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Hapless Publishers Now Blame Amazon

Yesterday’s New York Times reported that publishers are delaying the ebook releases of some titles because they think ebook sales are cutting into their hardcover sales, especially given that Amazon tends to treat popular ebooks as loss leaders by selling them for $9.99.

As a librarian, it’s hard to know where to stand in this fight. Publishers are resisting because they haven’t figured how to monetize ebooks yet. I watched for years as journal publishers struggled to adapt to a digital environment. Some of them still require libraries to subscribe to print copies to gain access to electronic copies, or block access to the last year’s content online. Book publishers seem to have ignored all this, and now they’re acting like they fell asleep in 1985 and just woke up.

In 2001, Association of American Publishers President Pat Schroeder famously blamed the publishing industries woes on libraries. They couldn’t sell books, you see, because libraries gave access to books for free. At the time I thought Schroeder was short-sighted and extreme. She didn’t want to attack libraries because they have such a good image. She should have wanted to save libraries because they promote and support reading.

Now the publishers have found a new enemy in Amazon. Amazon’s ebook approach is an enemy to libraries as well, but it’s hard to pick sides. Almost a decade after Schroeder’s pronouncement, publishers are still dithering, and scrambling to find someone to blame other than themselves. Schroeder’s criticism of libraries assumed that people not going to libraries would have paid anything for most of the books they read, which probably isn’t true. She should have prized libraries as the only purchaser for the vast amount of garbage that’s published every year.

Part of the problem might be that books are priced too high for the market. $35 is just too much to pay for the popular tripe being produced, especially when for the $35 you don’t get anything you can actually control or own or even handle, as with Kindle books. In the past, that $35 subsidized the long life of a printed book. Buy it, give it as a gift, which will then be regifted and loaned a few times and eventually donated to a library or sold to a used book store, where the process will begin anew at lower rates.

Libraries and used book stores build and support a culture of reading. They provide "free copies" or cheap copies but they also promote and support a culture of reading that benefits publishers. Some used to think that libraries would destroy book sales, but it turns out that creating a culture of reading means more people buy books. Go figure.

But just because the publishers are clueless doesn’t mean we shouldn’t support them in this fight, because if the Amazon model dominates the ebook industry, libraries are doomed.

Amazon wants to "change the way we read" with the Kindle. It wants to make every book reading experience the result of an financial transaction between Amazon and an individual reader. That’s certainly changing the way we read! That’s not really the problem, though. It also wants to bond that book-reading experience to a single device, which is certainly another major change. This change is undoubtedly good for Amazon, but it’s not especially good for publishers and it’s terrible for libraries.

It makes some sense for libraries to license digital content which it can then allow access to somehow, even if it has some silly restrictions like NetLibrary does. Limitations on access are necessary evils in a copyrighted world. But limitation to a particular device? To do that would be as if libraries subscribed to a database like EBSCOhost, but required library patrons to access it only on HP laptops that would be lent out a few at a time.

There will hopefully come a day when trying to limit digital content to a specific physical device will seethe m as quaint as card catalogs and 8-track players. In the meantime, we should resist the behemoth Amazon along with publishers, even if the publishers themselves don’t seem to be planning an alternate and better future.

Publishers are always looking for someone to blame their problems on. Now they’re picking on Amazon instead of libraries. They would have been better off trying to work with libraries on alternate publishing models in the last ten years, or developing those publishing models on their own. If we have to choose a side in this unsavory battle, we should probably side with the publishers. They don’t like libraries any more than Amazon does, but libraries have worked alongside them for a long time. If they’re not crafty enough to figure out how to sell ebooks on their own, then they’re not craft enough to destroy libraries. We can’t say the same of Amazon.



  1. Post postmodern Librarian says:

    Maybe its my bruised toe or the shot of early morning caffeine but its this the same as Google dedicating one computer for public libraries to read Google Scholar? I know thats been struck down in court but it was an attempt to control the mechanism of viewing. This makes me wonder what would have happen in 1500s if someone had enforced copy righting the book format. I am normally pro copy right when it comes to content. I dont like anyone claiming my ideas and selling it as theirs. I draw the line at controlling format and thus access. This is true if its Amazon, Google, Time Warner now Cox Cable or a government. Knowledge spread like wild flowers because anyone from 1500-1900 could publish a book if they could find a printer. In 1900 the overhead got to high now to make up the cost content creators are trying to control access points.

  2. You are doing virtually nothing to prepare for a future that is obvious to anyone not vested in the current situation! Although you have done virtually nothing to deserve a roll in this information environment, you expect that somehow, someone is going to recognize your expertise in handling information and give you a roll in the future of information delivery. It is not going to happen unless you make it happen. And the probability that you will make it happen is almost nil. I could tell you why you are not going to make it happen but you will not want to hear it, because the truth is too painful. But, I do not need to tell you why you will not control your own destiny because your actions at this critical juncture will speak more eloquently than anything I might say.

