April 9, 2014

New York Library Director calls for libraries to buy “fair use books”


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Richard J. Naylor is the Director of the William K. Sanford Town Library in Loundonville New York and the author of a proclamation concerning e-content in libraries passed by the New York Library Association. Ideas from that proclamation—including the notion that “librarians have a professional responsibility to provide a broad range of reading materials for all of our citizens and to support reader’s rights” and the resolution that “all ebooks, print and audio, should be available for no more than their retail price to all public and school libraries”—are echoed in his latest initiative: the Best of the Small Press Project.

Naylor is concerned that the current “Big 5” publisher relationships with libraries are not sustainable, and he’d like to encourage libraries to buy books from publishers who sell ebooks at retail price and without time limitations—what he calls “fair use books.”

While I believe that librarians should take a major role in the discovery process, whether it be by helping authors to get published or curating lesser known books, the more immediate problem is finding ways to overcome the high cost of building collections of ebooks where major titles cost 200-300% of retail or expire after one or two years. A widespread adoption of those models would vastly reduce the number of titles we could buy.

Teaming up with Overdrive, the ebook vendor,  he has started  to try to curate list of books (there’s a button linking to the current list on his library’s website) that have received favorable reviews, but meet his basic definition of “fair use.” I asked Richard some questions about the initiative that he answered below.

What is the goal of the “Best of the Small Press Project”?

The immediate goal of the project is to provide library users with a list of well reviewed materials that are also “fair use books.” As it is, the popular lists of books, such as the New York Times bestseller list, include titles that cost several times what the public would pay for them. The “Best of the Small Press” list contains only well reviewed fair trade books.

A more long term goal of the project is to work toward additional curation of the ebook universe that will make the public aware of high quality materials that that they might not otherwise become aware of. This recognizes the big changes in the book publishing industry with consolidation among the biggest publishers and increased titles at the bottom.

What to you constitutes a “fair use” book?

A “fair use” book is one that costs no more than retail and has no time or use limitations.

What are your frustrations with the “Big 5” publishers’ stance towards ebook sales to libraries?

When it comes to ebooks, the Big Five publishers have questioned the library publisher relationship that had existed between publishers and public libraries for decades. They have added terms and conditions to the acquisition of their materials, such as huge price increases and time limited leases that would both greatly reduce the ability of public libraries to provide a decent selection of materials to their residents and also threaten the idea of building a historic collection of high quality materials.

Of course since the Big Five have the most money to spend to promote books, library users ask for them and we respond the best we can. But it does not make sense for us to also promote these books that are not “fair trade.” Thus the need for a “fair trade list.” While the list is not perfect and includes some books by fairly large publishers, they are not from the biggest publishers and they are “fair use.”

It is also frustrating that the Big Five have not yet acknowledged what we have shown to be true, that library promotion also increases their sales rather than cannibalize them.

What would be an ideal system of ebook sales between publishers and libraries, in your opinion?

What we are looking for is a system that helps meet our mission of education and cultural enrichment without hurting publishers or book stores. The “one book one, reader model” is that model. It has already worked for many, many years with paper books. For one thing libraries have never been able to afford enough books so that most patrons could have best sellers without waiting for them— thus many patrons buy books rather than wait. Other patrons buy their own books after finding them in the library— a healthy variation on the retail theme of trying it out in brick and mortar stores and them buying online. Other patrons buy the books so that they can keep them. Still others buy them because a library user told them about it.

How can publishers with “fair use” book pricing policies work with libraries to help patrons learn about their books?

That question requires a very long answer but there are some things that need to happen. First, we must acknowledge that there are too many books published for any individual library to make intelligent choices between them. Another principle is that with the explosion in the number of available titles a curation process is needed. Libraries want to give their patrons the best selection of materials they can so that if a group of publishers worked together with librarians to curate the materials we could produce a list or catalog of materials we could all be proud to offer for sale and circulation. Recognizing that working together as partners is difficult we need to find a fair way for small publishers to compete to get their best books in some kind of list or catalog. This might be facilitated by a small publisher association perhaps working with a library association. There is also the issue of making the books available through Overdrive which is right now the main library source and platform for ebooks. They should also be available through Overdrive’s competitors for fairness.

You drafted the New York Library Association resolution regarding eContent for libraries. How has that been received by publishers and librarians?

A few people are reluctant to use a term (“fair trade books”) they find pejorative but the vast majority of librarians and publishers get it.

What are some library systems that you’re aware of with interesting models for buying eContent?

Another big topic but the obvious first mover was Douglas County who set up their own patron use platform complete with digital rights management. Also, Massachusetts is working to set up their own statewide platform and is something to watch.

Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.