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Librarians Whine Over Price Hikes

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.

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Comments

  1. Re: What will it take for librarians to stand up and say, we’re not going to take this anymore?

    Isn’t this an extension of the approach you criticized a few posts back in Ebooks and Libraries Don’t Mix? And, by “not taking it anymore” wouldn’t libraries only accelerate their disintermediation in this realm?

    It’s crunch time. Essentially libraries are being asked “what value do you provide now that machines are doing the hand work?” The typical ways, which have relied more on the presumption of value rather than its demonstration aren’t holding weight with funders (in this case, publishers). I’d suggest the library community look outside itself for resources. Look to folks like Joe Esposito and Mike Shatkin, for example. Both are subject matter experts who support libraries. They’ll tell it to ya straight. It won’t be the feedback libraries solicit and typically hear within the echo chamber. It will, however be insightful, credible, and just might illuminate a way forward.

  2. Democratic Divide says:

    Very simply, until public libraries are able to lend e-book readers to a significant percentage of their customers, e-book access will be an option of the well-to-do — and they can purchase their own popular fiction favorites!

    The issue goes beyond the cost of individual e-book titles; it has implications for the “access for all” value libraries, until now, have upheld.

    Until these problems have been dealt with, print remains the —- democratic option.

    • annoyedlibraryworker says:

      Respectfully I disagree that e-book reader prices leave out all but the well to do for the world of e-books. In just a few years the cost of e-book readers have dropped dramatically (when the kindle first arrived it was 300 bucks now a similar model will set you back 90 dollars, and by all accounts it looks like we will see the price go even lower). In the past year I have seen many people who previously scoffed at the idea of a dedicated reading device, now owning them and looking for more variety and copies of popular titles. The print book is far from dead, but digital media delivery is the way we are headed.

  3. AL said, “and boy were there a lot of annoyed librarians….” No! There can only be one Annoyed Librarian!

    W-E L-O-V-E T-H-E A-N-N-O-Y-E-D L-I-B-R-A-R-I-A-N !!!
    W-E L-O-V-E T-H-E A-N-N-O-Y-E-D L-I-B-R-A-R-I-A-N !!!
    W-E L-O-V-E T-H-E A-N-N-O-Y-E-D L-I-B-R-A-R-I-A-N !!!

  4. Christopher Elliott says:

    Remember back in oh like the late 80s when VHS tapes had a “rental” price of $100 for many new releases? After sometime they went down to a “sale” price of $20.
    It seems obvious that when it comes to bestsellers, publishers really really really want people with e-readers to buy these books. If it’s just for pennies. And with bestsellers people are very likely to just purchase that book for their reader rather than hope a library will carry it or be put on a 5 month waiting list.
    I always maintained that for the next year or 2 the e-reader frenzy will keep a market in a flux. Publishers will see what they can get away with. But soon it’ll settle into some sort of predictable avenue. E-book reader sales will probably flatten if not fall as people with them will not feel the need to upgrade to reader 4.1 when 4.0 works just fine and fewer new e-reader users will enter the market. The novelty of the e-reader will fall off and people will no longer spend $100 a month impulse buying books.
    When that happens libraries may be in a better position to work with publishers. Until then, I think we could provide a better service continuing with print books and giving smaller publishers and lesser known authors a chance to shine via the library.

    • I Like Books says:

      Of course, if people don’t want to buy e-reader 4.1, they could always find that new titles won’t load on the old hardware. Or even that archival functions of their service will be “upgraded”, and the new hardware will be required to access archived titles.

      Oh, sellers are going to LOVE this new paradigm!

  5. Winston says:

    “Libraries want a large collection of ebooks so people will use libraries.”

    AL, you’re missing the point. Libraries want a large collection of ebooks so people will read them. Libraries exist to promote reading and learning. It’s our job to collect books and we want as many as possible because we want to people to read more and learn more. They don’t exist so that people will use libraries. The recent Random House price increase just makes it that much harder to collect ebooks to promote reading and learning. Random House and the other publishers have the right to sell to libraries or not and to charge whatever they want. And libraries should be very worried when publishers’ decisions hurts our ability to promote reading and learning.

  6. Overworked Librarian says:

    “Ebook publishers have libraries over a barrel because the librarians have bent over the barrel themselves.”
    Oh such harsh language AL! LOL. I feel you on this post. It’s amazing how far this is going.

    The library I currently work at does not subscribe to Overdrive or offer any other access to digital circulation. Our patrons ask about it every week. So the demand is there. It is a cool service to offer, but I don’t think libraries should make this a priority; and definitely not at all costs.

    My collection development budget was cut to a ridiculous $100 a month (for the adult fiction) so I started ordering paperbacks instead of hardcovers. I cannot imagine paying triple for an e-book title.

