Yesterday’s New York Times reported that publishers are delaying the ebook releases of some titles because they think ebook sales are cutting into their hardcover sales, especially given that Amazon tends to treat popular ebooks as loss leaders by selling them for $9.99.
As a librarian, it’s hard to know where to stand in this fight. Publishers are resisting because they haven’t figured how to monetize ebooks yet. I watched for years as journal publishers struggled to adapt to a digital environment. Some of them still require libraries to subscribe to print copies to gain access to electronic copies, or block access to the last year’s content online. Book publishers seem to have ignored all this, and now they’re acting like they fell asleep in 1985 and just woke up.
In 2001, Association of American Publishers President Pat Schroeder famously blamed the publishing industries woes on libraries. They couldn’t sell books, you see, because libraries gave access to books for free. At the time I thought Schroeder was short-sighted and extreme. She didn’t want to attack libraries because they have such a good image. She should have wanted to save libraries because they promote and support reading.
Now the publishers have found a new enemy in Amazon. Amazon’s ebook approach is an enemy to libraries as well, but it’s hard to pick sides. Almost a decade after Schroeder’s pronouncement, publishers are still dithering, and scrambling to find someone to blame other than themselves. Schroeder’s criticism of libraries assumed that people not going to libraries would have paid anything for most of the books they read, which probably isn’t true. She should have prized libraries as the only purchaser for the vast amount of garbage that’s published every year.
Part of the problem might be that books are priced too high for the market. $35 is just too much to pay for the popular tripe being produced, especially when for the $35 you don’t get anything you can actually control or own or even handle, as with Kindle books. In the past, that $35 subsidized the long life of a printed book. Buy it, give it as a gift, which will then be regifted and loaned a few times and eventually donated to a library or sold to a used book store, where the process will begin anew at lower rates.
Libraries and used book stores build and support a culture of reading. They provide "free copies" or cheap copies but they also promote and support a culture of reading that benefits publishers. Some used to think that libraries would destroy book sales, but it turns out that creating a culture of reading means more people buy books. Go figure.
But just because the publishers are clueless doesn’t mean we shouldn’t support them in this fight, because if the Amazon model dominates the ebook industry, libraries are doomed.
Amazon wants to "change the way we read" with the Kindle. It wants to make every book reading experience the result of an financial transaction between Amazon and an individual reader. That’s certainly changing the way we read! That’s not really the problem, though. It also wants to bond that book-reading experience to a single device, which is certainly another major change. This change is undoubtedly good for Amazon, but it’s not especially good for publishers and it’s terrible for libraries.
It makes some sense for libraries to license digital content which it can then allow access to somehow, even if it has some silly restrictions like NetLibrary does. Limitations on access are necessary evils in a copyrighted world. But limitation to a particular device? To do that would be as if libraries subscribed to a database like EBSCOhost, but required library patrons to access it only on HP laptops that would be lent out a few at a time.
There will hopefully come a day when trying to limit digital content to a specific physical device will seethe m as quaint as card catalogs and 8-track players. In the meantime, we should resist the behemoth Amazon along with publishers, even if the publishers themselves don’t seem to be planning an alternate and better future.
Publishers are always looking for someone to blame their problems on. Now they’re picking on Amazon instead of libraries. They would have been better off trying to work with libraries on alternate publishing models in the last ten years, or developing those publishing models on their own. If we have to choose a side in this unsavory battle, we should probably side with the publishers. They don’t like libraries any more than Amazon does, but libraries have worked alongside them for a long time. If they’re not crafty enough to figure out how to sell ebooks on their own, then they’re not craft enough to destroy libraries. We can’t say the same of Amazon.