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.