Random House Not So Random with Library Ebook Price Increases


First, let’s recap a few things.

Ebook library lending on the rise? Check.

Budgeting for eBooks predicted to rise over the next couple of years? Check. (Don’t confuse this rise with getting more money to spend; it means just a larger part of the current materials budget pie.)

Publishers full of insecurities when it comes to library eBook lending as a revenue channel? Check.

Random House still the only publisher that allows for unrestricted library lending? Check. Same company that saw sales for eBooks tripling over the course of a year? Check.

I’d say I was surprised by the steep nature of the Random House library eBook price increase, but I’m not. If they weren’t going the way of HarperCollins with the limited checkout model (which was a public relations stinker), then the only other thing they can do is increase the price. I would hope that for triple the price they’d at least throw in something (like being able to own the damn things), but alas it is still the same deal.

The best term I can think to describe the library side of the equation here is a poker term called “pot locked”. Simply put, it means that you’ve bet enough money that folding your hand is not an option; you’ve invested your future into the cards you have. For all the energy and efforts that have gone into getting library eBook lending in the first place, the library can’t simply back out after mustering up patron expectations and marketing the eBook lending service. As librarians will generally choose to provide content versus not providing it (terms and conditions be damned), those eBook budgets will still be spent to the last dollar. Granted, there will be less eBooks available to our communities but the content will still be there as we promised and swore that we would get for the people who support us.

Well played, Random House. Well played.

I’m guessing that if there was any group that should be pissed off by this price increase, it should be the midlist and emerging authors. Pricing like this means putting a priority on titles that we know will circulate rather than taking chances on midlist or new material that might not see the same use. That’s the consequences of having the same relative budget with a triple price increase; eBook collection development will turn into a very selective practice in which only the content with proven track records will be purchased. Sure, we’ll still buy the hardcover and paperback versions of your book, but at these prices you won’t grace our virtual shelves.

Maybe what is needed here is our own version of the Cost of Knowledge site. Given that the majority of librarians review and promote publisher’s content in our own communities without compensation, perhaps it is time to withhold this valuable word of mouth marketing. If my peers who do this kind of work in their spare time committed to not reviewing books that do not have a library eBook counterpart, I think we could get the movement that we want from the publishers. (I make an exemption for book bloggers who are paid to do it since it is an actual job, but I would hope that they have some discretion with what they review in order to follow suit.) Why should we have a book club discussion about the latest Lisa Scottoline or Stephen King novel when we can’t get it as an eBook title? Our power rests in what we talk about with our communities and what we put on display or use for library programming. It’s time to wield this power for the good of the people who use the library.

If anyone sets this up, let me know so I can proclaim it from the mountaintops. It’s time.

The Concerned Librarian’s Guide to the 2012 ALA Midwinter Exhibit Hall

With a number of issues floating around libraryland at the present moment, there has been talk in some of the my social circles about what to do about them. Specifically, how to approach tackling them as it relates to library vendors who have expressed support for legislation that has the potential to impede or block access to information (directly or as collateral damage). As the ALA Midwinter Meeting is just around the corner, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity for librarians to meet with company representatives to discuss their concerns about current contentious legislation (such as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Research Works Act (RWA)) as well as ongoing concerns (such as library eBook lending). Lest some perseverate or advocate for delaying action, our professional conferences are the best venue to voice our concerns face-to-face for the wide array of actions that have the potential to interfere with information access and exchange. This is not the time to waiver on our values and principles.

Over the last couple of days, I have examined 424* conference exhibitors to determine their support (if any) for either of these pieces of legislation. In addition, I’ve made note of any publishing companies outside of the Big Six that offer eBooks. I believe that eBooks are an essential conversation that librarians should have with smaller publishing operations and to perform inquiries as to what policies they have about library lending (if any) and how the library can work with them so as to include their content in our collections. It is in these introductory conversations that I hope can lead to better and more promising arrangements for our communities and institutions.

* My list was current as of 1/3/12. They have since added 7 vendors to which I have not researched.

The Stop Online Piracy Act

Here are a list of supporters as supplied by Representative Lamar Alexander, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee. (I’ve placed their exhibit booth number next to their names.)

