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Publishers Have Met the Enemy, and It is Them

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.

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Comments

  1. Bill Manson says:

    HarperCollins has taken the position that, because e-books won’t wear out, libraries will buy fewer replacement copies and the publishers’ revenues and authors’ royalties will suffer.

    This comes from the industry that has over the last twenty years shortened initial print runs on mid-list books, forgotten what “backlist” means and, essentially, insured that any book other than a bestseller has a status of out-of-print six months after its publication date?

    Now that’s some creative whining!

  2. will manley says:

    AL…Let’s talk about bestsellers. Public libraries and publishers make their living from bestsellers. Bestselling authors will soon figure out that they can make far more money by self publishing (both in hard copy and digital) and dealing directly with readers and thereby cutting out libraries and publishers altogether. When that happens, where does that leave libraries and publishers? The world of books is changing much faster than you project in your post.

  3. Mary Jo Finch says:

    Just where are the authors in this discussion? One would think that they would appreciate that libraries increase readership. Libraries benefit them as artists (who wants to write something and not have it read?) and as business people (who is more likely to buy your next book than someone who read your last one?). Libraries also benefit them as human beings who want to live in a literate society. So why are they silent in the battle between libraries and publishers?

    Will, I am not sure I agree that bestselling authors will embrace self-publishing. First of all, it means they have to find time not only to write but also to produce, publicize, and promote. Second, in selling directly they would miss all the “impulse buyers” – folks who are browsing in book stores and libraries. Maybe they would make more money on an individual book, but they would reach fewer readers which would reduce future sales. Many books are sold on the hype that is generated in libraries and book stores, and these sales would be lost in direct-to-consumer arrangement.

  4. Kay says:

    Will – where does that leave libraries and publishers?
    Well, libraries will have cheaper access to ebooks. So libraries will come out ahead. There’s absolutely no reason why a change away from the normal publishing system would cut out libraries. (In fact, it is highly unlikely that more than a small minority of authors would actually deal with readers. Instead, they’ll be dealing with a “self-publisher,” such as Amazon or Lulu, to distribute their work. Most people do not have – and do not want to have – the technical expertise to run this model themselves.)
    Publishers will adapt or die.

    The point about publishers needing to play nice is a good one – and a point they all ignore. In many cases, it is easier to “pirate” a book or other media than it is to legally obtain it (through purchase, loan, etc.). This is why iTunes has been successful (it’s easy!), despite their nasty (but circumventable) DRM.

  5. William Webster says:

    Sorry Will, but, to include libraries in with publishers is a dis-service to libraries, they will just buy from the author, like everyone else when it goes that way. Libraries buy books, many books, they do not publish. I like the model tho, there are many publishing packages for computers, and if an author cuts out the middle man, i.e. “Publisher” they can then drop the price, sell more, and a library can afford to buy more and loan out multiple copies of digital books, e-books, and hardcover at a time. If one has the digital image of a book, they can then just print a hard copy to loan, or replace a lost/damaged/stolen copy, as long as the number of licenses for that item can be tracked then nobody gets ripped off. Publishers will just have to deal with a shrinking author base.

    In fact, one should just be able to login to your favorite libray, or any that are available on-line, check out and read a book thru a web browser, or client, as long as no one else is reading it at the time, and just pick it up where you left off the last time. With all the new tablets, netbooks, and smartphones out there, one may never have to carry a hard copy again. Notice i did not say purchase, there are a few books that i would still buy for keeps, and store digital ones locally, or in the “cloud” as they say, if i had a virtual office/desk somewhere.

    I do computers, and the possibilities are endless and we are just now starting to grasp some of them, and some are not even thought of yet. The sky is the limit and we should embrace everything that would allow reading to be more prolific, turn on the light and get kids reading earlier buy making it easier to get a book, not harder. If you make books available to smartphones and gaming consoles, lol, they would probably read more.

  6. B. A. Binns says:

    This sounds terribly short-sighted. Libraries have always been a friend of authors and publishers, and a major market. People who want their own copies will still buy their own, whether eBook or print. People who need libraries will be the ones who lose out.