    Why should anyone care whether librarians have a roll in the emerging information environment? I know why. For the majority of librarians who have never considered the question, I will leave it up to you to think about.

    It may seem that I find some joy in this prognostication of doom. I do not. I have always felt that the most important part of the “library” was not the building or the book but the librarian, and I weep to see the institution of “the library” fading into extinction do to the ineptitude of the keepers of the flame.

    Finally: Just to be absolutely clear: I have no material interest in any decision you make, or in any network you consider joining; I am not happy to see the organization I led, sink into such a pitiful state; and, I would rather undergo root canal while being water-boarded than to ever work in the profession of librarianship again. Believe it or not, this message comes from love of the profession of librarianship.

  3. Believe it or not, this message comes from love of the profession of librarianship.

    Then perhaps you could extend that to a love of a dictionary. It’s ROLE, not ROLL.

  4. This librarian wouldn’t mind having a roll or two… Must be lunchtime.

  5. GovLibrarian says:

    Also: “do to the ineptitude”

    I’m diggin’ your lingo, here — do the ineptitude.

    Also, I find your prognostication of doom sadly stale. I was hoping for new crazies. Instead I get the same old, “Everything is changing! Libraries are doomed! I won’t tell you how, because specifics are hard to properly defend, but I’m right! Honest!”

    On the original post, however: I find it funny that now Amazon has to worry about embargoes like libraries have for how many years, now?

  6. Amused Librarian says:

    It’s funny how people think that libraries suffer the same problems as for-profit institutions. How are libraries going to combat the problem of ebooks? The same way we tackled computers, the internet, audio books, video, music CDs and any number of other things that were supposed to sink us: we embrace them and offer them to our patrons for free – and people will love us for it.

  7. Fat and Grumpy says:

    Just spitballing here, but if the publishers just went ahead and embraced an existing open format, like PDF, then they’d cut Amazon and Sony etc out of the loop. Virtually every PC reads PDF and building a reader for PDF’s would be a lot easier. But, that calls for publishers to solve their own problems, which they seem so disterested in doing.

  8. @ Fat & Grumpy – they did embrace PDF…they just added a horrible layer of DRM on it that made it useless ;-) I’ve bought articles and books in PDF format and I can no longer access them a few years later because of the damned DRM. Screw you DRM and companies that sell DRMed products!

  9. Student @Circ Desk says:

    Amen to Amused Librarian — the Library will be here long after we’re all long gone. Our usership is up; people love us. This “libraries are doomed” talk by the Abused Librarian is so short-sighted — and, frankly, disturbing. It’s not, and never will be, a black and white issue.

  10. “Why should anyone care whether librarians have a roll in the emerging information environment?”

    Many intelligent people fantasize about having roll in the emerging information environment with a librarian.

  11. “She should have prized libraries as the only purchaser for the vast amount of garbage that’s published every year.” I had to run to the back to keep from laughing out loud. Oh, there is so much tripe being published these days! Back when I ordered picture books, and I tried to get ones with good reviews, I could look at my shelf of new books and probably 90 – 95% of them were garbage not fit for storytime.
    And by the way, people that say libraries give away information for free has obviously not seen the Ebsco, NetLibrary, and Overdrive Audio fees we pay each year. Also, last time I checked, the patrons pay for the library in property taxes. That’s why we get to hear the phrase, “I pay your salary!” every time the internet is too slow for them to access MySpace.

  12. Auntie Nanuuq says:

    “She should have prized libraries as the only purchaser for the vast amount of garbage that’s published every year. ”

    No kidding some of the crap we purchase isn’t even worth the paper it’s printed on! we purchase much of what we do because of demand for a popular author’s “name”, not for any type of quality….

  13. What a joke says:

    Texasmls – “last time I checked, the patrons pay for the library in property taxes.”

    All $18 of it as a tax paying property owner for my county. $18 doesn’t even cover the cost of a best seller. You ‘could’ get one and a half ebooks for that though or a new DVD if its on sale. I will happily offer people the alternative to libraries if they think they can get a better deal for themselves.

    We may not be “free” but we are definitely a bargain. Too bad, too – I keep hoping someone will raise my salary. Every other month the AL posts on how we sell ourselves short on our pay and it keeps getting me hopeful that someone more motivated than myself will get the job done. Any takers?