  • Association of American Publishers (more on them later)
  • Cengage Learning [2219]
  • Disney Publishing Worldwide [1423]
  • Elsevier [2229, 2333]
  • Hachette Book Group [1613]
  • HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide [1528, 1529]
  • Hyperion [n/a]
  • MacMillan [1509, 1510, 1511]
  • McGraw-Hill Education (Part of the McGraw-Hill companies) [920]
  • Penguin Group (USA), Inc. [1426]
  • Random House [1728, 1729]
  • Scholastic, Inc. [1327, 1328]
  • The Perseus Book Group [1644]
  • W.W. Norton & Company [1522]

Within the member’s list of the Association of American Publishers (AAP) there are a number of ALA exhibitors. It should also be noted that their Board of Directors has executives from the companies listed above as well as other library vendor companies. Here are AAP members who will be exhibitors:

  • Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), Inc. [2533]
  • AIP/Publishing [735]
  • American Psychological Association [2245]
  • Cambridge University Press [1251]
  • Columbia University Press [2456]
  • Galaxy Press [1454]
  • Grove/Atlantic, Inc. [1544, 1545]
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt [1628]
  • Ingram Content Group, Ingram Coutts [829]
  • John Wiley & Sons [1129]
  • Library of Congress [1829]
  • Morgan & Claypool Publishers [704]
  • Oxford University Press [1205]
  • Simon & Schuster, Inc. [1605]
  • Star Bright Books [1638]
  • Sterling Publishing Company [1417]
  • University of California Press – Journals [2451]
  • Wolters Kluwer Health/Ovid [1744]
  • Workman Publishing [1339]

NOTE: It should be stressed that association membership does not necessarily confer support for everything the association does. Of all people, ALA members should be able to able to understand that fine distinction. This doesn’t mean that you cannot approach these vendors about the actions being taken by their professional association.

Here are some other exhibitors worth mentioning but need a little explanation.

  • Abington Press (a member of the Church Music Publisher’s Association, which is a SOPA supporter) [1458]
  • Alexander Street Press (partners with companies that are AAP members) [2016]
  • JSTOR & Portico (part of ITHAKA which is an AAP member) [2405]
  • LexisNexis & LexisNexis Academic & Library Solutions (parent company is Elsevier) [2329]
  • Listening Library (parent company is Random House) [1728]
  • Nature Publishing Group (a division of MacMillan) [2010]
  • Palgrave MacMillan (part of the MacMillan group) [1305]
  • RAND State Statistics (parent company RAND is an AAP member) [742]
  • S&P Capital IQ (a subsidiary of McGraw-Hill) [924]
  • Wall Street Journal (owned by NewsCorp, a SOPA supporter) [2512]
  • Tor-Forge Books (part of the MacMillan group) [1505]
  • University of Tennessee School of Information Science (their university press is part of the AAP) [721]

Furthermore, after seeing the list of the AAP Board of Directors, I did some deeper examinations into a few library organizations and companies. Again, I will absolutely stress that any connections do not equate to support for actions associated with the organizations nor does it mean that individuals will be able to influence policy. I am simply relating what I found because I find connections (even casual ones) interesting.

  • ALA Treasurer James Neal is Vice President for Information Services & University Librarian for Columbia University. Columbia University Press is an AAP member.
  • OCLC President & CEO Jay Jordan serves on the Governing Board of Publishing for the American Chemical Society, an AAP member which also has representation on their board of directors. He also serves on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science (SILS) Board of Visitors; University of North Carolina Press is an AAP member. Also from OCLC, Vice President Lorcan Dempsey serves as a member of the Cambridge University Library Visiting Committee; Cambridge University Press is an AAP member. Edward Barry, Vice Chair of OCLC’s Board of Trustees, is a President Emeritus of Oxford University Press which is (as you guessed it) an AAP member.

In approaching vendors to talk about this issue, I’d suggest doing some research and coming up with some talking points and questions you want to ask. Jessamyn West has a great post about SOPA and libraries which includes links to other resources. Plagiarism Today has a wonderful blog post about avoiding the SOPA hype (both for and against) which is worth reading as well. On the more technical and legal side, the Stanford Law Review covers the nuts and bolts of what the bill would do. Eric Hellman talks about what it can mean for foreign libraries. Finally, Wikipedia General Counsel Geoff Brigham offers an excellent analysis of what the bill would do to the internet and to Wikipedia.

EDIT: Springer [2039] is actually Springer Science + Business Media, not Springer Publishing. They are supporters of Open Access. Thanks to Heather from Springer SBM for pointing out that out! I won’t have a chance to update the map, so be nice!


