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Note: Our good colleague Ginger Clark, Curtis Brown agent and wombat enthusiast, will moderate a BEA Education Track panel pertinent to our topic today on May 30 at 3:30 p.m. ET, “eBooks from Libraries: Good for Authors?” Panelists are American Library Association president Maureen Sullivan and OverDrive CEO Steve Potash.
Apparently no authors are involved as panelists.Update: Clark tells me that she’ll have someone from the Authors Guild join the panel to represent the point of view of authors in the discussion. She also can speak, herself, of course, she points out, as agent for many authors with experience germane to the conversation. I’m looking forward to it.
You might have expected squat-kicks among the stacks, conga lines in the Catalog Departments, beribboned rhumbas in Reference.
But no. The May Day news that Hachette Book Group, mon dieu, had decided to make its entire ebook catalog of more than 5,000 titles available to libraries drew a response that was muted, measured, maybe even a bit sullen:
The job just became harder—at least for me. It was easier to characterize publishers with the choice line “they won’t even sell to libraries—at any price—what’s up with that??” In other words, position publishers as social villains. Focusing on contract terms will call for more complex engagement in the coming year.
That’s Alan S. Inouye in a blog post, Entering a New Phase, at Digital Book World. Inouye is director of the Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) of the American Library Association. He’s also managing the association’s Digital Content and Libraries Initiative.
And the guy can’t eke out an opening line of welcome for the Hachette news without a “but”:
The American Library Association largely praised the move, though noting that pricing could be better.
Okay, Alan, we’ll get to the pricing shortly. I’m not sure it’s that bad.
First, let’s remember how long we’ve been wailing and worrying about the libraries! the libraries!
If anything, the measured reading-room response to the Frenchly news—is la moue a pouty face?—may be a product of exhaustion as much as anything else. Publishing people have special gift for beating themselves senseless at every station of the digital cross. And certainly we’ve all been herded into the sanctuary about libraries many times in the past couple of years.
It was in November 2011 that I was Etherizing one Big Sixer’s bad call in Reverse Penguin!
Look! Over at your library! It’s a bunch of short guys in tuxedos running away with the ebooks! Not the existing ebooks, the new ebooks. (Nothing is simple, remember, and the dew is on the decimal.)
From there, things got worse. Questions about the future viability of libraries rose on all sides. Real estate people were driving past libraries thinking parking structures…department stores…office buildings. You could almost smell the smoke from Alexandria, papyrus goes up so fast.
As recently as this past November (a year after Penguin put OverDrive into the nether gear), MIke Shatzkin in Much-trumpeted survey proves the opposite of what the surveyors seem to think it does explained the publishing camp’s reticence.
He was following a survey put together by OverDrive and the Library Association, the results of which, as he wrote, “are interpreted as evidence that the big publishers are making a terrible mistake being cautious about making ebooks available for library lending.” He pictured what is usually touted as library patrons’ eagerness to buy books as something that turns up only when those books aren’t available for a free read at the nearest temple of learning:
What if the book purchasers among the library ebook borrowers…(are) buying some ebooks because those aren’t available in the library? So I’d say “thanks for the information” and for evidence from an unbiased source that publishers are entirely correct to be wary and careful about making ebooks available for library lending.
Well, things have changed considerably. Maybe those, “Hey, would you like to buy this book instead of checking it out?” buttons some libraries have experimented with have heartened publishers. Because all the bigs now have something cooking in the reading room.
In his op-ed piece in the Times, E-Books and Democracy, New York Public Library president Anthony W. Marx summarizes where we are in this long-unhappy dance of the libraries and major publishers on ebooks.
Last September, Penguin agreed to make its e-books available to patrons at the New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Public Library, but with a six-month lag for new titles. Penguin recently agreed to release e-books to libraries at the same time its hardcovers came out. In April, Simon & Schuster agreed to sell e-books to the city’s libraries. Today’s announcement by Hachette (whose imprints include Little, Brown) is the capstone of that process.
Many issues still need to be sorted out. Five of the Big Six are making their entire e-book inventory available to us to choose from, while Macmillan is offering only a limited selection. HarperCollins allows us to lend each e-book we acquire only 26 times per title; Penguin and Simon & Schuster offer one-year licenses; and Random House sells licenses without time limits but charges much more per license. (In all cases, an e-book can be borrowed by only one patron at a time.) Prices charged to libraries vary widely according to the kind of license agreement, and we hope they will be reduced as demand increases.
