Monday, December 3, 2012

Publishers, eBooks and Libraries: What a Mess!

For months now I've been following the various moves, manoeuvres and initiatives of the big trade publishers as they respond to the demand from public libraries to allow their patrons to borrow ebooks.

I've read just about everything serious that's been written - in journals, reports, surveys and blogs - and from the differing perspectives of the various players: publishers, librarians, suppliers, patrons, commentators.

I've spent a lot of time mulling over the differing points of view and examining whatever data I could get my hands on. I've talked to key people. I've tried to be independent and open-minded. I've tried very hard to unravel the complexities and identify the real nub of the issue.

But I've failed comprehensively! There is no complexity here; there is no depth or significance beyond the shimmering surface. What we have, once again, is another dramatic instance of the same old paralysing fear of the digital that is gripping the publishing community across so many dimensions of the business.

The fear can be simply stated: if library patrons can very easily borrow any ebook, without even physically visiting the library, why on earth would they bother to buy one? Ever! The whole emerging ebook business, the very future of the industry, would collapse overnight.

Thus the large publishers have responded with a great deal of caution and wariness:

HarperCollins introduced a 26-loan limit. Upon expiration, the library must chose to re-purchase the ebook or it disappears from their catalogue.

Random House and Hachette opted for institutional pricing - prices two to three times retail prices.

Penguin is trialling with some major US libraries a 'window' strategy - no sales to libraries in the first six months of publication, and a 12 month limit after that, unless re-purchased.

Macmillan and Simon and Schuster have so far chosen to not make their ebooks available to libraries at all.

Now, the library community, it would not surprise you, is furious! Read this wonderful and funny piece from US librarian and blogger Sarah Houghton.

The American Library Association has condemned the publishers' policies in no uncertain terms. "We are weary of faltering half steps and even more so of publishers that refuse to sell ebook titles to libraries at all....We can no longer stand by and do nothing while some publishers deepen the digital divide.' (Sept 14, 2012). Last week it issued a media kit to help librarians take their case to the public at large.

But you may wonder where is the understanding by librarians of the publishers' concerns? Where is their willingness to entertain the notion that the whole ebook ecology may well be under substantial threat if free ebooks are universally available on a patron's device of choice at the touch of a few key stokes?

But this vision of apocalypse is a fantasy.

The key issue in this debate is that the major ebook suppliers to libraries - OverDrive, 3M, Ingram, Baker and Taylor - all use the same 'one borrower at a time' policy enforced by a DRM-enabled Adobe Content Server. If a library buys only one copy of an ebook (which is nearly always the case) then this operates as a severe constriction on lending behaviour. There is always a queue - frequently weeks or months long if the title is popular. This is a major incentive for a frustrated borrower to purchase the title instead. (Recent research by the Pew Research Centre found that 52% of ebook borrowers at one point or another discovered that there was a waiting list).

Public libraries accept the 'one copy/one loan at a time' policy. There is no push to change it. (In academic and research libraries the situation is vastly different, as such institutions are virtually the entire market for the digital content. Annual subscription deals are done and there is mostly no limit to the number of concurrent users allowed access at any one time).

So why the publisher temerity? What on earth could Penguin be afraid of during the first six months of a title's life? And why the one year license? The demand profile of your standard trade title is well and truly waning by then. Most titles will not be re-purchased - the library budget is hardly generous - so why penalise the potential borrowers who've patiently waited?

And why HarperCollins' 26-loan limit? What real commercial significance does such a miserable constriction have?

And why the massive over-pricing by Hachette and Random? They are offering absolutely no additional features or functionality to the libraries or their patrons for this impost. No additional usage/loan allowances for example. 'Unrestricted perpetuity' and 'simultaneous release' should be part of the standard offer, not charged extra for.

I think a major part of the problem here is that many publishing executives have never really been sympathetic to the library mission in an emotional sense. Individual libraries have never been favoured 'customers' in the same way independent bookstores have been. They've belonged to huge and specialised library suppliers who demand generous trading terms and indulge in peculiar cataloguing and marketing practices few publishers understand. The vital social and cultural role of libraries goes unheralded. Even their role as preservers and enhancers of a healthy reading ecosystem: the critical role they play in bringing new authors to readers, who more often than not subsequently purchase those authors' works. And the very important part they play in fostering literacy, enlightenment and education to the whole of society, particularly the underprivileged and disadvantaged.

In a real sense the library network should be seen by publishers as a major marketing arm for their endeavours. (Here's an interesting tidbit: A recent survey by OverDrive found that 35% of respondents have purchased a book after borrowing it). 

They are partners, not a threat, and their ebook lending programs should be welcomed not feared.