In the last post, I suggested that book publishers, frightened by the future of digital information, are trying to pretend that libraries are part of the problem in the book business.
If libraries instituted a national policy of Filesharing Literacy, things could be worse for publishers, and they’d whine. Then again, they whine about lots of things because they seem to think that every book in the world should be sold from a specific publisher to a specific individual, preferable in multiple formats. What else could they be thinking with some of the things they’ve been saying?
There are a couple of good examples of such whining recently. Look at this article on legal ebook lending. It’s about an online Kindle ebook lending sites that allow Kindle owners to register and loan books among themselves.
For a long time Kindle books couldn’t be loaned at all, and even now they can be loaned to one person at a time for two weeks, during which time the book is unavailable to the owner. This is already a restrictive policy compared to printed books, since people can give away printed books. Ideally, one should just be able to give away Kindle books on the condition that you won’t have access to the file anymore.
The online sites are legal, and comply with all the restrictions. Says one site owner: “This type of service doesn’t facilitate the transfer of a file,” Burke said. “And because we don’t touch a file we have no worries about piracy. It’s just not possible.”
So no worries, right? Macmillan seems to be worried. Instead of adapting to the future of books, they’re fighting tooth and nail to keep us firmly locked into the twentieth century. See, the Kindle lending sites act like libraries, and Macmillan doesn’t like libraries.
Not all publishers are assured, including Macmillan U.S., whose president Brian Napack recently defended his company’s go-slow policy at a conference in New York. “The fear is I get one library card and never have to buy a book again,” he said. “So we are hard at work. We continue to wrestle with it.”
That seems pretty hostile to libraries to me. Considering how many books libraries have bought from Macmillan over the years, how could they possibly see libraries as a threat? Or sites like this that function as them? The same goes for HarperCollins, too.
As long as the ebooks have DRM, nothing has changed in the book model at all, which makes me wonder if Macmillan and others have always resented libraries. They act like libraries are hurting their sales, but that’s hard to prove.
They assume that people are borrowing or pirating books they would ordinarily buy. Does this seem plausible? Most of the book readers I know both use libraries and buy books, but for different purposes. I tend to borrow books that I would never buy myself.
For a lot of readers, if they couldn’t borrow the book, they just wouldn’t read it. They wouldn’t pay money to MacMillian or Amazon. It’s just not worth it to them. Since reading books stokes the appetite for reading more books, folks who can’t borrow some of the books they read would probably just read fewer, which means they’d probably buy fewer books as well.
Not to mention the fact that if a library or a person loans a book, someone has still bought a book!
An article in the New York Times profiles a website for uploading and sharing musical scores that also leads to publisher complaints. The site’s creator wants to make musical scores easily available for musicians, and since a lot of music was composed before 1923, there are a lot of public domain scores.
However, a lot of scores in the public domain are repackaged into print volumes and sold. Some publishers have complained that such a site hurts sales. Maybe it does, but it’s equivalent to Dover Publications complaining about Project Gutenberg. Publishers that make their money reprinting public domain books have an outdated business model if they still expect exclusive use of those books. Reprinting classics might always have a place, since lots of readers are going to like the feel of a well made book, but there are a lot more options now.
But publishers point out that users of the site can miss the benefit of some modern editions that may be entitled to copyright protection — and thus not part of the public domain — because of significant changes to the music, such as corrections and editing marks based on years of scholarship about the composer’s intention.
It might be true that users can miss the benefit of modern editions, but isn’t it up to the user to decide if that’s a benefit they want to pay for?
Since librarians love Huck Finn so much, let’s take that as a comparable example. Readers can choose from this corrected edition, this Norton Critical edition with notes and essays, this cheap mass market paperback, this $.89 Kindle ebook, or this free online edition that can be read online, printed out, or even converted to a Kindle book.
The old edition of Huck Finn is in the public domain, but scholars and students might be willing to pay $20 for a corrected text or for recent study aids. If you want a convenient reading edition, the $2 paperback or the Kindle or online editions would be fine. It’s up to the reader to decide if they want to pay for the added value of the more expensive editions. Reprinting public domain books or scores alone isn’t adding any value.
One publisher claimed that they were “unfairly maligned by its critics for doing what music publishers typically do: use revenue from the sale of old pieces to finance publishing of contemporary composers.”
True, the score site creator was hostile to publishers wanting exclusive use of public domain content, but without maligning anyone it’s easy to point out this model won’t work anymore. A scanned nineteenth-century score freely available online is legal and is merely taking advantage of contemporary communication technology.
Publishers are acting as if the problems are libraries and the Internet, when the problem is with their outdated publishing strategy. The Internet is here. People are going to lend ebooks, and if you make things too difficult for them, they’ll turn on you and start making the information free.
Macmillan distrusts ebook readers, but ebook readers for the most part can be trusted to use files legally, unless publishers irritate them with too many restrictions. Cracking down too hard is a losing game for the publishers, because protected files can almost always be stripped of their DRM.
Rather than antagonizing libraries and restricting readers, publishers need to realize the game has changed, and that building trust with libraries and readers is the only way they’re going to stay in business. Libraries and lending sites aren’t part of the problem, but they could be part of the solution. That is, if the publishers play nice.