March 19, 2012

PLA Annual reveals how complex the eBook lending dialogue has become


It is reminiscent of the early stages of negotiating a professional sports bargaining agreement. That is to say everyone is smiling and reminding each other of their assets and how much each means to one another. Naturally, it’s a toothy smile.

Despite her busy schedule at this year’s annual Public Library Association conference (which we happily attended), Publishers Weekly scored a comprehensive interview with American Library Association President, Molly Raphael, and one of the key topics discussed was the state of the eBook market. Raphael’s answers were quite revealing.

On the subject of her series of meetings with the major publishers in New York, Raphael had this to say:

Those discussions were very good, too, because we were meeting with high-level people. We met with the CEOs at Macmillan and S&S, two companies that haven’t been lending e-books, so that told us that this issue was at a level where the CEO cared about it. You know, CEOs don’t do meetings that they can pass off. And, we talked about everything, about the issue of discoverability in libraries, about how people discover writers, and books, about how we push books—and we said we can’t push books we don’t have, bottom line. One of the things they were concerned about is how easy it is to download e-books, “friction,” is the word they used. So we learned things from each other, and each session was good for understanding the other side’s issues, the environment we each are in, and the kind of stuff we are dealing with.

What’s interesting about this is how diverse the conversation has become. It is no longer just a dialogue about profitability and long-term digital strategy (how does limitless downloads for a library’s eBook collection effect a purely digital market for publishers?), though it would be foolish to think that this is not still the most important question. Entering the dialogue is also the classic question of how a brick & mortar (the physical library) can successfully promote a digital title. Publishers are worried about this, and also the issue of piracy, which is of course the first and perhaps eternal question surrounding digital distribution policy.

The most telling moment in Ms. Raphael’s interview arrives when discussing the recent eBook pricing policy changes made by Random House, which essentially applies to the trade market a model that has been used with digital textbooks and manuals for over a decade. Essentially books are more expensive but limitless in their use (per copy). Libraries have not been keen on the price-hike proposed by Random House, even if it comes with limitless circulation and acceptance of current anti-piracy protocol. This is evident in Raphael’s response to questions about the change:

Yes, Random House has created a bit of a brouhaha—but I believe there is some real dialogue around that, that they are really listening to what we have to say about what this increase means in the library world, about our ability to provide these materials to people. And, we know this is a time of a lot of testing. So, we’re working as hard as we can to break the logjam, but at the same time, we don’t want to be so loud against some new ideas that people get gun shy about going forward at all.

After this PC response she then responds to the sentiment that it’s at least nice the RH is engaging in the problem with a slightly two-sided response (not that we blame her):

Right, they are in the game. And, you know there was a huge outcry last year when HarperCollins came out with its 26-lend limit, and now, there are a lot of librarians saying, you know, this isn’t such a bad deal after all. There are a lot books we buy that don’t circulate 26 times. We buy a lot of bestsellers, but we also buy an awful lot of things are, well, not bestsellers. I think we are in a position now to be able to talk to those publishers who are trying to make decisions. We’ve really opened up channels of communication, and we’re pushing them. That’s a sea change from where we were before. And, you know, one of the interesting issues beginning to pop up is that some authors who are big supporters of libraries are discovering that their e-books are not available in libraries, and they are not happy about it. I think our next step is probably to look to authors. Authors can put pressure on publishers in ways that we can’t and some authors are interested in doing this. We’re not going to have a big rally cry around it, but we do think authors would like to know that their e-books are not available in libraries, and they can decide what they want to do.

And there are the exposed teeth. Rightfully so, too. Libraries are at an extreme negotiating disadvantage in this discussion. Cities and states are slashing their budgets and publishers are making it tough for them to expand their services into the digital realm. And that’s why the president of the ALA is making a push toward an author-led campaign for library eBook rights.

It will be interesting to see if this sort of negotiating tactic, which essentially hints at the author to reader scheme of, is effective for libraries in their pursuit for equitable inclusion in the eBook market.

Paul Oliver is the marketing manager of Melville House. Previously he was co-owner of Wolfgang Books in Philadelphia.