And a Happy New Year! Warning: this post may have been written under the influence of champagne, or perhaps a sparkling wine hangover.
Many of you probably saw the Christmas Day article in the New York Times about publishers and why they hate libraries so much.
That’s not quite the way they put it, but it might as well have been. The “executive vice president and chief digital officer” of Simon & Schuster explained why they hate libraries and don’t allow libraries to lend their ebooks: “We’re concerned that authors and publishers are made whole by library e-lending and that they aren’t losing sales that they might have made in another channel.”
Which makes a lot of sense, because the sort of people who are willing to be number 99 out of 400 on a wait list for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are pretty likely to buy the book themselves if libraries didn’t have copies.
The explanation for why Simon & Schuster hates libraries but only for ebooks is dissembling at best. Supposedly, it’s because “publishers didn’t worry about lost sales from library lending of print books is that buying a book is easier — no return trip is needed to the bookstore — and the buyer has a physical collectible after reading it.”
Yeah, right. That’s all it is. They’re only concerned now because it’s so darned easy to check out that ebook. It’s just as easy to purchase an ebook as check one out from a library (easier, actually), just as it’s as easy to purchase a print book from a physical bookstore as it is to borrow one from a physical library.
The same excuse that she gives, that publishers might be losing sales they might otherwise have made, is just as true with printed books as with ebooks. The major difference before ebooks is that publishers couldn’t control the distribution of the books, only the content.
Once physical books were printed and sold to book vendors and bookstores, the publisher’s control ended and they couldn’t prevent libraries from buying their books. Then there was that annoying “first sale doctrine” that let people and libraries do what they wanted to with books they purchased. Crazy!
Publishers hated libraries then, but there was nothing they could do about it. The difference is, now they can control the content as well as the distribution, their ebooks aren’t sold but licensed (evading the first sale doctrine), and the publishers can dictate how people get to their books.
It’s this hatred, or maybe just fear, of libraries that explains why of the Big Six publishers three never allowed library ebook lending, one has restricted the number of loans for a purchased title before it expires, another has removed their most recent and popular books from library ebook lending, and the sixth is “actively reviewing” its ebook lending practice.
They would have restricted library sales all along if they could have.
One claim is that it reduces royalties for the authors, which I’m sure is a huge concern for major publishers. The funny thing is, a lot of authors actually like libraries, probably because good writers probably can’t become good writers without access to more books than they could ever afford or want to carry around.
This article is a typical example of writers protesting library closures, unsuccessfully in this case. Writers like Philip Pullman and Zadie Smith believe in the importance of libraries. But of all the writers who support libraries, how many publish with corporations that won’t allow library ebook lending? How many even think about that? Or the likelihood that in a few years most books might be ebook only, and probably unavailable to libraries?
Philip Pullman publishes with a subsidiary of Random House, which does allow ebook lending. Zadie Smith with Penguin, which is restricting their lending policy. But others?
Even of the authors who resent libraries and think they steal sales, would they really want a world without libraries? They might not like it that people can borrow their books without paying for them, but would they never want to do the same with other books? Or have we gotten to the point where writers don’t need to read books anymore? It seems like people who write business or self-help books are only semiliterate, but good novelists must still read the works of others.
The contrast between publishers trying to destroy the ability for libraries to lend books and the very vocal support of libraries by many writers makes is significant, but what to make of it for libraries is unclear.
Writers who support themselves through their writing are unlikely to leave their publishers just because the publishers won’t allow libraries to lend their ebooks, but something like a mass protest by writers might be the only leverage libraries have with publishers.
Libraries can protest ebook exclusion all they like, but they have no leverage at all when dealing directly with publishers. Librarians will abuse themselves to no end to make sure the public has free access to bestselling novels, and without access to popular books libraries would be less popular with the public.
However, that’s a reason for libraries to want ebooks, not for publishers to allow them access to ebooks, and so far librarians haven’t come up with many good reasons that publishers would accept to allow ebook lending.
Maybe it’s time to start with the writers. Or maybe it’s time to finish that conversion of public libraries into “tech shops” and gaming centers and move books and reading to the margins. The ALA can have famous people pose for posters with “PLAY GAMES” on them. It’ll be very inspiring.