While this legislation is not as broad as SOPA, it does create ripples of effect in the academic/scholarly publishing world. SPARC sums it up:

Essentially, the bill seeks to prohibit federal agencies from conditioning their grants to require that articles reporting on publicly funded research be made accessible to the public online.

Or, as better and more specifically explained by Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing:

That bill would prohibit all federal agencies from putting any privately published articles into an online database, even — and this is the kicker — those articles based on research funded by the public if they have received “any value-added contribution, including peer review or editing” from a private publisher. This is a direct attack on the National Institutes of Health’s PubMed Central, the massive free online repository of articles resulting from research funded with NIH dollars.

[…] NIH’s public-access policy, which requires authors who receive any NIH funding to contribute their work to PubMed Central within 12 months of publication.

The nexus of the uproar originates from a press release from the American Association of Publishers endorsing the bill. Basically, it creates a situation where the public would be required to purchase access to research projects and papers that are the result of publically funded grants and programs. (Or, as one title of a blog post on the topic put it, “You buy the cow, then I’ll sell you the milk.”)

Dorothea Salo went through the AAP member list and I matched it to the ALA vendor list to come up with a list of exhibitors who will financially benefit or otherwise be effected or influenced by the Research Works Act. Her criteria is as follows:

  • Remove book publishers unless they have an obvious journal arm
    (for example, Macmillan owns Nature Publishing Group.);
  • Keep scholarly societies;
  • Keep university presses unless they’re Rockefeller University Press;
  • Remove most service bureaux and other metavendors (I did leave one
    or two on; judgment call)

Here is the resulting list of ALA exhibitor vendors along with their space numbers:

  • American Psychological Association [2245]
  • Association for Computing Machinery [2533]
  • Cambridge University Press [1251]
  • Columbia University Press [2456]
  • Elsevier & LexisNexis [2229, 2333] [2329]
  • John Wiley & Sons, Inc. [1129]
  • Macmillan & Macmillan Magazines and Journals [1509, 1510, 1511]
  • Oxford University Press [1205]
  • RAND Corporation [742]
  • University of California Press [2451]
  • Wolters Kluwer [1744]

Like SOPA, I would suggest formulating some talking points and questions before you approach any vendors that provide journal publishing and/or access. John Dupuis has an extremely thorough collection of RWA related posts that provide many different angles and opinions on the issue. There’s also a great New York Times OpEd piece that nails the issues and the concerns. These are good starting points into the creation of talking points.

While you’re at it, you might want to make yourself familiar with the Open access movement in publishing. Peter Suber offers a large and comprehensive overview of Open Access which can answer a lot of questions (and possibly raise a few others). Take the time to read it over and ask vendors about how they feel about it.

I felt that it is important to include a list of AAP members who will not be exhibiting at ALA Midwinter, but still stand to benefit from the RWA legislation. For those of you who are not going to the conference, consider contacting any of these vendors that you deal with in the course of your work for their stance on RWA.

  • American Academy of Pediatrics
  • American Anthropological Association
  • American Association for Cancer Research
  • American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • American Chemical Society
  • American Dental Association Publishing
  • American Discovery Publishing
  • American Foundation for the Blind
  • American Geophysical Union
  • American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics
  • American Institute of Physics
  • American Mathematical Society
  • American Medical Association
  • American Nurses Association
  • American Physiological Society
  • American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.
  • American Scholars Press
  • American Society of Clinical Oncology
  • ASIS International
  • Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology
  • Fordham University Press
  • Gallaudet University Press
  • Georgetown University Press
  • Harvard Business Review Group
  • Harvard University Press
  • HighWire Press- Stanford University
  • Human Factors and Ergonomics Society
  • Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers, Inc.
  • International Association for the Study of Pain
  • Johns Hopkins University Press
  • Journal of Rehabilitation Research & Development
  • Modern Language Association of America
  • New England Journal of Medicine
  • New York Botanical Gardens Press
  • NYU Press
  • Oncology Nursing Society
  • Optical Society of America
  • Pearson Education
  • Peterson Institute for International Economics
  • Princeton University Press
  • SAGE Publications
  • Silverchair Science & Communications
  • Society for Applied Spectroscopy
  • Stanford University Press
  • Thieme Medical Publisher
  • University of Chicago Press
  • University of Hawaii Press
  • University of Illinois Press
  • University of North Carolina Press
  • University of Tennessee Press
  • University of Texas Press
  • The Wildlife Society
  • The Woodrow Wilson Center Press
  • Yale University Press

Honorable mention goes to MIT Press which has come out against RWA in an email from their director Ellen Faran:

“The AAP’s press release on the Research Works Act does not reflect the position of the MIT Press; nor, I imagine, the position of many other scholarly presses whose mission is centrally focused on broad dissemination. We will not, however, withdraw from the AAP on this issue as we value the Association’s work overall and the opportunity to participate as a member of the larger and diverse publishing community.”

