An Open Letter to Publishers

Considering how “many months” Josh Marwell states that HarperCollins has been looking at the eBook issues in his Open Letter to Librarians, the first reply to the whole HarperCollins/Overdrive/26 circulations meltdown is remarkably short on details or assurances of recognition for the issues raised by librarians. For a publisher to explicitly solicit feedback and then carefully restate their case for why they are changing their pricing model means they either don’t care or they don’t get it. Rather than give in to cynicism, I’m opting for the latter since libraries have rapidly changed in the last ten years (just like the last time they visited their pricing model). Perhaps it is time for an update.

Within that time period (well, starting before that, but I digress), libraries have moved from information gatekeepers to information gateways. Libraries have lost the monopoly on knowledge content to the information/communication revolution and have shifted to the role of being an access provider. The key word in that sentence is access. It is now our institutional everything.  We facilitate access to literature and information resources to the communities that we serve, whether it is the local grade school, university faculty, or little old grandmothers.

What this new pricing model does is threaten that access arrangement. And for all the things that you can do to libraries and/or librarians, the last thing you want to do is screw with access. It’s one of those things that librarians have incorporated into the Library Bill of Rights. It’s also one of those things that librarians want to keep as a binary answer (“Yes, we have that” and “No, we don’t have that”) rather than make it a nebulous one (“Well, we might have access to that when your turn comes up but only if we decide to renew the license which is dependent on a number of contingencies…”) Access is one of the core values that librarians will fight to the death for. This “26 and done” idea goes against it completely which is one of the major underlying reasons for the uproar that this has created.

You get the point.

Also, I’d like to highlight this other point as written by Karen Schneider:

But libraries are only partly about the here-and-now. We’re also about preserving the cultural record. We cannot preserve ephemerally-licensed “content” that can be wrenched from us at the discretion of giant corporations. Right now, it appears the only safe technology for the cultural record, in terms of traditionally-published books, is the dead-tree format. I am not being technologically-backward to say that; I’m being culturally forward.

This is why perpetuity (a term that was thrown casually out there) of the eBook is important. It’s about maintaining the cultural timeline. Today’s literature will be the seeds of inspiration for tomorrow’s great works of fiction and prose. Libraries are not interested in keeping eBooks forever because we like collecting items, but because it matters in the long term. So, don’t take perpetuity off the table here as an eBook option. It has value far beyond the bits and bytes of the format it is stored in. And that’s something libraries treasure more than transitional formats.

Unlike the Open Letter to Librarians, I am not without an alternate solution for revenue paths. While permanent copies need to remain on the table as per the relatively unspoken “Pretend It’s Print” model, the flexibility of the format and the market makes for some other possibilities. My suggestion would be to offer eBooks that expire after a pre-determined number of checkouts but that those checkouts are not limited by the Pretend It’s Print ‘one copy, one customer at a time’ condition. Meaning, if a library bought a limited license that allowed for fifty checkouts, those fifty checkouts could happen in the first month, the first week, or even the first day. But once they are gone, that’s it.

It’s the equivalent of an eBook rental, the same strategy that libraries do for print books that are in high initial demand. You get to set the price for a set number of checkouts or (since we are in an age of technology and wonder) let the library set the number of checkouts and base the price off of that. You get to sell more eBook equivalents on the front end of a book release and libraries get to play Oprah (“You get an eBook! You get an eBook! Everyone gets to borrow an eBook!” etc.). More importantly, it puts an eBook into the hands of a person who clearly (1) reads, (2) has disposable income to purchase more eBooks (since they can afford the device in the first place) and (3) is timely when a book is new, hot, and riding the hype. If the person likes it, they will either buy it for themselves and possibly starting buying that person’s backlist. I’m sure your sales people can get creative in making bundles of your so called perpetuity books and offering a certain number of these limited licenses to go with it. (Because librarians can’t turn down a bargain.)

