A long time ago public librarians worried that by providing the public with popular novels they were lowering the taste of the public, or at least not trying to elevate that taste. In this, they were correct.
As it turned out, the public didn’t want its taste elevated. Lowbrow reading was just what they wanted.
Over time sentiments changed. The readers with the lowest brows, metaphorically speaking, abandoned reading altogether, or confined their reading to Maxim and the National Enquirer. Lowbrow readers had no need of the lowbrow fiction because they had television and videogames.
But still there was a small core of Americans who wanted to read popular novels, who were still able to derive some emotional pleasure from words and not just images. Public libraries devoted themselves to these people, doing everything they could to make sure that all and sundry could get quick access to the latest bestsellers.
Libraries devoted their scarce resources to buying multiple copies of popular novels that would then be discarded in a few months or years, depending on the longevity of the author’s popularity. At all costs they wanted to avoid the bitter ire of library patrons who desperately wanted to read the new John Grisham, but were too cheap to go out and buy it.
These people have important information needs! They must be satisfied at all costs!
Put the recent HaperCollins announcement in this context. Ignore my arguments from last week about publishers needing libraries (even if they’re true). Ignore the boycott, and the pointless ebook reader’s bill of rights. Let’s look at this from HarperCollins’ perspective for a moment.
Were I at HarperCollins, I would look at the history of public library book buying and think, these people are suckers. They’ll buy anything, jump through any hoop, just to make sure that people too cheap to buy bestsellers can get quick access to them. They’ll even pay for digital copies of books, and then only let one person at a time read them! Suckers!
So we’ll make them jump through another hoop! Dance, monkey, dance!
HarperCollins’ move to squeeze more money from libraries makes sense in some ways, since public libraries have long been willing to throw money hand over fist to keep themselves well stocked with popular books.
What they didn’t count on, for the moment, is that libraries don’t necessarily need ebooks yet. As long as print books remain, including ones from HarperCollins, they don’t have the monopoly necessary to squeeze the libraries.
If HarperCollins is serious about squeezing libraries and having complete control over every copy of every book they sell, they need to get serious about ebooks, and the way to do that is to quit selling print books.
This has been happening with academic journal publishers for years. They finally realized it’s silly to keep selling print subscriptions when they could just license digital journals and gouge libraries every year with impunity. It was a smart move on their part, because librarians are suckers.
HarperCollins and the rest of the library hating book publishers need to wake up and realize that as long as there are print books around, there’s nothing they can do to keep libraries from lending them and people from selling or giving away used copies.
Sure, these practices might be good for the common culture, for general literacy, and for promoting a love of reading that extends to other books, but they have a deleterious effect on the immediate bottom line of publishers, and that’s the only thing that matters to shortsighted businesses floundering in a rapidly changing world.
So go ahead and do it, book publishers. Quit printing books so you can have control over your DRM-saddled digital books. Then libraries will be in thrall to you!
Of course you’ll be in thrall to Amazon. Unlike Wiley and other wiley publishers, you won’t have a big academic library market addicted to your products. You won’t have sucker librarians to work with. You’ll have Jeff Bezos, and that guy plays hardball.
It looks to me like you have two choices. If you really want to control what libraries and others do with your books after they buy them, you’ll have to selling print copies. As long as print copies exist, libraries can limp along without succumbing to your arbitrary ebook demands.
On the other hand, going ebook only will give Amazon a lot more power over your product. It’ll also mean that the bestselling authors you’ve placed all your hopes on in the last couple of decades don’t really need you. They can just publish Kindle versions of their books directly, and still have the ability to publish in other venues and formats.
Authors might even give one restricted digital copy of their books to every library, just to give people a taste and to promote reading. Some say libraries are dying, but it’s the traditional book publishing model that’s dying.
Libraries show a long history of adapting to whatever demands the culture throws at them. Libraries may be suckers, but they’re resilient suckers. Book publishers haven’t shown that sort of resilience. The next decade will be the test.