Another honorable mention goes to BioMed Central [1860] and their embrace of Open Access policies.

EDIT: As people in the comments have pointed out, “National Academies Press has since 1994 made all their works available for free online, and as of June 2011 now offer all their PDFs as free downloads:http://www8.nationalacademies.org/onpine/newsitem.aspx?RecordID=06022011“. They are still AAP members, but they deserve an honorable mention as well. Sorry for the mixup, but thanks for the clarification!

EDIT: JSTOR & Portico [2405] disavows the RWA, but will continue to stay with the AAP. Same for Pennsylvania State University Press.

EDIT: Springer [2039] is actually Springer Science + Business Media, not Springer Publishing. They are supporters of Open Access. Thanks to Heather from Springer SBM for pointing out that out! I won’t have a chance to update the map, so be nice!

[Once again, many heartfelt thanks to Dorothea for her invaluable help for this section. I literally could not have done it without her. -A]


When I was examining all the exhibitors, I made a note of publishers that offer eBooks. I would encourage my fellow librarians to stop and have a chat with the people at these companies to see what their policies are, what their plans are (if any) for library lending, and how we can help them make their books available to the public while assuaging their concerns.

Here’s a list of the non-AAP member non-Big Six Publishers vendors who offer eBooks in one form or another:

  • 3M Library Systems [2239]
  • Abrams Books [1604]
  • Alibris [825]
  • Allen Press, Inc. [2453]
  • AltaMira Press [913]
  • Ambassador Books and Media [1944]
  • America Speaks Spanish [1717]
  • Bearport Publishing Co. [1710]
  • Bloomsbury / Walker Books for Young Readers [1506]
  • Bloomsbury Academic [1501]
  • Casemate Publishers [2509]
  • Chafie Press [1456]
  • De Gruyter [1720]
  • DK Publishing Inc. [1432]
  • Dorrance Publishing Company [1824]
  • EBL-Ebook Library [1851]
  • ebrary / EBSCO Information Services [2207]
  • Eerdmans Books for Young Readers [1413]
  • Egmont USA [1633]
  • Emery-Pratt Company [1404]
  • Facet Publishing [1905]
  • Gareth Stevens Publishing [2421]
  • Greenwood [931]
  • Groundwoods Books [1544, 1545]
  • IGI Global [939]
  • Infobase Learning [2022]
  • James Lorimer & Company, Inc. [1556]
  • Lerner Publishing Group [1832]
  • Lexington Books [913]
  • Mackin Education Resources [2409]
  • Marshall Cavendish Corp [1828]
  • Midlandia Press [1557]
  • OECD [822]
  • Omnigraphics, Inc. [1824]
  • Orca Book Publishers [1712]
  • Peachtree Publishers [1704]
  • Pickering & Chatto Publishers [1261]
  • Rosen Publishing Group [2305]
  • Rowan & Littlefield Publishers [913]
  • Scarecrow Press [913]
  • Swets [1105]
  • Taylor & Francis Group [1245]
  • Transaction Publishers [2455]
  • University Press of America [913]
  • World Almanac [2022]
  • Zondervan/Zonderkidz [1535]

I don’t have a listing of Overdrive’s partners or if they work with other library or library consortiums, so some of these publishers might already be working with public libraries. If so, offer them thanks on behalf of the profession for working with us to bring their content to our members.

And just in case you forgot, here’s a listing of the Big Six Publishers and their respective library eBook lending policies.

  • Hachette – This company formerly allowed library eBook lending, but stopped in 2009. (Source) It claims to be reconsidering that decision. (Source)  [1613]
  • HarperCollins – Library eBooks licenses purchased are limited to 26 checkouts before they have to be repurchased. (Source) [1528, 1529]
  • MacMillan – This company does not allow its eBooks to be lent by libraries. (Source) [1509, 1510, 1511]
  • Penguin – A few months back, they pulled of their library eBooks. While they have restored older titles, at present they do not make new titles available for library eBook lending. (Source) [1426, 1429]
  • Random House – This company allows library lending of its eBooks, but has stated that it is currently evaluating that policy. (Source) [1728, 1729] (I’d give these people our thanks for their cooperation in working with us on eBooks. They deserve it. –A)
  • Simon & Schuster – This company does not allow its eBooks to be lent by libraries. (Source) [1605]

You may want to pay these publishers a visit as well to express your concerns about their library eBook lending practices (and, for Random House, our appreciation of their partnership).

You and Your Trip to the Exhibit Hall

In order to make best use of your time at ALA MW and not have to go completely blind trying to mark down exhibitor numbers on your exhibit hall map, I’ve taken the liberty of creating a color coded map for ease of use. It is sized for 8”x11” landscape printing, but you can print it out in any size you need.MW12_concerned_librarian

Click to embiggen.

You can also download a copy of this picture from my Flickr account.

In Closing

Lest people forget, we are customers to these companies. As a target consumer demographic, we do have certain economic based powers within the relationship. Personally, I’m all in favor of diplomacy in opening communications and conversations with the people who provide the content for the communities we serve. But there is and should be limits to the terms and conditions under which we will purchase or license their content for our members. Without vendors to provide content, we are limited in our offerings; but without communities to support us and trust in our business practices, we are nothing. We cannot abdicate our fiduciary responsibilities to make the best use of the resources our communities give us to spend or use on their behalf in the name of providing them with the best, latest, or greatest when the requirements for such content are unreasonable, unfair, or unsustainable.

If you use this post as a guide, good luck, good judgment, and remember to be a good ambassador for the profession and your community.

Now, go kick some ass.


Here’s a district dispatch from the ALA Washington Office. Also, here’s a release from the Special Libraries Association (SLA). The Council on Library Information Resources just realized that they are AAP members, much to their own chagrin.

Eagle eyed Iris Jastram noticed that AAP changed their press release supporting RWA by removing a portion from a  paragraph without any editing indication. The passage removed read:

“Additionally, it would preempt federal agencies’ planned funding, development and back-office administration of their own electronic repositories for such works, which would duplicate existing copyright-protected systems and unfairly compete with established university, society and commercial publishers.”



They also added a link entitled Why AAP Supports the Research Works Act that goes into greater detail as to the reasons to support the bill. Or, rather, all of the myths (their term) around it.

Credit where credit is due:

  • Dorothea Salo for her help with the Research Works Act section.
  • The members of the Library Society of the World and their vigilance, encouragement, and help sharing and tracking down links and stories for this blog post. Their help is sprinkled throughout this blog post and would not be as robust as it is without their assistance. Many thanks for all their hard work to help this blog post come into being and the team spirit throughout.

As with all complicated systems, blog posts of this length and size are no different. If I made a mistake, missed something, or am wrong, please let me know so I can remedy it. Thanks. -A

Change log:

EDIT: Moved National Academy Press to the honorable mention section of the RWA portion as per feedback from comments. Thanks Monica and Barbara!

EDIT: Removed Springer from the SOPA list since it’s Springer Science + Business Media and not Springer Publishing (the actual SOPA signer). Adjust your maps and lists accordingly. Thanks Heather!

EDIT: Changed JSTOR and Penn State in the RWA section to reflect their stances. Many thanks to Catherine Pellegrino for tracking these announcements!

EDIT: Added Aftermath section with various reactions from library entities as well as AAP changing their press release.

All Carrot, No Stick, Ctd.

In response to my previous post, I was asked as to what kind of consequences could be meted out for publishers that don’t respond to librarian demands or wishes regarding eBooks. While I don’t believe that stopping book purchases is a viable option, there are other ways to express our discontent.

One possible action is to decline their money and materials for author promotion, book publicity, and award and event sponsorship. The first two items address something vital to the reading and sale of books and that is material visibility. There’s no good reason to promote an author or a book when the publisher treats libraries with contempt when it comes to the eBook version of their work.[1] Return or refuse their promotional goods along with a note about the bad deal libraries are getting when it comes to eBook content.

The second set of items are generally on the state and national level. Companies that won’t allow library eBook lending or provide for onerous restrictions should not be permitted to sponsor library or librarian events and awards. If they aren’t working with libraries to provide the next generation of eContent, then we shouldn’t take their money so they can smear it all over event or award publicity and public relation materials. As they are not acting with our interests in mind or towards viable compromises, then they should be denied involvement in our gatherings and professional recognition.

