Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Say what now?

So, while you were hanging stockings by the chimney with care, you may have missed the article in the New York Times setting out the "debate" between libraries and publishers regarding ebooks. We learned that  inconvenience and "friction" for patrons are good things, and if a library's borrowing circumstances don't create one of these things, they must be punished.

The article made it seem as if libraries have given up nothing in the quest to provide access to digital books, and that the publishing companies are the ones suffering under the heavy burden of selling their goods. After all, how is a company supposed to survive if they sell a book to a library at double (if not more) the cost of consumer price? Sometimes, that price is double (if not more) of the hardcover price. Publishers who allow libraries to purchase their books give up the sale of more books later. Right? I mean, isn't that what they're arguing? "'Selling one copy that could be lent out an infinite number of times with no friction is not a sustainable business model for us,' Ms. Thomas says" If a library buys a book that lasts (seemingly) forever, then they never have to buy it again? So because we can't make a library buy it more than once, we won't let them buy it at all. The first sale isn't important, it's the promise of subsequent sales we're trying to protect! Bird in the hand? No. It's the two in the bush we're going to hold out for.

But think about this: how many titles are REALLY re-purchased, compared to the titles that are discarded for non-circulation or replaced with a newer edition? Yes, we're going to buy more copies of popular things. But out of all the books that are published in a single year, how many are so popular that we'll continue buying them five, ten, or even fifty years down the line? And, just because you're buying it in the format du jour today means you won't buy it in new format on the block ten years from now? Of course, because goodness knows libraries aren't buying digital copies (new format on the block) of things they have in print (old format on the block). In fact, it isn't even extraordinary for a library to have a copy of the same title in hardcover, paperback, large type, cassette (still!), cd, downloadable audio (MP3 and/or WMA), and now ebook. For an author like James Patterson, this is the expectation. Buying all of those formats doesn't seem like it would sustain any company, especially not a library with a decreasing budget! All of that applies to a popular author, though. What about the ones who don't quite find the audience Mr. Patterson enjoys? What about the books that are updated every year? How many times do you think I'm going to buy the 2010 Frommer's Vancouver and Victoria? Every day (hopefully) libraries are moving out copies of books that haven't managed to scrape together 10 circs in 20 years, let alone 26 circs. We've spent our money trying out a new author, or buying lesser known authors in the hopes of promoting them to patrons and helping them along. But, when they fail to catch on, off they go and all we have to show for it is....what? Low circulation. Bookstores return stock that they can't move, but libraries never have. How can we sustain our business model if we buy books from a publisher's stock of less popular or untried authors if we have to eat the cost of that experimentation every time?

Why are the HarperCollins terms not based on individual titles? Each title is an individual license, right? So the terms don't have to be the same across the board. Why is there no variation? Why is it the same 26 for a tried and popular backlist title as for a new book of poetry? If I buy 1 copy and get 26 circs, do I get a bonus for buying 10 copies? 300 circs? If I buy one $26.00 copy with a 26 circ limit, and it goes out three times, do I get the option to stop licensing it and get $23 back? Where is the "friction" that benefits the library? Oh, that's right. You negotiated the terms with my VENDOR, not with me, and often without my knowledge. And I missed this blog post from awhile back: 26 and out?  Not so much.

Digital lending provides plenty of friction that should be rubbing libraries the wrong way. Articles like the one from Saturday never mention the things libraries give up for the privilege of buying a title and putting it in front of patron eyes.

Interlibrary loan? Forget it. If your home library hasn't bought the title, you have no library access to it, unlike with print books.

Good pricing? Forget it. It doesn't matter if I buy 1 copy or 300 copies, the cost is the same: more than the consumer edition. How much more? It depends. We talked about one example in this post from October, but they aren't all THAT bad.

Buy it and it's mine forever? Forget it. Despite what the publishing companies say, there is absolutely NO guarantee that these books will last into infinity. Not only have you given up "ownership" of the title that you paid a premium price for, you have no way to guarantee that book will always reside in your catalog. Or that the version you need will always reside in your catalog. Or that the version your patrons have a hold on will always reside in your catalog. Remember that fun time when all the Kindle editions of a certain publisher's titles disappeared overnight? If you took a call from a frantic patron wondering "what the hell" then you know exactly what I'm talking about. This isn't just a library problem, consumers also experienced this when Amazon deleted titles from Kindle devices in 2009.

Freedom to decide who can and cannot use your materials? Forget it. "Patron" is defined by contract in many license agreements. That is well and good if you can negotiate and know the benefits and consequences of your choice. But just recently, some libraries discovered that the consequences of that choice were negotiated between the vendors and the publishers. That is why some libraries are offered different titles to purchase than others, without being aware of it at all.

Then, of course, the one copy, one user model causes "friction" and mostly insures that popular books will never be "one copy" at all. That's fine, because if you serve a population large enough to have multiple holds on items, you should buy multiple copies to satisfy demand. I don't think anyone is arguing that. But to suggest that somehow libraries are getting the better end of this deal and should provide more "friction" for library patrons is ridiculous. We don't own it. We pay more for it. We can't do what we want with it. We sign away rights (like the first sale doctrine) to get it. Yet, somehow, libraries aren't doing enough to satisfy publishers.

And publishers, please stop trying to throw authors in the middle of this debate. This isn't library vs. author. If you want authors to be "made whole" then pay them more. Give authors better contract terms. We're certainly not stopping you from doing that. If you want authors to be "made whole" then why are you preventing them from selling their product to big institutions that have to pay more than the consumer price and have larger budgets than individual purchasers? In fact, you could leave it up to the author whether or not their books can be sold in the library market. Make it a contract term. "Check here if you want us to allow libraries to purchase this title." I'm sure there are some authors who feel as you do, and would say no. There are also some authors who would say they want their book in front of as many purchase orders and patron eyes as humanly possible.

The lack of discussion about "piracy" was conspicuous in that article. It reminded me of this blog post from Lis Carey's Library: What's the Bigger Threat, Piracy, Distribution Monopolies--or Refusal to Give Customers What They Want?

At the end of the day, it comes down to demand. Demand for ebooks is up. Use of ebooks in libraries is up. From November 2010 through November 2011, our downloadable service saw a 146% usage increase without titles from Simon & Schuster and Macmillan, or new titles from HarperCollins. I would love to buy those titles for the library. I have the money to buy those titles for the library. Patrons sometimes ask for those titles to be purchased by the library. But when they're not available, apparently patrons are moving on to titles by other authors published by other publishing companies, or self published. And then they talk about those titles to their friends, their friends place holds, and I have to buy more copies.

My kind of friction.

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