guild, the lack of agency pricing would give Amazon an absolute and undisputed monopoly over the eBook market. This would be bad for consumers since Amazon has a low anti-competitive pricing structure and would be the source of eBooks for the market (attached to a proprietary platform but I didn’t see anyone make this particular point). It also imperils brick-and-mortar booksellers who could not compete with the loss-leader practices of Amazon, thus forcing them out of business and making the book playing field even smaller. Sure, the consumer would pay less now for eBooks, but there is less competitors to choose from.

(I thought it was strange, but I didn’t see anyone threaten to not sell their books through Amazon. If you really think it’s that unfair or unreasonable, find other ways to sell your books. I know this sounds a bit naïve, but these publishers have to be addicted to the ease at which Amazon moves their product and the money it generates despite all of these horrible conditions they proclaim.)

If you believe the government, Consumer Federation of America, Stephen Windwalker of the Kindle Nation Daily, and David Gaughran and the gaggle of writers who cosigned his letter, the agency pricing arrangement does immediate harm to the consumer by raising prices on eBooks. While it fends off the Amazon monopoly by preventing them from lowering prices as a loss leader for the rest of their business, this is not in the best interest of the consumer, but the retailers and publishers. It defies some of the basic concepts of a free market (that the market will determine the value of a product, for one) and hinders innovation by keeping old business practices and models on life support through artificial pricing schemes. The competition to construct and sell a better widget does not happen when the current widget is propped up as the ‘best standard’ for the field. In a sense, the consumers are harmed twice: first by the price raise, second by the lack of motivation to innovate.

This whole mess goes before a federal judge who is free to accept or reject this settlement; even then, there is the trial to follow for the non-settling parties. I’m going to be cheering for The Man on this one; while the eBook market may be nascent, it’s not right to stifle its direction or growth in order to preserve a status quo that trades normal market inequalities for artificial ones. It’s going to be a long bumpy road on this one, though by the time it ends, the findings might be moot in the face a completely different market landscape. This case is one to follow, but it’s in the long run.