In the same vein, another possible action would be to refuse them as a vendor or exhibitor at a conference. Given the public relations power of being able to present and sell to attendees (upwards of over twenty thousand librarians at ALA Annual), I feel this is a potent consequence.[2] Let Simon & Schuster and MacMillan (aka the two publishers that do not allow for library eBook lending) sit out in the cold while the other Big Four publishers get the conference attendees to themselves. Deny them the conference visibility, the chance to hand out advanced reading copies or other promotional materials, a booth to showcase their current and future releases, and a place for their reps to meet with their clients. Why should those publishers be allowed to sell their wares when part of their business approach marks libraries as eBook content villains? It’s not in our best interests (now or in the future) to allow for such philosophies to remain unchallenged and consequence free.

Finally, I would suggest a consequence of discontinuing unpaid reviews of new books from uncooperative publishers and refusing advanced reading copies. I make the distinction of unpaid reviews because I believe that publishers take advantage of the uncompensated book review arena in order to promote their materials. As busy librarians rely on reviewers for future collection suggestions, this is a potent consequence that librarians can perform as it denies them the word of mouth marketing tool to sell their content. Why should librarians take their own time to review books that will not be licensed on an eBook platform or done so under conditions not conducive to our collection principles? It is truly unwise to continue this kind of pro bono support to these companies when they refuse to consider our needs and position.

I’ll be the first to admit that none of these consequences is perfect. But I feel a failure to mete out any kind of consequence would be far worse and leave libraries in an increasingly vulnerable position in regards to the future availability and access of eBook content. A consensus must come together or librarians will be subject to the whims of publishers when it comes to eBook content.

Now is the time to create and implement consequences.


[1] Some might think that this is unfair to the author and that we would be punishing them for the actions of their publisher. I would argue that the author is also in a position to pressure the publisher to come to better terms with libraries so that their works can flourish.

[2] I know that there is revenue lost in not allowing bigger companies to have vendor space at conferences. I believe this is a case of sticking with our principles over the chance to make a buck for the library organizations.

All Carrot, No Stick

Fundamentally, I think the phrase I used in the title represents the best example for the biggest issue when it comes to a eBook dialogue between publishers and public libraries. Simply put, there are no consequences to a publisher for not responding to our demands or wishes. For all the fuss and muster that goes into reasons why a publisher should allow libraries to lend their books, there are no clearly articulated punishments for non-compliance.

It’s not a logical leap to figure out why there aren’t any. While I’m sure I could get a room full of librarians to agree on the positive reasons publishers should deal with us, any discussion as what consequences to mete out if they don’t would be a complete non-starter (except for a strongly worded statement that re-issues the positive reasons and demands reconsideration on the basis of those reasons). To me it seems like librarians just generally wimp out when it comes to issues on this scale, opting to threaten to become “No more Mrs. Pleasant-to-Be-Around Gal”.

I would surmise that the only real stick that public libraries have going for them is that no one wants to been seen as beating up or picking on them. It’s this kind of shame that possibly prevented Amazon from going after libraries that lent out Kindles. Otherwise, without some sort of coordination or collective action, libraries do not have a stick to use to punish publishers for non-compliance. With the stakes that are involved in being part of eBooks, there is no better time than now to create consequences.

The carrot is simply not enough.

The Ever Increasing Disappointment with eBooks

I’ve been wrestling with what to write about eBooks on the basis of the latest library eBook fiasco with Penguin Publishing. The more I think about it, the larger the enormity and complexity of the eBook issue grows. The word that keeps resonating in my head is ‘disappointment’, but possibly not for the reasons you might think.

When it comes to eBooks and publishers, I have to be quite frank: I really don’t give a shit whether they lend eBooks to libraries or not. I will come out and say that I prefer that they wouldn’t allow for library eBook lending simply because it will spare the profession the aches and pains of buying, pardon me, licensing content under terms that provide a very limited benefit to the library or the community served. I get it that licensing is the only way publishers feel comfortable with the arrangement since it ensures ultimate control over content. With an industry that is in flux, publishers want to protect their revenue streams and that the current leading strategy is to building a fortress around intellectual property. Even then, that’s not what bothers me about publishers and eBooks.

What irks me is when publishers continue to use language in their publicity and marketing about how they “value” or even “love” libraries. If this is how they treat an institution that they profess to value or love, then I think they need to check their working definitions of those terms. The love here sounds like the tactics of an unstable ex-flame who wants to get us into bed but won’t respect us in the morning. I can’t say that I speak for the majority of librarians, but I’m willing to guess that they don’t feel like a partner in this eBook issue nor do they feel valued or loved by the publishing companies. At best, this arrangement could be called shabby treatment; at worst it is marketing lip service to cover the veneer of contempt for librarian values that utilize the First Sale Doctrine and believe in the sharing version of the common good. I would call upon publishing companies to stop with these platitudes and start putting actions and policies that support these statement of support for the library as an institution.