  14. another f-ing librarian says:

    re. amazon’s device-bound drm: you are not wrong.

    but i don’t really think amazon’s threatening libraries. i expect that the current business model will be temporary, until the e-book market reaches ‘critical mass’. especially given how stupid publishers are. yeah, i could be wrong about this. but it’s not like publishers are particularly cozy with amazon. someone on one of the blogs pointed out nicely how publishers have taken careful aim, and shot themselves in the foot.

    i think google books is scarier, myself. very, *very* concerned about the fate of our orphaned works. And of course I hate the DMCA.

  15. TheIlliterateLibrarian says:

    Honestly, without a culture of free reading, I wouldn’t be here. We couldn’t afford much of anything when I was growing up, least of all books. The picture books I had were 20 year old hand-me-downs from other family memebers. The bible was used as reading material, namely because there wasn’t much else. Without my school books (provided at taxpayer expense), the school library, and my local public library, I’d certainly have never read all ninty-billiondy Babysitters Club books. Well, and The Once and Future King, The Annotated Dracula (I enjoyed the footnotes, which tells you there’s something wrong with me right there), The Chronicals of Narnia, The Complete Sherlock Holmes…

    The point? I wouldn’t be BUYING books either, if I hadn’t gotten “hooked” for free. Granted, the first books I bought were Star Wars novels, because I literally just couldn’t wait until the library had them, and my name came up on the wait list (yes, I was one of those nerds at the store first thing when the book was released). Star Wars novels and Batman comic books were literally how I spent most of my pay upon getting my first job. If I were an illiterate runt? I probably wouldn’t have been working to subsidize my book habit.

    And because of the cost of books, I do regift. If a book was good enough to affect me, I pass it on. It shouldn’t sit and rot on my shelf until I finally get around (possibly years from now) to reading it again. I don’t have the room for them, and they should be off in the world affecting other people as much as they affected me.

    Sorry for bucking the system at every opportunity. But hey, thanks to free books at some point in the life of the book, they’re getting actual purchases outta me. Also one of the reasons I don’t have an e-book reader. I don’t want to spend $400 to discover I can’t stand reading books that way (I’m a flipper-arounder and multiple bookmarks type person, esp. with non-fiction books), and I want to actually be able to share books by just handing them to someone and saying “read this!” without having to transfer a license or hack the ebook reader.

  16. To: What a Joke – Well, my operating budget is over 5 million dollars so someone in this city is paying for something! The point is for publishers to realize that at least we buy 5-10 copies of the latest bestseller and more copies of crap noone would buy anyway.

  17. I must disagree with you on this one, AL. You have made the assumption that Kindle is going to continue to hold the e-reader market – not necessarily so. Furthermore…yes, Kindle books are only readable on the Kindle. But there are other digital book formats that are usable on the Kindle along with other devices. Some of those formats support DRM – a necessary evil in order to preserve copyright protections. (As Lawrence Lessig argues, you need *some* copyright protections to motivate and reward creation.)

    Digital book readers are going to be the primary way that texts are disseminated at some point in the near future. How do I know this? Easy – because that’s what happens in “Star Trek.” Yes, I’m serious. Many of the tech predictions made by “Star Trek” have come to pass or are in progress – powerful computers, voice control of computers, computer translation of languages, information or entertainment on demand (cable TV, the Internet, the iPod, etc), touch screens, communicators (aka cell phones), tricorders (yes, they’re working on it)…and the PADD (Personal Access Display Device) – in other words, a portable e-reader…like the Kindle. (No, don’t expect warp drive or transporters anytime soon – those are currently considered physically impossible. But who knows?) In fact, “Star Trek” episodes and movies filmed between the 1960s and the 1980s tend to look quite dated to the modern eye, don’t they? Take a look.

    Now, as I often argue, we *do* have a problem – there are no librarians on “Star Trek.” We’re going to have to figure out what our role is going to be once information and entertainment become universally accessible (something that “Star Trek” and Lawrence Lessig both see coming).

    In my humble opinion, librarians, library science professors, etc, need to stop living in denial, or railing against a future that won’t stop coming. Instead, we must work to shape the future, and figure out what functions the library will still be needed for in an all-digital future, and then work on being or becoming the best at doing those things.

  18. The reason Amazon is pushing Kindle so hard right now is that its e-texts are device-specific. Kindle has 3-5 years to make a huge profit – after that those devices which can accept e-books from many sources will have shouldered it out of the market.

    The Kindle’s a very ruthless and short-term project… Do you remember those photos of almost-naked men and boys stripping rusted, toxic ships on the beaches of India?

  19. “We’re going to have to figure out what our role is going to be once information and entertainment become universally accessible (something that “Star Trek” and Lawrence Lessig both see coming).”

    Well, we could start by actually taking care of the information we already possess. