Are Libraries Licensing eBooks That They Should Be Owning?

Apparently, there is a story going around that Random House says libraries own their eBooks. This notion is not new, however, as it apparently came up a few times in recent months as early as March. Library Journal reports:

For those who have been paying close attention, this is not news. It came up at the Massachusetts Library Association conference in May, it was bruited about at the American Library Association (ALA) annual meeting in Anaheim in June, and it was mentioned in a “corner office” interview  I had with Skip Dye, Random House’s vice president of library and academic marketing and sales, during LJ’s virtual ebook summit on Wednesday. But the potential implications of Random House’s stance are not receiving enough attention and consideration.

Sounds straightforward, right? Enter the noggin scratcher:

“This is our business model: we sell copies of our ebooks to an approved list of library wholesalers, and those wholesalers are supposed to resell them to libraries. In our view, this purchase constitutes ownership of the book by the library. It is not a license.”

I would hope that people would be reaching for their eBook vendor contracts now so as to see if they affirm such a belief. Because, if for example some large company that constitutes the majority of the library eBooks market has been buying these eBooks and then in turn licensing them to libraries, this poses a problem. What kind of problem? A Big One.

The hue and the outcry that was the Random House 300% library eBook price increase might have been mitigated by the fact that it is a purchase, not a license. There would be a greater quid pro quo to the transaction; sure, it costs more, but libraries own the file at the end of the day. It turns a bad deal into a, well, mediocre deal.

What it doesn’t resolve is whether this ownership would come with lending restrictions on it as a condition of the sale. If libraries own the actual eBook file, could they offer greater simultaneous lending options? This would be a radical departure from the rest of the Big Six publishing stance on library eBooks. However, I still have some doubts that Random House would be this ‘hands off’ in the retail chain process as such lending practices are perceived as a dire threat to the entire industry.

Back to the middleman question: so what have been library eBook vendors been doing with Random House books? Are they purchasing these Random House eBooks and then in turn licensing to libraries? It’s not a true infraction since people still sign these contracts knowing what they are getting into; it’s an omission of this knowledge that really speaks to the character of the companies.

The most polite term I can think of is “dickish”. I’ll let you be the judge, but now is the time to go read the fine print of eBook contracts.


In Soviet Russia, eBook Reads You

Last week an article in the Wall Street Journal about eBooks tracking the habits and actions of reader got passed around the usual social media outlets. There didn’t seem like there was much of a reaction; I think the article merely reconfirmed a belief that the eReader companies have been amassing data on their users. The article stands out since it mentions some specifics observations that have been found with the data; people read non-fiction in starts and stops, series like The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades are read back-to-back-to-back, and the average reading time it takes people to finish books in the Game of Thrones series. These are insights that the publishing industry has not been able to reliably track (if at all, as the article suggests) and represents a new tool that can analyze a reader base for additional extrapolated information.

However, in this rush to collect data on readers in order to better market or write books for them, there are a couple of things that don’t sit right with me. It leaves me wondering how comparable is the eReader reading experience to the print reading experience. Is picking up a book the same as picking up a Kindle? There doesn’t appear to be any baseline to act as a basis of comparison. The presumption here is that the reading experience is the same between the two mediums when it has yet to be shown. In trying to design a ‘better’ reading experience, they are doing on the data of one medium which may or may not translate to the other.

As eReader use is still in the minority in the United States, what kind of demographics are being measured? It’s grabbing data from the digitally invested even as the book markets still has a strong paper element to it. While it can’t be ignored that a rough usage rate of 1 in 5 people has pushed the eBook market to equal and/or surpass aspects of the print book market, it remains to be seen as to how this aligns with the overall reader population. Are these people a good sample?

In approaching the content side, the article talks about publishers and authors could create books that avoid some of the ‘stopped reading’ pitfalls. This seems like an attempt to thwart Nancy Pearl’s Rule of 50. (Give a book 50 pages. When you get to the bottom of Page 50, ask yourself if you’re really liking the book. If you are, of course, then great, keep on reading. But if you’re not, then put it down and look for another.) I’m wondering why this is a good idea in an activity that is highly subjective and personal. The data might tell you when people stop reading a book, but it doesn’t scratch the surface as to why. Most people might stop reading a book at page 75, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. The defect in the story or the failure to grab the reader attention could have happened on any page prior to it; that’s just when they gave up on it. It’s a data point that lacks the necessary context to make it truly valuable.

I’m a bit concerned as to what the feedback will do to the writing process. If an author is told that a particular passage really resonated with readers, how will that change their ideas and approach to their stories and style? Will it take it in new directions? Will it encourage authors to write towards these safe and favorable areas rather than push the boundaries of their craft? Or could it move the reader and author into greater sync in terms of what people want and what the author can provide?

Finally, my last and greatest concern regards privacy. It runs the gamut from who is being followed and what is being collected to whether it will have a chilling effect on subject/title selection. In New Jersey, library record privacy is regulated by statute.

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.

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.

(Retrieved July 1, 2012. Emphasis mine.)

I’ve wondered if the Overdrive-Amazon connection is in breech of this law. From my understanding, Overdrive has enough access to make certain that a library member is authorized to borrow a book; they get the library card number, our system tells them whether or not it is valid, and then the transaction goes forward. In downloading the book to a Kindle, Amazon takes on the role of the library by maintaining and enforcing the borrowing period. They also have personally identifying data that goes along with the Amazon account. In handing off the transaction from Overdrive to Amazon, how much information is exchanged? Is it just a nod or is there more?

Now, it might be argued that it constitutes a legal disclosure as it relates to the proper operation of the library. If that’s the case, then it becomes a question as to whether this is a good idea or not (or even possibly an ethical one). In any event, it is handing over readers for data mining without getting a share of that information snapshot or proper warnings to the library member as to they could be exposed to. (Yes, I know some libraries have warning screens when shifting from the library website to Amazon. Good on them and I can’t find a good link to it.)  In the rush to get eBooks on our virtuals shelves, we bought licenses which do not convey the benefits of ownership and handed over our library members to third parties who do not wholly share our library values and principles.

What do you think?

Raiders of the Conference ARC


This librarian related story about conferences and ARCs (Advance Reading Copy, for those not familiar) blew up on the blogosphere and Twitter to the point where it got its own hashtag (#ARCgate). You can read the blog post that started it all on Kelly Jensen’s blog, Stacked. It’s good background material for this post so you may want to take a few minutes to go through it. For the lazy or those in a hurry, I’ll sum it up.

Kelly, a librarian and YA book blogger, attended the most recent ALA annual conference last week. She had multiple commitments to various committees that held meetings there in addition to giving a session presentation. After attempting to navigate the exhibit hall crowd on both Friday evening and Saturday, on Sunday she went back to meet with publicists as well as get some ARCs that publishers give away as part of their book promotion strategy. The majority of the books she was interested in were not there after being given away over the last day and a half. She was able to get the publicist to send her copies of the ones she was interested in. Otherwise, she did leave the conference with 23 books (according to her post conference blog entry detailing the books she got at the conference. I’m not sure how many books are being sent to her by publicists as she did not elaborate so I don’t know how many books in total).

We now fast forward one week. After posting said blog entry, Kelly did a Google search for “ala book haul” and found a 22 minute video in which a book blogger shows off approximately 150 ARCs she got from the same conference. (The blogger’s sister appears in the video as well and got the same books, bringing the total number of books procured to roughly 300.) Needless to say, Kelly is understandably not pleased with this discovery.

In writing her post, she is calling for a different system for ARC distribution at ALA. As she is a due paying member, Kelly feels a bit cheated to have given up time and money to do things that run the organization as well as educate her peers and missed multiple chances at talking with publishing industry folks and getting some advanced copies. As a solution, Kelly is calling for exhibits only passes to be allowed only one day admission at the end of the conference. That way, people like herself can get first shot at the books and face time without as much competition.

Ok, that sums it up.

On its face, I totally understand and get the outrage factor. That $25 pass that the book blogger purchased netted her around $2,250 in books. (I’m using a conservative average value of $15 a book; at $20 a book it goes up to $3,000.) Given what both sisters got, that puts their total score in the $4,500 to $6,000 range, a 9000%+ return on their initial investment. Compared to Kelly’s $345-$460 ARC value after spending money on conference registration ($220) and association memberships (my guess is about $290 in total on the basis of her blog post detailing her memberships), there is a dramatically smaller and even negative rate of return. In pure economic terms, it’s a slam dunk case.

Alas, this is not a simply case of economics. It has turned into apparently another row between book bloggers and librarian book bloggers, an ongoing epic struggle of book lovers fighting over their mutual object of affection. In looking at it from a step back, it’s a set of opposing forces competing for the same limited resource, the coveted ARC. Publishers can only bring so many a conference or trade show, therefore competition for them is inevitable.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: go read Kelly’s post. Some see her post as an excellent way to ensure that a professional conference serves its members first on a perk that matters most to them. Others see her post as an expression of whiny entitlement in the same vein that every government worker will eventually hear, “I pay your salary, therefore you must meet all my demands”. I invite you to draw your own conclusions. I’m not inclined to share mine since I’d rather move on and focus on the meat of the matter that interests me the most.

The first question: is this “book haul” behavior typical or a fringe case? This isn’t limited to book bloggers or librarians, but it means everyone who goes: how common is this sort of greedy behavior? If it is a minority whose actions are impacting the larger whole of interested individuals, then yes, there needs to be a corrective action taken. I can agree that 150 books is pretty excessive and an unreasonable amount for any one person to take away from a conference. If enough people did that, then it would take away from others.

But if it is a fringe set (the proverbial bad apples in the bunch), then why would an organization like ALA have to completely revamp a system on the basis of the actions of a statistically insignificant few? If one person out of ten thousand fell down a flight of stairs and died each year, it would not make sense to mandate that everyone has to live in a one story house. (For the sake of comparison, your chances of dying in an automobile accident are roughly 1 in 23,000, a risk people take everyday.) To create and implement a more complex system on the basis of a tiny minority element is simply not the best use of an organization’s time and resources. Even at 1 in 1,000 incidence rate with 20,000 people attending this year’s conference, that’s only 20 people. Somebody who is better at crunching numbers would have to figure out the point at which is becomes an issue on the basis of the number of available ARCs and the number of ‘greedy’ types.

The second question: how do you quantify or measure such behaviors? I’m guessing that registration statistics are out since they are not a true measurement of those who are interested in ARCs. What’s left is recorded observations of such behavior (like the YouTube video) or reported observations from attendees. While the former is excellent in being able to be easily shared and evaluated, the latter is subject to its own human observation bias. No one taking over 100 books is going to report themselves. Those who do not get all the books they wanted are more likely to report their dissatisfaction as well as the behavior of others. It would require door checkers observing who leaves with how many books and something to measure it over a couple of days. (Consider the fact that the book blogger got her 150+ books over 3 days, not one.)

It’s not impossible to measure, but currently there is no data set for this issue. There is always personal anecdotes that could attempt to gauge the prevalence of the behavior. Corroborating stories build on each other and create a better picture as to the incidence and prevalence of the “book haul” types. Larger number of reports are harder to ignore or otherwise dismiss when you are trying to convince colleagues to take action. I realize this might sound a bit crazy to ask for data (whether in the form of stories of numbers), but it might one of the few times that there is actual ‘science’ in ‘library science’.

The third question: in presuming that there is enough data to support action, what is reasonable and fair? I’d say that Kelly’s proposed solution is a reasonable one to consider in theory, but not in practice.

My solution — and note this is my solution and mine alone — is that bloggers/non-professionals who pay the minimum amount to attend the convention be limited to one day attendance at the end of the convention. That they be allowed to attend but that their attendance is after librarians and other professionals using this convention to develop as such have the opportunity to get what it is they need and what it is they want out of their own convention. If they choose to pay the full conference amount or are themselves members of the organization, then they can have full access just as anyone else does. I don’t think this is hard and I do not think it’s at all unfair on any side of the equation. Those who would find this disagreeable are part of the problem. (Emphasis mine.)

