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.

10 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Publishers

  1. Nice letter. How does the ebook rental system help the “do we have it” problem if 50 check outs could expire within a week or a month or a year? Wouldn’t it take constant monitoring to ensure holds lists don’t get hung up when a license runs out before demand is met? I suppose an alert system could be put in place, but it could make budgeting rather hectic work to keep up on. It would be nice if rentals were set up to expire after a certain amount of time, at which point the title could be reevaluated within the scope of the collection and entire sections could be reordered at once. But that has its problems too.

    • Because you can buy that limited option in addition to the permanent copy. They are two items.

      For the sake of example (and ease of math), let’s say that a perpetual copy costs $10 and a ‘per circ’ is set at $0.50 per circ. A library could spend $10 to buy the perpetual copy and $10 to buy a 20 circ limited license copy. It’s the equivalent of buying two copies but the limited license one allows the library to knock 20 people off the ebook waiting list right away (or in short order if they want to). They still have the permanent copy that operates on the ‘one patron one circ rule’.

      Does that make it clearer?

  2. Interesting ideas. One of the things that I keep thinking about is that I often check out books and then end up not having time to read them. They end up returned, unread. I would be REALLY guilty if I borrowed an HC ebook, didn’t read it, and wasted a circ. I bet I’m not alone. 26 won’t go very far that way.

    • There are conditions we can’t help or handle. That’s one of them. And, yeah, it puts a krimp on a circ for a patron who will probably want to try to borrow it again.

      Hmm. Do renewals count as a circ? No one has asked that yet.

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