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The Wrong War Over eBooks: Publishers Vs. Libraries

23 December 2012

From Forbes Blogs:

Libraries and big six publishers are at war over eBooks: how much they should cost, how they can be lent and who owns them.  If you don’t use your public library and assume that this doesn’t affect you, you’re wrong.

In a society where bookstores disappear every day while the number of books available to read has swelled exponentially, libraries will play an ever more crucial role.  Even more than in the past, we will depend on libraries of the future to help discover and curate great books.   Libraries are already transforming themselves around the country to create more symbiotic relationships with their communities, with book clubs and as work and

meeting spaces for local citizens.

For publishers, the library will be the showroom of the future.  Ensuring that libraries have continuing access to published titles gives them a chance to meet this role, but an important obstacle remains: how eBooks are obtained by libraries.

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The solution to the current pricing problem lies in understanding that the argument publishers and libraries are having is the wrong argument.  It is based on the paradigm of the printed book and as such presents a series of intractable challenges for both publishers and libraries.   By changing the model for pricing an eBook, both parties could find a clear and equitable resolution to the current impasse.

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Do libraries increase book sales or cannibalize them?  This is the issue at the heart of the struggle between libraries represented by the American Library Association (whose president is Maureen Sullivan) and the Big Six publishers.

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Libraries have struggled to understand their role in communities as technology has changed.  In addition to encouraging children to read and lending books, they have migrated from providing access to online databases to cataloging the web then providing computer terminals and now broadband access as the needs of the citizenry for information has changed.  The shift in reading towards eBooks presents a particular problem for them because it’s happening with startling rapidity and presents significant technological challenges.

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The central issue for libraries is simple: they believe that withholding eBooks from libraries entirely, pricing them higher or limiting lends all undermine the library’s core mission. Robin Nesbit, of the Columbus (OH) Metropolitan Library System told me that although her eBook circulation of 500,000 lends annually is only 3 percent of the system’s total, that number is growing by more than 200% a year.  “Plus it’s at least 10% of our budget.”  Between the cost of eBooks and a technology component, providing access to eBooks is three times as expensive for her as physical books.

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Dye and others who work for big publishers and deal with eBooks have another challenge that library directors do not: layers of management that already believe that eBooks may kill large publishing houses and view their growth as more of a threat than an opportunity.  A big part of the problem is data – there’s a paucity of it.  Dye has reviewed the Pew Report on library usage extensively to inform pricing decisions.  But if the institutional bias among publishers is to see eBooks as more threat than opportunity, title and library-specific data will be needed to prove that either friction or cannibalization are less than expected in order to justify consumer pricing for libraries.

Link to the rest at Forbes Blogs and thanks to Meryl for the tip.

Ebook Borrowing/Lending, Libraries

4 Comments to “The Wrong War Over eBooks: Publishers Vs. Libraries”

  1. I would be glad to give every library in the country a digital copy of my YA Bad Apple. It wouldn’t cannibalize my sales, it would showcase my work.

    Isn’t it funny how indies see the world so much differently than the scarcity thinking model of tradpub.

    • Agreed. Let’s not forget school libraries. Libraries create readers, generations of readers. Competing with them isn’t just silly, it’s dangerous for the long term future of reading and books of any kind.

  2. Many libraries are in desperate financial trouble. Look at any midsize city or larger city line item budget. They’re fighting for their lives with huge mortar plants that need heat, air conditioning, use up huge amounts of carbon, have billions of outdated books on shelves, massive spaces, fewer and fewer staff, reqand taxpayers full up to the hilt on tax increases. The story starts there. Will libraries suvive as bricks? Perhaps not. Will they survive online. Probably yes.

    • I disagree, USAF. Perhaps in the biggest of cities, but I’m in a midsized city where the libraries are critical for many people who cannot afford to buy books (or e-readers). Yes, the cost of keeping up the bricks and mortar and heating are high, and yes, some of the books are out-of-date, but half of a slowly improving loaf is a lot better than no loaf. I’ve seen the same in small towns out here (western Great Plains) as well.

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