February 17, 2018

First Harper, Now Random | Editorial

This won’t be the final word on ebook pricing and lending

The latest change in the library ebook marketplace, Random House’s steep rise in its ebook prices—initially said to be as much as 300 percent on some trade titles—may be even more devastating than the 26-loan cap imposed by HarperCollins last year on ebook circulation. Prices from several publishers have been higher all along, but this makes it impossible for some libraries to afford new Random House ebook titles by best-selling authors, the ones most popular in public libraries. Stephanie Stanton, director of Malverne Public Library, NY, and a member of the 54-library Nassau Digital Doorway, which still has a boycott on HarperCollins ebooks, says that next month the group will be revisiting its action. “HarperCollins isn’t looking so bad anymore,” she said, stating what many librarians felt following the Random House decision.

As those of you who have read this column and have dealt with the Random House library marketing and sales departments over the years know, the publisher has been a pioneer in reaching out directly to librarians. Perhaps that’s why it came as a particular shock that the house was raising the barrier to ebooks. Those marketing efforts were good for business, but they were also good for libraries. The two go hand in hand, as Random House knows well—as a sponsor of LJ’s groundbreaking Patron Profiles research, the house has insight into the impact of library use on the overall book market.

For years Random House has brought authors and advance reading copies to library conferences. It courted library sales with discounts at BookExpo America (and its previous incarnation, the American Booksellers Association show), where many big-system librarians once made direct purchases. It helped make librarians welcome at ABA and later at BEA. It was among the first of the major publishers to include libraries as part of author tours and to sponsor events for librarians at these and other conferences.

Just last month at the Public Library Association meeting in Philadelphia, after the price increase, librarians packed a reception the company sponsored at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to hear Carl Hiassen talk about his new children’s book and audiobook, Chomp (he was a speaker at the Audio Publishers Association dinner the following night).

No one told Skip Dye, Random House VP for library and academic sales, at the party or later on the exhibits floor that they would be boycotting Random House. (Since this was written, librarians have boycotted Random; Dye picks up the phone to talk to them.) A number of librarians did say they wouldn’t be able to spend that much on Random House ebooks. I heard librarians tell him they were “heartsick,” “pissed,” and “disappointed.” One Louisiana librarian reported they’d put up a sign in her library that says, “Call the publisher.” Another told Dye, “If we were in New York, we’d do an Occupy Random House.”

For three days, Dye stood at the Random House booth taking the heat; he’d directed his colleagues to send anyone who had a complaint to him. He reiterated the company’s determination to continue selling ebooks to libraries. He told those who stopped by that the publisher is open to ongoing dialog, that the new prices had been arrived at after talking to a number of librarians about buying and borrowing patterns. He said that prices for some ebooks had already come down and that Random will continue to look at its pricing policy. One commenter stated what so many others must be thinking: “At least you’re not Macmillan, Penguin, or Brilliance [which refuse to sell digital editions to libraries].”

As I watched Dye face the reaction, like HarperCollins’s Josh Marwell did in 2011, I both felt sorry for him and admired his demeanor. But I am hoping that by this time next year, the prices won’t seem onerous anymore, not because another debilitating policy from another big publisher makes this increase seem paltry but because librarians push back and the publishers reconsider the benefits of ebook sales to libraries. Dye said, and I hope it’s true, that this isn’t Random’s final word.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Francine Fialkoff About Francine Fialkoff

Francine Fialkoff (ffialkoff@gmail.com) spent 35 years with LJ, and 15 years at its helm as Editor and Editor-in-Chief. For more, see her Farewell Editorial.

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  1. Nancy Speisser says:

    What irritates me is the final comment that we should be happy with the current model because the next one might be worse. This is like saying, “Be happy that gasoline is $4/gallon, because next week, it could be $4.50. Publishers make more profit on ebooks than on print books. They should be passing the savings along to libraries, not trying to gauge us.

  2. Nancy, I agree with you–and that’s what my last comment says. I don’t want us to say the current model is good because a worse one came along–i want the model to change for the better because libraries push back at publishers and because publishers recognize that libaries are an essential part of the book, and ebook, ecosystem.