If any publisher uses this, I fully expect to get an invitation to one of these mythical librarian advisory boards I’ve heard about.

To HarperCollins, don’t use the time that librarians are investing to tell you what’s on our minds through blogs posts and emails to just be thinking about that next thing you are going to say. There is a reason that this has invoked a rare moment of professional unity. This is a public relations moment that you can rise with; don’t squander it with vague platitudes about the importance of authors and librarians. Tell us how this helps us, you, and all the people that will be influenced by this decision.

This is the beginning of a conversation, not the midpoint of a shouting match.

The Rise of Self Publishing?

From Publishing Perspectives:

My prediction for 2011: Everyone Becomes a Publisher. Literally. Whether it’s bloggers turning their posts into books with Blurb, or going the whole DIY route, self-publishing will become an increasingly attractive option for greater numbers of writers, be they casual or professional. Not so fast. If the growth numbers hold steady, I expect Bowker to announce before BookExpo America that nearly a million new titles were published in the United States alone this year – of which it’s likely more than half were self-published. If you’re looking for a top trend for 2011, a further explosion of self-published books, either in print or digital, is likely to be it. Of course, point-and-click book publishing might never truly make an author happy –publishing is, after all, collaborative — and the question remains of whether the audience is there to buy and read so many of these new titles.

That passage is part of a post asking various industry figures what the biggest thing in publishing was in 2010 and what they predict for 2011. For libraryland, it begs the question: in the age of self publishing, how many of those kind of books become part of the collection? Will the current trade publications start reviewing them? Or will it be left to book bloggers to take up some of the load? Or will no one read them unless they happen to catch on?

Out of the three scenarios, I would predict their likelihood in the reverse order they were asked. There are smaller issues like how to deal with people who want to donate their self-published ebook (since it takes up no physical space except for that of a hard drive) and whether self published books or ebooks could become their own group within the overall collection*. And if a library was to accept self-published works on a larger scale, what kind of quality control goes into separating well written material from the (for lack of a better term) bad stuff. It would appear that, while the number of purchases of physical books is going down, the overall number of books coming to the library is going up. Not something I think people would have even considered five years ago, for certain.

It is worth taking a look at the publisher’s thoughts and predictions. There are considerable mentions of tablet computers, ebooks, the aforementioned self-publishing, and learning to thrive in a new business model and consumer expectation environment. It’s certainly worth the short read.

(*If anyone is wondering what that faint repetitive schnick sound is, my guess is that it is Liz Burns sharpening her shiv and getting ready to skewer this topic.)

Best Book Prognostication EVER

From Terribleminds:

You know what the future of publishing is? The book. The motherfucking book. With pages and words and shit. And no, I don’t mean the e-book. I mean the kind of book that you can use to pound a nail, hit a bear, break a window. The physical object.

The book is never going away.

The book is an icon. The book is a treasured object. It is equal parts totem, fetish, decoration, and hand-me-down. It is a container of permanent wisdom and knowledge (or, in the case of some books, a container of permanent bullshit, but hey, that can be just as awesome).

I said it before and I’ll say it again: the fact that anybody still wants to burn a book shows you how powerful the physical object is, both as itself and as a symbol.

Books are magic. Books are love. Books are infinity times two.

I’m not saying the audiences won’t shrink. I’m not suggesting that publishing won’t be changing its models. I’m not saying that publishing books will remain the most stable industry.

But the book, she ain’t going nowhere. Because the book is a thing. I don’t mean “thing as physical object,” I mean, “thing as thing, as cultural bulwark, as obelisk and idol.”

I was introduced to author Chuck Wendig by my brother who has written some guest posts for his blog. Remarkably insightful and delightfully profane, Mr. Wendig rarely disappoints in his posts about life as a writer, the writing process, and the rollercoaster that is the life of a freelancer. In taking on the current constant hand wringing regarding the future of the book and the e-book, he serves a fresh reminder as to the place of the book in regards to culture and society, both as a physical object and as a container for the contents within. It’s probably one of the best takes I’ve read on the future of books and not just because I was giggling through most of it.