As disappointed as I am with publishing companies, I have my own disappointment with my peers. We can’t be churning up a shitstorm every time a company makes a change when it comes to eBooks. We ceded that control when we signed on the line for the Overdrive contracts. Nor can we act surprised when a company makes a change after all of the articles and blog posts that tell us that the publishing industry is changing and shrinking in the last few years. They are trying to save themselves, so don’t act surprised when they do something dramatic.

It’s not like we can actually do anything about these policy changes or stances, either. Not because the publishing companies will resist our efforts, but that our own internal professional dysfunction will ensure that any action is mired with doubt and confusion. Suggest a boycott? Bring on the parade of people proclaiming how much it will hurt our communities. This swallow-our-pain-for-the-happiness-of-our-family bunch will bog down any boycott debates with references to the apparently inflexible librarian values such as access and availability (even if it means giving away our future). Those not on the parade will state how ineffective or misdirected a boycott is, as if the idea of showing power through economic embargoes is only for third world countries with crappy dictators. Start a petition? The ineffective/misdirected argument returns with a new spin as to not reaching the right people. In addition, the “I have trouble with the wording” people will arise from their linguistic crypts to suggest how the petition could be better (translation: for them to sign it) if there were a few major minor changes made.

Create a committee, task force, or delegation? We all know that the trouble with groups is that they are full of people and for librarians there will be grand discussions as to who should be on them with proper representation of every library type, variety, and size under the sun. Enter the pundits and blogosphere to provide the commentary as to this process, its results, and its goals. Nothing appears to get done but resume building, organization clout creation, and a reason to write a book on the topic. Walk away completely? Sure, it’s a bad deal but that’s nothing compared to the “bad librarian” guilt that is created whenever a item or service isn’t offered. We want Mrs. Smith to be able to download a book onto their Kindle (a transitional technology platform, by the way) even if it at the potential cost and risk of the library as an institution. Because our instant gratification culture has taught us that the important point in time is now, not ten or twenty years from now when licensing practices will have eroded away our ideals of culture cultivation and preservation. No, we’ll sail for the center of this storm, even if it costs us the ship.

I could go on, but I’m starting to take morbid delight in detailing these things.

In looking ahead, there has to be a number of get-your-shit-together moments. From publishers, it will have to be over how much risk they can accept when it comes to their digital properties. Until then, we will be at the mercy of their whims. For librarians, it will be about the actual cost of access and availability of eBooks. We can’t trade our dollars and principles for materials that do not match our institutional values. There will be some more dustups, more drama, and more blowups between publishers and librarians. I know we’ll get through it, but I’m not optimistic about how that might look in five or ten years from now. In the meantime, I just ready myself to be disappointed. 

Amazon, Overdrive, and Other Reasons to Be Pissed

Amazon and Overdrive are back in the online librarian conversation (again), this time lead off by a video rant by Sarah Houghton along with posts by David Lee King and the Annoyed Librarian. (There was a post by Bobbi Newman on the topic about a month ago when it first came out as well as my own take.) It’s being described by such terms like screwing, sucking, and other terms to make some conservative filtering software blush.

I still don’t understand the outrage completely. Databases for years have diverted users to outside sites where they would have to purchase the article. Where is the outrage for that practice? How is a book talk or a book club or even a story time not a basic endorsement for a particular book? Or an author talk where we invite authors in and allow them to sell their book on the premises? While I will concede the former does not have an overt endorsement to purchase, it’s still a viable option for the patron and something passively encouraged by the latter. In general, presenters are allowed to pass out advertisements or even sell their wares at programs, even some that we are paying for them to do. While we’d like to pretend it is a neutral arrangement, there is no denying that librarians engage in commercial endorsement even if they don’t mean it.

Why are some arrangements considered to be good and others are considered bad?

While that question simmers in the back of your mind, I think there is a better question to be asking about the Overdrive-Amazon arrangement. According to Sarah’s video, Amazon sends people an email reminder three days before a book is due to be returned and the due date. In order to send this notice, they would need to know what library material the person is borrowing (the Kindle book), that the person is a library patron at a library which has purchased material (authentication through Overdrive), and the due date of the library material in question. To me, this raises a significant question:

Could the information that Amazon possesses about a library patron who borrows books on their Kindle from the library through Overdrive meet the legal definition of a library record?