    • Formerprof says:

      If my CD budget were only $100 a month for adult fiction, I’d save up for a few months, then head out to Home Depot to buy chains and padlocks for the doors and shut the place down. I mean seriously, why even bother.

      Formerprof

  7. Orty says:

    Ebooks last forever? Are you kidding? The ebooks we had ten years ago (yes, some libraries had ebooks ten years ago) no longer exist. The ebooks we have now will be completely obsolete in another ten years. If publishers are worried about selling us books that last decades, they should stop selling us print!

  8. Hell Boy says:

    Quite simply the publishers will charge what the market will bear. That’s business 101. The publishers are in this game for profit and they do have overhead. The authors of those books are also part of the equation (i.e. copyright allows creators to make money on their creative work) The issue is more complex than just “those evil publishers.” If customers actually pay top dollar for e-books, journals, etc. who is to blame? If I pay 80K for a Jaguar is it okay to blame the car dealership when I can’t make the payment?

    And lets broaden this out to include the open access debate. Borrowing from AL I’d say that the faculty are holding our arms down as we are being bent over the barrel. i.e. academic library directors would not keep paying the Elseviers of the world, were it not for fear that the faculty senate would eat them alive. Faculty need access to certain journals or databases that have proprietary information. Again: The vendors will charge what the market will bear.

    It’s not a Star Trek utopia where everyone does everything for free. Information does not want to be free; rather, librarians would like it to be.

  9. Tarny Golettq says:

    The fundamental issue is that librarians (and libraries) are once again trying to remain relevant in a technological area that has largely passed them by.

    How many times have you read “Is the death of the library?” in AL and LJ? Seems like every year or so that is the cover story.

    Our municipalities and counties (funding agencies for most public libraries) have already told libraries what the future is. Smaller buildings (if any), reduced staff, and lower budgets.

    All the rest of this – publishers raising prices on libraries – is just additional nails in the coffin.

    Rather than whine and be annoyed, why isn’t ALA marching right up to Random House’s door and making the case for libraries?

    Because Random House is a big exhibitor at ALA…..

  10. finallyalibrarian says:

    Well, one advantage I see to ebooks is they cannot be stolen! Patrons might be able to read the latest book by Zane if we had the digital versions for cell phones.

  11. Overworked Librarian says:

    I know what you mean about the stolen Zane books. We may as well just buy her books and pass them out because they get stolen that often and that quickly. The only other books that are stolen as much are GED test prep books. Such a shame!

  12. Overworked Librarian says:

    @Formerprof,
    So you understand how upset we are! My colleagues are not ordering at all in protest but I still squeeze in about a dozen paperbacks a month. It is quite depressing. I sound like a broken record at the reference desk, “We don’t have that book, but I can place a hold on that title and have it delivered here from another library through inter-library loan.”

  13. Friend of Public Libraries says:

    Librares generally are very careful with dollars spent. Even more aware during these tight budget times while library use increases (not uncommon in an economic turn-down). Keep in mind that these are tax dollars at work and libraries are just trying to be fiscally prudent while attempting to meet public demands.

  14. I Like Books says:

    Aside: print subscription rates really have varied per user. A subscription to a scientific journal might be, say, $100 for an individual, $500 for an institution.

    Anyway…

    I guess I haven’t really been keeping up. But are e-books really that important to libraries? Do patrons really go to a library looking for a particular title, get handed a hardcover, and then toss it aside and say “No, I don’t a real book, I want an e-book! Give me an e-book!”

    Is the e-book thing honestly driven by patron demand? Or is it driven by what librarians assume is what it takes to “remain relevant”?

  15. Will says:

    Marvel comics has just started giving free downloads of the digital version of a comic if you buy the analog comic. Wouldn’t it be nice if book publishers did the same?
    http://dondesestalabiblioteca.blogspot.com/2012/03/now-if-you-buy-marvel-comic-you-also.html

  16. hi there says:

    God bless always available open EPUB eBooks. If you cant choose from one of the tens of thousands of classics nor wait two months for the new Michael Connelly print, then get out of my library.

    Avoid the fad and buy your ebooks. Do not rely on your library for every imaginable service.

  17. if librarians accept the institutional model for ebooks (“Why shouldn’t publishers charge more for institutions that are going to get multiple uses from the books?”) then what’s to stop publishers from pushing that model over to all materials? print books, DVDs, kittens, hobos, velociraptors? or maybe this will be good for libraries and we’ll abandon bestsellers for Open ebooks. slap some new cover art on titles from 1880 and put them on the server. but if our patrons really want the latest $100 ebooks, we’ll create “teams of donors” who can kick in $50 each to purchase the books for us and when they are done with it, it becomes available for everyone else.

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