All other rejection letters can now retire: twitter.com/LettersOfNote/…
— Shaun Usher (@LettersOfNote) April 30, 2013
Laura Hazard Owen
There’s also an easier-to-follow assessment of where we are now from Laura Hazard Owen, in her announcement story at paidContent, Following pilot, Hachette will make all of its ebooks available to libraries nationwide. Here is is, bulleted (no extra charge):
The last couple of months have brought many changes to Big 6 publishers’ ebook lending policies, with Penguin and Simon & Schuster both announcing changes to their programs.
- Penguin announced in March that it would begin making new ebooks available to libraries again, a year after it had pulled them, though it is still only working with a limited number of libraries in a pilot program.
- Simon & Schuster is making its ebooks available to New York City public libraries in a trial.
- Random House makes all of its ebooks available to libraries, but at prices as much as three times higher than the retail price.
- HarperCollins allows its ebooks to be checked out 26 times before the library has to buy a new copy.
- Macmillan is running a two-year trial that makes 1,200 older ebooks available to libraries.
That’s a lot of action, really, in a space that has at times looked all but deadlocked. And although we tend to look at libraries through a golden haze of childhood-happy memories, I’m not sure anybody in this whole part of the digital publishing saga has looked great all the time.
I recall Barbara Genco of the Library Journal a couple of TOCs ago chortling to the audience in New York that “friction is fiction.” At the time, one of the publishers’ complaints was that library access to ebooks might be too easy, compared to borrowing physical books—there wasn’t enough “friction” in the process of checking out an ebook.
There was another bump along the way when it seemed that publishers hadn’t known that OverDrive’s fulfillment process for ebooks checked out from libraries involved Amazon. Oops, who ate the data?
Owen, in her new story, points out that OverDrive is again in the picture with Hachette’s deal:
Hachette is working with all three major library distributors: Overdrive, Baker & Taylor and 3M. Because Hachette is working with Overdrive, this means that the ebooks will be available for Kindle.
On first hearing, the idea of a library having to pay three times the price of the “primary” print book for a just-released ebook might sound like a raw deal.
Owen clarifies, “Hachette defines ‘primary’ book price as ‘the highest-price edition then in print.'” And she notes that if a library waits a year after an ebook’s publication, Hachette drops its price to 1.5 times that “primary” print book.
But get this: unlimited checkouts. Did you think we’d ever hear that phrase?
What’s more, a library does not have to buy a new copy of a Hachette ebook after a year, Owen writes. A highly popular ebook with a waiting list will outlast the print edition, which takes wear and tear on its checkouts.
The concept of compromise behind this pricing is described in the Associated Press writeup by Hilel Italie this way, here in the Miami Herald’s run of the wire, Hachette Book Group expands library e-catalog:
As with other publishers, Hachette is seeking a balance by offering a comprehensive list of e-books, but not unlimited, or cheap, e-book service. For new releases, only one e-book can be borrowed at a time. And libraries, many of which operate under tight budgets, will be charged three times the highest priced print edition for one year of e-book access to a new publication.
Before you throw the Ether across the room about “only one ebook can be borrowed at a time,” remember that only one print copy of a book can be borrowed at a time.
@editorius @infinite_if But if 8th Doctor is canon, his mum is not a Time Lord. Moffat may have decided Claire Bloom was someone else…
— Dave Morris (@MirabilisDave) May 1, 2013
And while a purist among the digirati will argue that the e-world should not be forced to match the analog world, at this stage in the game, the more closely ebook procedures can reflect print book procedures, the more progress is likely to be made in these early days of disruptive unease between your local library and your New York publisher. And for signs of such progress? Listen up. Some may say they’re tokens but at least nods to the author are there to be heard. The Bookseller, in its report, Hachette US to make new e-books available to libraries, quotes the publisher’s CEO Michael Pietsch in his statement:
“I grew up in public libraries and appreciate deeply their importance to readers hungry for more. Hachette Book Group believes strongly in supporting the availability of books in all formats to library users, in ways that recognize the importance and value of authors’ works.”
In library terms?
The ever-resourceful Gary Price at InfoDocket (a publication of Library Journal) offers a couple of figures from a Financial Times article in February. In Are library books on borrowed time? Gillian Tett wrote:
Since 2009, the NYPL has quadrupled its budget for ebooks, and spent $1m on 45,000 ebook copies. Indeed, [Anthony] Marx envisages his library as being akin to a giant cyber educational hub, offering anyone access, anywhere in the world, however poor. “We need to be the leading educational programme, cradle to grave,” he says.