  7. Will, unless those couturier authors publish in China, I’m guessing that we would buy their books like any other person. How can you cut out libraries when you sell your books to anyone? I might need to pay a little more, but I’ll still get the book. Or I’ll buy used. Or “pre-owned” for the fanciest works. Those publishers and authors can ignore how libraries fit into the publishing ecosystem, but we have a lot of money to spend.
    Libraries are in a bad position and have been for 25 years because we buy what our patrons want, but these are the same folks who keep Kim Kardashian on the cover of People,so what can they know.
    Libraries should get back to their core of educating and supporting education. Screw the bestsellers. Watch what would happen to them if libraries held back our tens (hundreds?) of thousands of orders.
    Libraries should collectively be a huge player in publishing and these people should bend to smooch our collectively huge behind.

  8. Roger Verdi says:

    Very intersting to see the comments regarding this and musical scores.

    I’m a musician and mostly lapsed librarian.

    In the last few years, many orchestras I work for are relying on public domain files to get copies of parts for performances.

    That way they bypass the huge expense of renting parts–we all know libraries are under siege financially, imagine what most orchestras are going through.

    It also saves time and effort on the part of the orchestra librarian–no more need to send out parts in advance via US mail. Now many just send links to public domain files.

    This has been a great, great boon for individual study as well. Time was, to find a part to a lesser known work could be quite labor intensive. Now, it’s much simpler.

    The question of markings in the scores is one to consider. But, if you want to find bunch of publications rife with errors, that sure as heck distort the composer’s intent, look through the scores and parts of some of the leading music publishers!

  9. will manley says:

    Effing…great point. No one can stop libraries from ordering books available for sale. But if bestselling authors do organize and decide to bypass publishers, they can also turn their back on direct marketing to libraries and can certainly refuse to offer institutional discounts to libraries. What kind of digital lending rights would they give to libraries? Probably none. My point is that in all the brouhaha over the current Harper Collins controversy, no one seems to be talking about the rights and needs of authors, and to me that silence is ominous. Factor in the decrease in retail bookstore outlets and the diminishing purchasing power of libraries, and authors are definitely going to be exploring radically new ways in which they can get fair compensation for their work.

  10. Bob Watson says:

    Best seller authors who are now popular may not need libraries to provide publicity (or at least think they do not), but authors who would like to be best selling authors do. It’s a rare author who writes a best seller on the initial try, and even then it’s almost always with massive publisher-provided publicity.

    The reader/author/publisher/library/bookstore ecology is, I think, more complex than any one actor knows.

  11. J says:

    Mary Jo: “Just where are the authors in this discussion?”
    No matter how much authors may love libraries, the only ones who can afford to (suicidally) speak out against their publishers have names like Rowling and Grisham. For what it’s worth, though, author John Scalzi has been quite free with his opinions on the matter. For example:

    “This asinine jockeying over electronic book prices has very little to do with what’s actually good or useful for anyone other than the manufacturer of a piece of hardware…who also happens to be a book retailer.”

    Effing: “Libraries should get back to their core of educating and supporting education. Screw the bestsellers.”

    While I agree with the sentiment, it’s going to be hard to justify asking for level funding when 85% of your patrons disappear along with Oprah’s picks.

  12. Smith says:

    85%? Way overstated. I bet the total is more like 15-20%. Which is still alot.

  13. J says:

    That was intentionally hyperbolic and Oprah was just an example. Seriously, though, if a public library limits its collection to items that are “educating and supporting education” that cuts out pretty much all recent popular fiction and a lot of children’s materials. Now that 85% is looking a little more realistic for a some libraries I know.

  14. Mr. Kat says:

    …um, if libraries are author’s best firends, isn’t it a bit obvious where this can go? Authors will have the power to reach out directly to libraries and sell direct. Libraries are unfortunately woefully behind when ti comes to their acocunting departments, their aquisitions departments, and their websites in handling this new insurgence of direct contact. So there might be a couple writer guilds who develop out of this, an organizing of book writers to better market their products withouth the influence of the moguls who take their rights away from them. End result, these organizations would provide authors with a direct link to libraries, and customers, and libraries would have a place to browse organized offerings, select and purchase materials for their patrons – most likely, upon the demand of patrons. Ten or twenty or 100 patons request the title, the library buys a copy or 100 copies, or whatever they need to keep up with the demand…or perhaps even RENT copies!!!

    What it all comes down to, is the fact that the giants are no longer the gatekeepers.

    And DMA is like an unbreakable lock at a lockpicker’s convention. Every lockpicker is going to take a crack at it, until it’s cracked, and then they’ll work on DMA2, and when that’s cracked,they’ll work on DMAX. After that there will be VirtualLock, and they will crack that too. CloudLock will be as brainless as a Apple IIE without a floppy disk – it wil lalso be cracked. Thus has been the cycle of things.