If it wasn’t bad enough that Apple was “censoring” Seth Godin last week, Random House did something even worse. They tripled the prices libraries have to pay for Random House ebooks, and boy were there a lot of annoyed librarians after they did.
One might think that a book that never wears out that can be loaned in perpetuity might be worth triple the price of a books that wear out. It seems only fair to charge more for a book that lasts forever.
Alas, that’s not what we’ve come to expect. Instead of thinking of ebooks as books that last forever, we think of them as books that don’t have all the expensive physical associations of print books, like paper, glue, and actual people who sit at desks writing them.
We think that ebooks should cost less than print books. After all, Amazon charges less for their ebooks, and if Amazon charges less it must be because the book costs less. That much is obvious.
Of course there is the fact that ebooks have significant limitations over print books. You don’t legally own the ebooks, so you can’t lend them, give them away, or resell them like you can print books. They last forever and sit unused on whatever device you have once you’ve finished reading them, with no way to spread the joy of reading via friends, friends of libraries, or second hand bookstores.
If I don’t really own something, but am just renting access, maybe it makes sense that ebooks are so cheap.
Okay, so back to Random House. They tripled their ebook prices for libraries. Is something like this unprecedented? Are they really so bad?
Not necessarily. It’s not uncommon for magazines and newspapers to charge different rates for personal subscriptions versus institutional subscriptions. You can think about higher book charges for libraries as a form of institutional subscription, since libraries are more or less subscribing to the ebooks. Why shouldn’t publishers charge more for institutions that are going to get multiple uses from the books?
About the only reason not to is precedent. Libraries often buy their books from book wholesalers, not publishers, so they can buy some print books at the wholesale price that bookstores pay, which is sometimes as much as 40% off the list price.
Librarians are in a tizzy because of the price hike, but maybe libraries have been treated too kindly in the past. Maybe the protests over the price hike are just the whines of spoiled librarians who don’t think libraries should pay more for books they don’t have to physically handle, store, or replace.
On the other hand, maybe libraries would be crazy to start paying triple what they were paying a week ago for access to ebook titles. Are librarians so desperate for ebooks they’ll do anything, pay any price, accept any raw deal? Maybe. One librarian responded, “they’re still in libraries, after all.” Oh, my.
That’s more realistic, if disappointing, than some responses to the price hike. One librarian wrote: “The first thing that popped into my mind was that Random House must really hate libraries. Perhaps this isn’t true, but it will take a lot of convincing for me to believe otherwise. Do they not realize that libraries are hard hit by the economic downturn and that our budgets are shrinking. How do they think we can afford to build a decent collection of e-books when we’re spending over $100 per book?”
This was obviously written by a librarian who doesn’t quite understand what’s going on at all. Do publishers not realize that library budgets have been cut? Um, probably. So?
Library budgets aren’t the business of publishers, and based on past performance publishers know that libraries will pay out the nose for ebooks because they’re so grateful to have any publishers play with them at all.
If a library has $10,000 to spend on ebooks, they’ll still spend it on ebooks. They’ll just get fewer books for their money, hold lists will extend for years, and people might possibly purchase the book for themselves rather than wait around for two years to read a bestseller. Or maybe they can cut something else from the budget. They can buy fewer children’s books. Those children don’t pay taxes anyway.
How do they think libraries can afford to build a decent collection of ebooks? Again, how is that the concern of the publishers?
Libraries want a large collection of ebooks so people will use libraries. That’s completely irrelevant to publisher concerns. Publishers want to sell books. They don’t want libraries to be attractive options for readers.
It seems every week there’s some new shock for libraries in the ebook world, and every week some naive librarians complain about how mean the publishers are for not wanting libraries to thrive. What will if take for librarians to stand up and say, we’re not going to take this anymore? A lot, apparently.
Ebook publishers have libraries over a barrel because the librarians have bent over the barrel themselves.