If your work filters can tolerate it, go and read the whole thing right now. Bask in the unholy glory of one author’s take on the future of publishing.

Ebook Anger: Not Just for Librarians Anymore

From Teleread:

I am sick of the price fixing. I am sick of the head-in-sand burying. I am sick of publishers or agents or authors or whomever the actual decision-makers-without-clues are who are mucking up what should be a simple money-for-product transaction by continuing to operate on what my father calls the finest business model ever set up by 17th century Big Business. Enough! I am no longer dialoguing with you on this. My decision? I figure it will take you maybe two to three years to come to your senses, and while I am waiting, I am opting out of this whole thing.

Go over and read the whole thing. It’s an interesting perspective from the vantage point of a heavy reader and their device. To my eyes, it seems like the Amazon price point of $10 has become some people’s bar of measurement in terms of purchasing ebooks. This is not new since Kindle readers from the early days of the device have railed against any books over $10.  But, going forward, it presents an obstacle for publishers as they seek a better price point for different bodies of work in which larger expenditures of money have been invested.

One of the other things I noticed is the lack of complaint regarding ebook lending and DRM. While it may not be an issue for this person the same way that it is for some librarians, the fact that it is not on the laundry list of issue is worthy of note. It could be that it is not something people consider to be an issue since they have come to other understandings about what they can do with a physical book versus what they can do with an ebook. I’d actually like to ask this person about that, so I might leave a comment over there.

What are your thoughts on this open letter?

That Publisher Post & More Questions

In the comments of my post, “How Not to Get Libraries to Lend Ebooks (A Publisher’s Tale)”, the highly esteemed Liz Burns wanted me to clarify something I said regarding “jacked up” prices concerning library editions. Here’s our exchange from the post.

Liz:

Andy, what is your source that library editions are “jacked up” prices — which I take to mean that the profit margin on those books are more than other books. If you don’t mean that, please explain what you do. What do you think is an acceptable profit margin for publishers?

Me:

As I am not in a position of ordering materials (with an exception every now and again), my source is more anecdotal in that I heard about it from other people who are in such a position, what I have seen from invoices that are shown to me, or what I have read in various blogs over the last couple of years. It is certainly is not a survey of all pricing, and I’ll admit that my statement is based more in the emotion of the moment. But I don’t believe that makes it completely untrue (and I look forward to being proven otherwise).

My concern is less than with an “acceptable” profit margin of publishers and more of a concern about what value the libraries are getting for their money. As I suggested in the post, I’d like for publishers to start considering bundling ebook rights with their books (library edition or not); they could charge an additional premium on top of the physical book cost. I think it would be a win for the publisher, the library, and the patron. For certain, it would be an additional source of revenue that could be directly recouped for the publisher.

Liz:

Andy, to be honest, it’s my understanding that there is a slim profit margin for most books. Also, I’m a bit puzzled by how much anti-publishers sentiment I’m seeing on some library blogs/tweets. When did they become investment bankers making billions?

Pricing can be more if cost is more, which is why my question is on profit. Better binding for library edition or ability to get free replacement CDs? That’s going to cost more than other books.

Me:

[…] For the record, I’m talking about print books, not library edition audio. The latter is higher because you are buying into a service that will replace discs. It is a premium that makes sense to me, for certain.

I had messaged Liz on Twitter to ask if I could use our exchange as the basis for a blog post. We ended up wondering a few things of our own, so we decided to toss these questions out to the blogosphere audience:

  1. Does anyone buy library edition of print books? Why or why not?
  2. Can anyone tell us where the anti-publisher sentiment has been coming from lately? (Links or articles would be a bonus!)
  3. And how is it that the publishing industry gets the ire of librarians when the television and movie industry get a relative pass when it comes to downloading, purchasing costs, and copyright permissions?

Come, take a swing at a question or two, and enlighten us.