There are strange things afoot these days in the book world.
Penguin, one of the Big Six publishers has just launched a self-publishing service built on its online community for genre fans, Book Country. Now anyone can be published by Penguin-only in this case, the author pays the publisher instead of the other way around.
Penguin sees the writing on the wall. Last year, self-published books outnumbered traditional publications eight to one. Supply has totally outstripped demand. It’s too good a potential revenue stream for a publishing company to ignore, and besides-maybe a bestseller will emerge and Penguin will be positioned to snap it up.
When it comes to bestsellers, traditional publishers still have an advantage. Anita Elberse has pointed out that the same environment that gives more people a public platform to wag their long tails also creates conditions for a vortex of buzz for big books. Consumers don’t necessarily want to make choices; they want to read what everyone else is reading. “The truth is that consumers prefer blockbusters,” she writes, so publishers are motivated to produce them and it’s working. The number of sales it takes to make it onto the bestseller lists is higher now than ever, even though the long tail is much longer.
Blurring old and new
Academic journal publishers are likewise reading the writing on the wall. They are launching open access journals and are increasingly offering opportunities for scientists and scholars to ransom the freedom of their writings in toll access journals-for a fee, of course. SAGE now offers such a service for a mere $3000, for which the publisher will deposit the article into repositories of funders who require deposit, and anyone who stumbles across the article in SAGE’s vast database will be able to read it without having to purchase it. However, authors are prohibited from depositing the articles they ransom into institutional repositories for a full year.
As Heather Morrison points out at her wonderfully-named blog, The Imaginary Journal of Poetic Economics, SAGE Choice is aptly named; SAGE acquires a new revenue stream but still gets to make the choices. I suspect scholars are not likely to be fooled by this lame version of open access. Rather, I take this as a sign that big publishers are getting nervous.
Amazon, of course, has a tradition of upending traditions, becoming a vertically-integrated service provider for every piece of the book industry. After starting as a bookseller, it acquired a self-publishing platform, then launched its ebook device with a huge catalog of digital titles, setting price expectations aggressively by taking a loss on popular books, now adding to their portfolio a number of traditional publishing imprints, bringing on board aging young Turks like Larry Kirshbaum to provide old-school know-how and connections.
Authors are trying on new roles, too, and not just by becoming their own publishers. This week, one of them slipped into a niche at the other end of the industry: in the teeth of hype about burgeoning ebook sales, Ann Patchett and a business partner opened a bricks and mortar bookstore. I wish her every success, so long as she still finds time to write more novels.
We own our niche
Librarians have flirted with these niche-switching impulses. We’re moving into publishing services, though providing services is not really the same thing as becoming publishers. We went through a season of trying hard to be like bookstores (which had previously gone through a season of trying to look like libraries). The current fad in academic libraries is to provide a search experience like Google’s by investing time and money in discovery layers. I’m actually relieved we have neither time nor the money so that I’m spared all the headaches I keep hearing about. Meanwhile Google Scholar keeps getting better at discovering our stuff.
But for the most part, librarians are pretty clear about what we do. We provide information and assistance to our communities without charging for it and we have certain ingrained habits-providing a range of conflicting ideas, opposing censorship, defending people’s right to inquire without being punished for it-that we tend to cling to almost without thinking.
It’s hard for commercial ventures to do these things. After failing to coax publishers into their Google Print program, Google turned to libraries to add the contents of books to their search engine. Google then tried to come to terms with infuriated publishers by becoming a gigantic bookstore, positioned to be the only vendor of digital editions of orphaned works. The courts have not been enthusiastic about the arrangement, so for now we have a curiously bifocal Google Books platform, half search and half sales.
You call that a library?
Amazon frustrated public libraries by not allowing owners of their popular reading device to borrow books through OverDrive until, suddenly, they did. It has hardly been smooth sailing. Libraries weren’t too thrilled with the fact that their patrons had to go through Amazon’s site. They were uncomfortable with the fact that Amazon collects personal information about what patrons were reading (down to which pages they look at). Sara Houghton-Jan, the Librarian in Black, summed it up nicely as an unacceptable insult to our principles. Jessamyn West has just shared a patron’s appalled reaction to borrowing a digital book from the library using his Kindle and being repeatedly hounded to buy a copy as a result. Not subtle, Amazon. We don’t treat our patrons that way, and they know the difference.
But boy, Amazon really doesn’t get it. Right after it allowed library patrons to download library books to their Kindles, Amazon put the finishing touch of its “we own the entire book universe” scheme by stepping into one niche it hadn’t quite conquered. It rolled out its idea of a library by offering people the opportunity to pay $79 a year to borrow up to 12 books, one per month. It’s had the chutzpah to license digital titles to consumers while treating publishers’ contracts for digital licensing as if the first sale doctrine somehow applies. Amazon has infuriated both publishers and authors-and looks kind of silly, to boot.
Would you be satisfied if your local public library only let you borrow one book a month from a collection of 5000 titles, none of them published by the most mainstream publishers? No, I didn’t think so.
We manage, somehow, in an era of shrinking budgets to make more books and information available to all community members than Amazon can, and we don’t hound our users to buy anything. This works out for everyone. We may feel underappreciated at times, or in danger of extinction, but I’m not worried. This is one important part of the book ecosystem where nobody else does it better.