But, as ever, our publishing pundits are quick to turn up with their predictions. And the latest, as written up by the Digital Book World staff in Codex Group: Ebooks to Level Off at 30% of Publishing Revenues, With Caveats, is the perpetually predictive Peter Hildick-Smith of the oracular Codex Group.
Hildick-Smith has been summoned to Nashville to address the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association Leadership Summit. And, as DBW puts it together, he has told the assembly gathered on that mountaintop that “50 percent (of all U.S. book publishing revenues being ebooks) just doesn’t seem doable based on usage dynamics and reader statistics.” No, Hildick-Smith says, “It will be 29 percent in 2014 and 30-to-70 percent will be the persistent level.”
That 30-percent figure is a bit shallow for folks who have expected a slowly but steady advance for ebooks toward the 50-percent mark. And even Hildick-Smith seems shy of full bravado on this one, coming in with three caveats, as laid out by DBW. Starting with a “stable physical retail environment,” these don’t really arrive as features of the likeliest sounding scenarios.
1. Stable physical retail environment: If Barnes & Noble collapses or shelf space continues to decline, the percentage of revenues from ebooks could increase. 2. Book prices don’t collapse: Ebook prices for many of the best-selling books continue to fall. If book “anchor prices” (what consumers generally expect to pay) for ebooks decrease enough, ebooks could grow past 30 percent. 3. Independent authors don’t experience exponential growth over the next few years: If indie authors take away enough business from retail bookstores and at relatively lower price points, it could accelerate both caveats one and two.
More prayer may be needed in Nashville.
For now, the Pew Internet wing of Pew Research Center is rallying the faithful with a dance around its May poll of parental types on the topic of libraries, and—no surprise—the warm-and-fuzzy saints are marching in, chanting “Don’t Touch Our Libraries, Damn It.” You can see the full report in this PDF from Pew. Its summary story is here, Parents, Children, Libraries, and Reading. I’ll give you a few highlights from the report:
Parents are more likely than other adults to think libraries should definitely offer a broader selection of e-books (62% vs. 49%) and definitely offer more interactive learning experiences (54% vs. 43%).
Parents express more interest than other adults in an array of tech-oriented services that are being discussed and implemented among some American libraries, including online reference services, cell phone apps to connect to library materials, tech “petting zoos” that would allow people to try out new gadgets, and library kiosks or “Redbox”-type offerings in the community to check out books and movies.
In this graphic, you’ll note that parents surveyed by Pew for this report were more likely than “other adults”—I think that’s us godless adults who aren’t rearing the next generation—to support “ebook readers already loaded with books you want to read.” As opposed to books you don’t want to read, I suppose. Also, they liked “classes on how to download library ebooks.” And “instruction on how to use ebook reading devices.”
Maybe the scariest bit? Seventy percent of the moms and pops responding said they’d support “digital media lab(s) to create/upload new content like movies or ebooks.” You know what this means, right? They’re writing books. More books. God help us.
That gender divide so few seem to want to talk about is present in this context, too.
Mothers are more likely than fathers to say libraries are important to their communities (94% vs. 87%). And they are more likely than fathers to say libraries are important to them and their families (87% vs. 80%).
When it comes to their own children, mothers are more likely than fathers to say a major reason why libraries are important is because libraries help children develop a love of reading and books (90% vs. 77%). Mothers also are more likely to believe libraries offer their children access to information and resources they can’t get at home or school (86% vs. 75%).
Mothers say they are better informed than fathers about what their local library offers: 32% of mothers say they are know all or most of the services and programs the library offers, compared with 21% of fathers.
This tweet is funny because my mother is a journalist: twitter.com/nntaleb/status… 😀
— Baldur Bjarnason (@fakebaldur) May 2, 2013
If we’re to extrapolate from Pew’s findings, it’s hard not to think that we’re being told that the coveted family market during the reading-encouragement years of parenting is right there at the library where it’s probably been all along.
So even if the reception of the Hachettte news is a bit tepid in this chilly spring—and even if Hildick-Smith is having a crisis of faith in the coming triumph of ebooks—publishers can hardly seem to go wrong to look at libraries as the place to throw a little digital largess.
As the ribbons wind ’round us, the parents are telling us that blessed will be the ties that bind corporate interests to more community cooperation.
Let me know what you think — would you have expected parents today to see the library as a key component of technical experience for their kids? And is this something publishers can capitalize on in deepening relationships with libraries?
Main image / iStockphoto: Sarradet
Penguin image / iStockphoto: Charlie Bishop