I really am quite prescient these days. It’s an amazing time to be the Annoyed Librarian.
Several months ago, I put forward a proposal in a post I timidly titled, In Which I Solve the Ebook Library Lending Problem. That post was just before a meeting between librarians and publishers, which was preceded by some ridiculous tough talk and some whining about current bestsellers being the “bread and butter” of libraries, as if that mattered to publishers.
I pointed out that from the publisher’s perspective, selling newly released ebooks to libraries “would be like movie studios releasing DVDs alongside their theatrical releases.”
Penguin has just announced that new releases would no longer be sold to libraries, and the status of Penguin sales to libraries was in flux. What did that mean?
I asked whether that meant 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”, and proposed that “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.”
Problem solved. And it turns out that might indeed be the solution. As we read right here in Library Journal, America’s greatest library publication, Penguin has entered into a new trial with the NYPL and the Brooklyn Public Library to sell ebooks to libraries once again.
The terms? “Ebooks will not be made available to the libraries until six months after initial publication and availability will be for one year, with renewable terms.”
I have to hand it to you, NYPL, BPL, and Penguin, the six month embargo on new releases is a great idea. It solves everyone’s problems.
Sure, there will be librarians who claim it doesn’t solve their problems, but their problems are imaginary. There are actually librarians who think the main purpose of public libraries is to provide instant access to the most current books in every available format. Well, it’s not.
If libraries can get books and ebooks to people within a reasonable time period, they’ve done their job. Six months is definitely not too long to wait to get an ebook if you don’t want to buy it.
If you need it in a hurry, read the print version at the library or buy your own darn ebook. If that’s too much of a sacrifice for you, then you have some serious emotional and mental problems that you probably need to work out before you start reading bestselling ebooks.
What I don’t understand is the “availability for one year.” That’s even more arbitrary than HarperCollins totally arbitrary 26 checkouts limitation, and being more arbitrary than totally arbitrary is pretty arbitrary.
After a year and a half, the vast majority of books enter obscurity anyway. That’s why most public libraries, which pride themselves on paying whatever’s necessary for current bestsellers, end up tossing out most of their books over time.
Is the one year availability meant to make it easier for librarians to weed their collections? Now they don’t even have to bother to go pull a book off a shelf. It’ll just disappear.
A less arbitrary distinction would be to have annual renewals only for books that were still bestsellers. For most books, once the library pays, the library keeps the book in the system. But if the library has had the book for a year, and it’s still on the NYT Bestseller list, then the library pays to renew for another year, and so on indefinitely.
That way, when the Da Vinci Codes and the Dragon Tattoos come along and stay bestsellers for years, libraries can eventually supply the ebooks and continue to renew them for years. For the majority of the books that stop selling, the library copies could be available in perpetuity, just in case some poor soul wanted to read them some day.
The way things are now, once most libraries weed their print books, those books are pretty much unavailable, but ebooks don’t take up space. They could build the virtual collection of public libraries over time and do away with the one flaw of most library collections, that unless everyone wants it right now, no one gets it ever.
Having older books available means there’s a chance they’ll be read. That also means there’s a chance they’ll be rediscovered, and once again start selling well again. At that point, they go back on the list of books that libraries have to renew for a year, until they fade away again.
And for those librarians who continue to whine and argue that ebooks should be just as available as print books because that’s what libraries need, tough. That’s not going to help anyone until publishers stop fearing libraries.
So there you go. Problem solved, once again. You’re welcome.