The big news coming out of ALA Midwinter, besides the news that Dallas is a mediocre conference city, is that the “leaders” of ALA are going to meet today with at least three of the Big Six publishers. Based on the perspectives shared in the LJ article, the meeting promises to be a big mess.
There’s some tough talk from the ALA Executive Director, who said, “I want to assure you that the dialog will begin with us saying ‘you need to deal with libraries and you need to do this as soon as possible,’ then we can have a dialog starting from there.” I’ve attended a lot of meetings in my time and I’ve never seen one that began so belligerently accomplish anything.
Were I a Simon & Schuster representative – and for all you know I am – my response to that line would be, “Or what?” That sounds mild, but I’d say it in a really hostile tone of voice, and I’d be really menacing and all.
It sounds like a threat, except the ALA has nothing to threaten with. The ebook problem with publishers might be keeping the ALA membership “awake at night” (though I’m an ALA member and I sleep just fine), but a bunch of groggy librarians is neither a carrot nor a stick for the Big Six.
A former ALA president and founder of a publishing company has a more realistic view, more realistic mainly because I agree with her. She says, “I don’t think the [library] field understands publishers. You have to realize you are dealing with a low margin industry and these people are terrified, they don’t know what to do.” If publishers were having no problems, then they would be so hesitant to work with libraries. As she mentions, “just saying you’re bad guys is not going to do it.”
Librarians are feeling threatened, too, and maybe that’s why they’re talking so tough trying to convince themselves. There was a sign at one of the Occupy sites saying, “You know things are bad when the librarians are protesting.” Well, you know things must be REALLY bad when they’re talking like gangsters from The Godfather.
Some librarians seemed to favor protests at the conference itself, as if that was going to accomplish anything. There would have been nothing more pathetic than watching a couple dozen librarians protest in front of the sales reps of publishers. The sales reps already have a financial incentive to sell to libraries, but it’s not like they make policy. They just sell stuff.
Someone must have heard a sniff of a protest, because the ALA Executive Director felt compelled to mention that ALA would bear some “criminal liability” if it orchestrated any protests on the exhibit floor.
As far as I know, no librarians protested, which is for the better. Maybe they were too much like one librarian who thought protests or boycotts would feel like “taking away from the people you serve.” Except when it comes to union negotiations, librarians generally care more about the people they serve than they do about their own professional interests.
The contrast between a university library director and a public library director was striking.
The academic library director said she didn’t buy ebooks unless they came “multi-site and unrestricted number of simultaneous users,” and believes the important thing is to inform “publishers what models they need to offer if they want to market to libraries.” She might be right. Publishers want to make money from libraries, but they need a model that works for them as well as the libraries. Also, the stuff academic libraries need the most is never very popular.
In contrast, the director of a public library and co-chair of the ALA Working Group on Digital Content and Libraries makes a dire case: “As a public librarian whose entire bread and butter is first-run, new, hot stuff, if we lose that we will have to completely reinvent ourselves.”
This is one of the most telling comments I’ve heard come out of public libraries recently, and it leaves a serious question unanswered. Why should public libraries serve up first-run, new, hot stuff? Why should that be their “bread and butter”?
As a librarian and library user, I find the no-ebook-sales-to-libraries policy annoying, stupid, and shortsighted. However, I understand their fears about piracy and intellectual property rights, even if I think those fears are greatly exaggerated.
On the other hand, looking at it from the publisher’s perspective, now that they can control the content, why should they sell the hottest stuff to libraries? That would be like movie studios releasing DVDs alongside their theatrical releases.
Penguin announced new releases wouldn’t be sold to libraries. If that means that at some point after release, maybe 6-12 months after the initial publication, libraries could then buy the ebooks, is that really such a big problem for libraries or their patrons?
Maybe that would be the bait that would lure the other publishers into the library pond. Libraries would be allowed to purchase all their ebooks, but only after a certain amount of time has passed so that publishers can make sure libraries aren’t cutting into the sales of new releases.
Libraries would just have to make do with the knowledge that eventually they would get all the ebooks they wanted.
And library patrons that wanted to read a book quickly could buy it. If they didn’t care when they read it, they could wait a few months to check one out from a library. In the meantime, they could read the printed book from they library if they wanted. People who would wait a year to read the ebook of a previously best selling novel were obviously never going to buy the ebook themselves.
And if the “bread and butter” of libraries is truly in offering the latest hot new thing, then maybe libraries should reinvent themselves. There’s no compelling rationale in all the high minded propaganda about libraries and democracy that would imply libraries had to offer bestselling ebooks at the height of their popularity.
There, problem solved. You’re welcome.