In New Jersey, Title 18A:73-43 defines and provides for the confidentiality of library records. (Your state may have different definitions and statutes regarding this topic. I’m not a lawyer so treat my interpretations as a layman.)

18A:73-43.1. "Library," "library record" defined 
    For the purposes of this act:
   a.   "Library" means a library maintained by any State or local governmental agency, school, college, or industrial, commercial or other special group, association or agency, whether public or private.
   b.   "Library record" means any document or record, however maintained, the primary purpose of which is to provide for control of the circulation or other public use of library materials.
   L. 1985, c. 172, s. 1, eff. May 31, 1985.

18A:73-43.2. Confidentiality; exceptions 
    Library records which contain the names or other personally identifying details regarding the users of libraries are confidential and shall not be disclosed except in the following circumstances:
   a.   The records are necessary for the proper operation of the library;
   b.   Disclosure is requested by the user; or
   c.   Disclosure is required pursuant to a subpoena issued by a court or court order.
   L. 1985, c. 172, s. 2, eff. May 31, 1985.

(Emphasis mine)

At first glance, I think there is a good argument that the information that Amazon has is in fact a library record and therefore subject to statutory confidentiality requirements (at least within the state of New Jersey). It is a record maintained for the control of circulation of library materials; in this case, the license of an eBook for use on the Kindle. While the counterargument is that invokes the first exception regarding disclosing a record as necessary for the proper operation of the library (that there needs to be authentication that a patron is a member of a library that has purchased eBook licenses for Kindle books from Overdrive), I would answer that the proper operation of a library does not include an overt offer to allow a patron to purchase library materials upon the approach and arrival of their due dates. That the very commercial nature of the solicitation (in the disguise of a library notice, no less) represents a misuse of library records and the personally identifying details contained within. I’m not sure of the extent that this would remedy to current practices, but I’d say it would knock off the “would you like to buy the book?” announcements in short order.

There is a better counterargument is that the eBook license does not allow for the establishment of the material in question to be library material in any form; basically, it is and never will be library material. I’m not familiar with the terms of the eBook licensing to guess at the strength of this argument, only to guess that it exists. If that is the case, then what are libraries buying anyway? This position only reinforces the impermanence of eBooks as part of the collection and further erodes the future collection and cultivation value of eBook materials. And as I have said before, if you really don’t like the deal, don’t buy it. (Kindle books through Overdrive, eBooks in general, or whatever it is that doesn’t look like a good deal.)

Personally, I think this is a question that should be subject to further examination by those law talking folks known as lawyers. Your next move shouldn’t be to call Overdrive or Amazon to express your outrage; it should be to your State Librarian or State Library to have your state Attorney Generals check into the possibility of library records being breached. While we can only warn people about the ramifications of their actions when it comes to privacy and let them make their own choices, we can maintain our end of the bargain when it comes to their library records.

I certainly hope someone looks into this.

Digital Underclass Podcast

Last week, after the Amazon announcements, I spoke with ZDNet Senior Technology Editor (and fellow New Jerseyite) Jason Perlow about ebooks, Amazon, and what’s changed in a year since he wrote his original digital underclass piece. You can hear the resulting podcast here; we hit a range of subjects in and around libraries and ebooks in general (including the HarperCollins limited checkout system). Jason is a fun person to talk with, not simply because he is a library supporter, but also that he understands the technology component and limitations that libraries are dealing with at the moment. Take a listen to the podcast when you get a chance.

As I reflect on the current state of eBooks (on the day of that LJ/SLJ eBook Summit, no less), my current inclination is that libraries are waiting for publishers to get their shit together. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t mean this in a wholly derogatory sense. I mean “get their shit together” in that family vacation sort of sense when the rest of the family has their luggage in the car and are waiting for that last family member to locate and pack their things for the trip. They haven’t completely figured out this eBook thing and they are damn well not ready to go anywhere till they figure it out. The fear of over-packing (or worse, leaving something behind) is effectively leading to decision paralysis; they don’t want to give away too many rights (since those could be potential revenue streams) yet they want to grab an effective market share before their competitors. So, until they figure out what they are taking, we are stuck in the driveway.

Is this an apt metaphor? Or are we waiting for someone else to start this proverbial trip?