That’s quite the discussion squelching closer. “Here is my solution. You are either with us or against us.” Nevermind how one determines the difference between a blogger or non-professional and a librarian or professional; I presume Kelly’s solution includes checking that people are from the libraries that they say they are from. (It would be logical to presume that if it is restricted to only librarians/professionals for the first few days, people will give fake information so as to continue to grab books.) Or there is some sort of qualification checking mechanism that is developed, implemented, and run by the organization. If it turns out that fellow librarians are part of the problem, then there will be some other system put into place.

I’m not certain what other solutions are being offered given how recent this development is, but I’m guessing they will embody a “members first” mentality. That’s not a bad thing, per se; we grew up hearing the motto of a credit company that told us “membership has its privileges”. Given the time, energy, and efforts of the membership to keep the wheels turning, it can be an added and advertised perk of joining the organization. In game theory terms, solutions like Kelly’s are a move to not only get to cut the cookie in half but to get first pick of the pieces. This is not the conditions for creating a fair solution in terms of the societal concept of fairness but fairness as it relates to proportional contribution. Given the general mood of neutral egalitarianism in the ALA organization, it would be an interesting fit.

Regardless of what happens, my final question is this: what do publishers think of this entire issue? Slipping into their shoes for a moment, this is an issue about who gets access to things they are giving away for free. For free. As corporate members and conference sponsors to varying degrees, they have already paid for the chance to display their wares, flown in their sales and marketing people for face-to-face time, and utilize the books as marketing and public relations tools. How does implementing an ARC giveaway system of any sort benefit the publisher?

If I was in a publishing house, a question I might ask myself is whether or not it is worthwhile to give an ARC to a casually interested librarian (free is still free, right?) versus a very interested book blogger or other non-librarian professional. I can’t imagine anyone from the industry reading anything that has been put on blogs or Twitter and really feeling too terrible about this ‘issue’. Nor can I imagine other vendors who give away swag to bring you to their booth will be ready to shed a tear.

This whole #ARCgate affair just makes the librarian profession look bad when it boils down to an argument about who gets access to free things. Conference fees and membership pay for many things, but they don’t put a dime in a publisher’s pocket when they print out those ARCs. That point cannot be lost in this mess. One could argue that their reviews drive traffic and sales, but I would say that it is a risk that publishers take on. Changing that dynamic is changing that calculated risk for them, not for librarians. It deserves consideration.

For what it’s worth, the book blogger posted about her conference experience. And she had a great time. I was originally going to post a link to her blog post, but I’d rather not have someone go from this page and be shitty to her. It would not be the professional thing to do.

Update: I redacted the name of the book blogger. I debated

on including her name but since I went over and found a couple of unkind comments on her blog I dropped it.

I’m certainly glad at least two people took “professionalism” into their own hands and set her straight. I do hope some other more supportive people would send her a message and be a bit more constructive. For a profession that touts the value of education, it certainly doesn’t seem interested in providing one in this case.

Calling Timeout on Library eBook Integration

Forgive me if I don’t applaud the announcement that Penguin has returned try out a library eBook lending program with the New York Public Library. I know I’m going to eat my own words since I’m someone who really wants publishers and libraries to experiment with different eBook lending models, but I can’t say that the starting point for this experiment is exactly what I had in mind. Six months embargo on new releases and titles that expire after a year? At least the price is projected close to retail for, well, I don’t know what. A Mission: Impossible style file that self destructs after it has fulfilled its purpose? I don’t see anything about the lending portion of it so I’m wondering if it is still the ‘one book one person’ model (which would be my guess) or something new and different. Granted, they are looking to monitor and modify the program every few months so things could change. But this is one of hell of a starting point to work from. To me, this deal still has the look and feel of second class citizenship for eBooks.

The timing of this announcement comes on the heels of Jamie LaRue’s piece on the Digital Shift, “All Hat, No Cattle: A Call for Libraries to Transform Before It’s Too Late”. It effectively lays out the case for libraries to take command of their eBook collections for their own sake and survival. It’s a great call to action and a blueprint for some steps that are within the control of every librarian and within the boundaries of any library budget. Jamie brings the needs of the library back to the forefront rather than as a footnote on the eBooks models we are currently engaged in. As the ones with the budgets and the money to spend, it is a reminder that we are in firmly in the driver’s seat.

