Scraping the Bottom of the Librarian eBook Patience Barrel


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.

18 thoughts on “Scraping the Bottom of the Librarian eBook Patience Barrel

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  4. Well done! This is the best, most incisive post I’ve seen about all this to date. I would only add this: hey, let’s ask the AUTHORS what they want. The library’s job is NOT to assure publishers and distributors that they shall endure no matter how heavy-handed their actions. The two entities that matter: writer, reader. Our job is to connect them. Here’s a question: are today’s epublishers making that easier, or harder? My radical proposal: let’s do more business with the former, and less with the latter.

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  9. I agree completely with Jamie LaRue’s assessment of this post and his additional suggestion. I urge ALA to now make their impatience known in very direct and blunt ways and campaigning with all variety of authors and publishers that support/don’t need to have “libraries” defined for them sounds like a good start. Make this into a real and HOT issue for Americans true to the still-honored value libraries hold for Americans. And frame this issue in the clearest and most supportive terms for American libraries who struggle individually or in small consortia – trying one way or another to resist such dismissive and punitive publishers’ terms and at the same time provide quality access to our patrons.

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  13. I went to my state library association’s chapter meeting a couple of weeks ago, and there were quite a few librarians there who work in Title 1 schools. They related how most of the kids there had smart phones, even if their family was on food stamps, so no–eBooks aren’t just for the rich. Technology and connectivity is so important to people (and to being an active part of our society) that people make sure they have access, no matter what.

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