Set against this ALA endorsed Penguin/NYPL announcement, the deal seems to embrace the old mantra of getting eBooks into libraries by any means necessary. If you really wanted to view it as an experiment, it would appear that all the variables being tested are set by the publisher with none from the library side. The NYPL is effectively bankrolling Penguin to try out its hypotheses without taking on any risk or concession of its own to the needs of the library. I will be keen to see the kinds of corrections over time for this program, but my guess is that they will reflect a “publisher first” paradigm.

In the spirit of offering corrections of my own, I think I will modify my position when it comes to eBooks. And it sounds like this:

What’s the hurry?

As much as people breathlessly boast of an era of constant change and the need to stay current in libraries (I consider myself guilty of this as well), the enemy of objective decision making is a time pressure. Studies have shown that people tend to make worse decisions when placed under a time pressure. While these are not life-and-death split second decisions, our professional literature and commentary is rife with constant chants of “INNOVATE!”, the short attention span theater of technology updates and usage surveys, and the pearl clutching considerations of continued relevancy. It can’t help but prime our lovely primate brains to think that what we are currently doing is inadequate and in need of an IMMEDIATE response lest we fall behind, fall out of favor, and just plain fall.

Yes, eBooks are a growing market that has recently overtaken the hardcover sales numbers according to our ‘friends’ at the AAP. (Not a member of the AAP: Amazon. But they’ve already said their eBook sales have surpassed print book sales last year, even if they are referring to units sold and not revenue or providing actual numbers of this event. So who knows what the actual sales numbers look like when one of the world’s largest booksellers doesn’t give out stats.) Pew Internet back in April and Bowker back in March put eBook penetration around 20% of the United States population. (Or, to take some inspiration from Barbara Fister, around 80% of the population have not read an eBook. Other ways of saying this: 4 in 5 Americans have not read an eBook.)

Yes, these numbers are increasing each year. But I have yet to hear a serious complaint that the library should not be supported because they do not offer eBooks. It’s simply not a standard that the public library is being held to for usefulness by its communities. (I’ll concede to those people in affluent communities with higher rates of eReader ownership, but I still want to see the complaint.) One might try to counter by saying that the library cannot afford the public relations damage of looking antiquated, I would reply that the library cannot afford the larger public relations damage by looking fiscally irresponsible in a time of contested budgets by making dreadful purchases and investments.

First, buying eBooks at outrageous prices or under absurd conditions hurts the return on investment (ROI) argument that libraries have used for a long time to show their community value. Buying the $105 Game of Thrones eBook license (not even ownership, just access) is just a big fat target for budget hawks. Where is the financial responsibility in that?

Second, it is purchasing eBooks under lock-in conditions and onerous terms of service. When a vendor relationship turns sour, the library cannot simply take its investment and move it to a new eBook provider. It’s gone, baby, gone. As Jamie hinted in his writing, the conditions to allow eBook lending make it harder, not easier, for library members to access. It is a step back in a digital age that seeks to build and create faster and short connections.

So, the public library has taken taxpayer money, purchased a exorbitant license to an eBook that it cannot control nor transfer and is a pain in the ass to access for a (still) minority of the community population. This is a shiv to the respectable ROI argument that public libraries have made for years. Give us a dollar and we’ll give four back… unless we decide to buy an eBook for the library. In that case, we may need some more money. 

Getting back to center here, my new view of the library eBook landscape is that time is still on our side. Thoughtfulness of our community needs and tough analysis of financial and ownership (or lack thereof) implications should not be surrendered to the quick fix of current vendor/publisher models and offerings. We are not suffering from a lack of interest or action in looking to make this format addition to our collections, but there is a worn trail of knee jerk reactions under imaginary time pressures for the inflated need of a proven minority. Yes, eBooks are ascending  but libraries are not going out in the format shuffle. The hourglass is still mostly full, not nearly empty, when it comes integrating eBooks into our libraries. Let’s take a moment for a deep breath, gather ourselves once more, and reconsider this issue with an eye towards what it brings to our community in a sustainable manner. We owe it our own future as well as the communities that we serve.

Tor and DRM and Libraries

In the midst of my illness laden life a week ago, I managed to catch the announcement that Tor was going to drop DRM from its books starting in July. Perhaps it was the fever, but it seemed to generate a lot of buzz and speculation about whether this would be the beginning of the end for eBook DRM. It was wrapped up in optimism as to which publishers would follow suit and when, as if it was a logical conclusion.

In following up on it for this post, the first thing I noticed in the BBC article is that Macmillan called it an “experiment”. This phrase alone raises enough flags to starts its own color guard. Sure, it’s a fancier term for “trying something out”, but it means there are metrics that are being followed and measured closely. For myself, this raises a few more questions to ponder. What kind of timeline is this experiment going to run? Months? Years? What are the variables that are being tracked? Sales? Bit torrent file movements? Just how big a dataset are we talking here?

Like other recent moves in publishing, I have a hunch that this is going to be watched by the other publishers before making their own move. This isn’t something for the short term, it’s going to be for the long term; however, it does mean that attitudes are shifting within the industry. But in the meantime, I highly advise against holding your breath.

In the meantime, I don’t believe DRM is going anywhere. The fear of piracy is such an emotional trigger that anything that appears to make it easier will have a hard time offering a logical argument for removing a barrier. It’s a very human response to overestimate risks that involve an emotional aspect when the actual facts and statistics prove that the risk is low or non-existent. Consider the fear of dying from an act of terrorism (extremely low) versus dying from a car accident (statistically much more likely). The former kept us from flying commercially for a year after 9/11 while fatal car accidents can be found in the news nearly everyday. After years of sensational news stories about file sharing and bit torrents, it’s hard not to imagine that the first reaction to any discussion about eBooks and DRM is not an emotional one.

If there is one group that will not see the end of DRM anytime soon (if ever), that would be libraries. Given the current apprehension to eBook lending, DRM is the only assurance that companies like Overdrive can give to publishers to ensure that these eBooks don’t virtually walk on them. It will be the ‘friction’ that publishers want to ensure that the retail transaction is smoother than the library one and to offer a non-existent guarantee that a book does not overstay in someone’s device. With eBooks, purchasing will always be encouraged over lending, whether it is from the library or one person to the next.

And so it begins, the long wait while the Tor experiment runs its course. DRM is not dead, it’s just in a transitional period; it is especially not dead for libraries.

The Friction Fiction


In this whole Penguin books quagmire, the aspect that has been furrowing my brow and aggravating my mind has been the use of the term, “friction”. This was from Molly Raphael’s report that I quoted in my blog post yesterday:

A key issue that arose in each meeting is the degree to which “friction” may decline in the ebook lending transaction as compared to lending print books. From the publisher viewpoint, this friction provides some measure of security. Borrowing a print book from a library involves a nontrivial amount of personal work that often involves two trips—one to pick up the book and one to return it. The online availability of ebooks alters this friction calculation, and publishers are concerned that the ready download-ability of library ebooks could have an adverse effect on sales.

This is a quotation by Alison Lazarus, president of sales for Macmillan, from the Digital Shift’s article today:

“We want to insure that customers who have typically been book buyers do not migrate their purchasing into borrowing as accessibility to our books becomes frictionless,” as Alison Lazarus, the president of sales for Macmillan, previously told LJ. “This would imperil our retailers, wholesalers, authors and ourselves and would ultimately be detrimental to libraries,” she said.

Here’s the kicker from that same article:

Some publishers like the idea of in-library lending of ebooks as a way to recreate the “friction” of a print transaction: The patron has to physically go to the library.

So, for those playing the library eBook home game, let’s recap:

  • eBooks are treated the same way as physical books under the “1 copy, 1 person” rule, despite the fact that they are computer files;
  • eBooks are licensed, not owned (unless you’re lucky enough to be in Kansas), therefore First Sale Doctrine rights do not apply and content can be pulled at any time for any reason… just like it was in the last few months;
  • The idea of recreating the friction of print books for eBooks is a good idea.

Everyone up on the same page here now? Excellent.

When publishers talk about recreating friction, I just want to say ‘no thanks’. Libraries are moving towards a frictionless or seamless world of information and content access, not recreating the inconveniences of the past. Progress on this particular material does not move through clinging to the models of the past. I’m sorry if this makes our so-called publishing partners uncomfortable, but honestly, get over it. Or at least have the decency to produce a study or a survey or some sort of hard evidence as to why such friction is necessary aside from imaginative executive speculation. If we are going to tell our library members something that sounds stupid when we say it, give us something to justify your rationales.

(By the way, publisher hand wringing about the future ain’t got nothing on librarian hand wringing about the future. Your version of this fretting activity is our dinner theater.)

So I ask this most basic of questions: are these the people we really want to partner with as we move forward? To clarify what I mean by “moving forward”, I mean it in the plain sense of “the future”. Because, as I see it, this library future is going to be heavily based on digital platforms and outlets. It will be about information access from anywhere at anytime by any (authorized) user. How will this future mesh with a partner who wants their digital content to be treated as if it was print? While we move forward, we have a partner trying to drag us backwards.

I might add that these rules are the publishing companies attempt at having their cake and eating it: treating the digital as if it was print while usurping any First Sale Doctrine rights. They will have achieved the total control they have sought for years over their content. Keep in mind that these are the companies that have supported legislation like SOPA. They aren’t interested in our mission, they are interested in our budgets and what we can do for them. Don’t let their statements of support fool you; this is still a money game since love doesn’t pay the bills.

Perhaps when publishers join the 21st century and start acting like true partners, then we’ll be able to work out this eBook issue together. Until then, we are subject to their uninformed whims and unfounded speculations.

Much Ado About Publishing

OThis week (and possibly at secret locations), top officers and officials from ALA meet with publishing companies Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, Penguin, and Random House publishers  in New York City. The announcement of these meetings has moved me to a place of cautious cynicism. As much as I had previously hoped for publishers to meet with the library community, I’m sketchy as to the possible results and benefits from these gatherings. The ALA’s list of demands starts off with a demand for publishers to listen to their demands and (I love this part) “deal with libraries and […] do this as soon as possible”. I’m unsure as to the origin of this Jack Bauer sense of urgency; libraries have already missed the eBook train. (And by missed, I mean “kept off of it”.) While some might see this as a time for catching up, I’d be more interested in what it would take to catch up as well as the terms associated. More than likely, if current eBook licensing arrangements are any indication, it could have the makings of a pill that is too bitter to swallow.

Publishers, for their part, aren’t in much of a better talking position. If they are counting on brick-and-mortar stores like Barnes and Noble to be their saviors, then libraries are a natural second choice for physical locations that supply books to a population. But, since we lend materials (and lending is a codeword  for “lost sale”, no matter if a person patiently waits three months to read a book), this presents a unusual hesitance for allowing the lending eBooks to libraries. Coupled with the fact that they have “new concerns about the security of our digital editions”, this might be a starting stalemate for any meetings.

Personally, I would *love* to hear any and all explanations given to this latter point. So, a person who downloads an eBook directly from Amazon or Barnes & Nobles is not a threat, but someone who is required to installs Adobe Digital Editions, make an account with Adobe, then use their library card through the library’s website is a threat? How different is the file in these cases that makes one a problem and the other not?

Simply put, this won’t be a “Come to Jesus” moment for publishers nor will it be a breakthrough for less restrictive library eBook lending. I’d like to imagine that these meetings would be productive, but I think that the only thing they will produce are press releases about their productivity.

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. 

Is the Academic Publishing Ecosystem Unbalanced?

The world of academic publishing has got to be a case study in scholarly symbiotic relationships waiting to happen. (Or, for the cynical, a study on parasitic relationships.)

On the one hand, you have the faculty who need to get published in order to maintain their steady progress through the tenure process (for those lucky enough to get tenure, but that’s another story). In writing their papers, they need to have access to other scholarly work in order to support/contrast/argue against so as to build upon established and accepted works. The faculty rely on the library to procure these sources, whether through subscription (most likely) or article requests (a different sort of expense from my understanding). The faculty get their sources, write their papers, and get them published in whatever journal they can get accepted to.

On the other hand, you have the journal providers. They have gone out and made the deals necessary to be the owners or distributors for these journals. These providers want to put their subscriptions into the hands of the greatest number of institutions for both basic revenue reasons and the idea of building a scholarly following. (I might just be engaged in wishful thinking, but I would imagine that part of their mindset would be something like this.) The more subscribers they have, the greater chance that their papers will be cited, the more citations means that there will be a greater demand for that journal as time goes by, therefore the more potential future subscriptions could result. Their relationship with the library is crucial to getting the information and data into the hands of the faculty.

Does it sound right so far? Faculty need the journals for both research and publishing for advancement; the journals need people to submit papers, subscribe to their content, and increase the academic reputation of their holdings. Everyone gets something out of it so everyone is happy; it’s a (relatively) balanced scholarly ecosystem.

Unless, like any real ecosystem, you change one of the variables. Like raising subscription prices. Or making exclusive deals. Or restricting or limiting access. Or writing licensing agreements that are not research friendly. There are possibly a few things that I’m missing that my readers will be happy to point out, but you get the drift.

It is hardly a surprise that there is a movement towards open access; it’s a natural reaction towards a change in the scholarly environment. Because when “you have to have it” meets “we can’t afford it” or “it’s unreasonable to get it”, something has to give.

I’m going to be following this closely since it creates a remarkable dilemma. Will it create a slowing effect on the pace of academic research, thus depriving these journals of the quantity and quality of papers they need to continue? Will faculty seek alternatives that defy the traditional scholarly order and looks towards open access or shared research consortiums? How much can either side afford to give in order to continue their respective work?

I look forward to any comments or insights on this one. Because from my vantage point on the outside, it doesn’t look like a healthy environment.


I want to acknowledge these posts since inspired me to write this little ditty:

Meredith Farkas, Faculty inertia and change in scholarly publishing

Barbara Fister, Breaking News: Academic Journals are Really Expensive!

If you don’t subscribe to them in your respective reader, you really should.

Publishing and The Domino Project

This quote from the Social Media Examiner interview of Seth Godin got my brain working:

The Domino Project is trying to make ideas easier to spread. I think books are important and book publishers are basically trying to kill books. They’re making them too expensive, too long, too slow, too hard to spread and too hard to find. So the public is just ignoring them and moving on to the next thing. (Emphasis mine.)

To be fair, The Domino Project is Mr. Godin’s foray into publishing by experimenting with a new system of connecting authors to readers. The first book from the project, Poke the Box (written by Mr. Godin himself), is a self described manifesto on self-starting. He has taken a new approach to spreading ideas by creating packages for people to buy and share books with others. I have not read more than the preview chapter of the book on Amazon; it certainly looks like the kick in the ass that I could use. But my mind keeps coming back to that highlighted sentence and a question.

Is the publishing system itself broken?

Perhaps broken is too harsh a term. Antiquated is maybe a better term.  What has changed in the publishing process leading up to the point of sale (or in this case, license)? The new licensing arrangement is mentioned as a revenue stream, but is it supporting an old and inferior system? Could the HarperCollins’ 26 eBook checkout limit idea be akin putting giant chrome rims on a jalopy?

In applying Mr. Godin’s objections to publishers to the HarperCollins situation, is complying with the “Pretend Its Print” model (too slow, too hard to spread) and making it harder for people to borrow books (too long a wait) just a waste of the library’s money (too expensive)?

If so, then why are we doing it?

If not, then what are the limits of external control over your collection? How many conditions should material be subject to that originate from outside the policies and practices of the library?

Last year, Mr. Godin challenged us on the future of the library.

This year, HarperCollins is challenging the future of the library through its new licensing idea.

Perhaps we can challenge the librarian profession to work towards a whole new concept as to what a collection really means now.

This could be our self starter.

(h/t: Library Link of the Day)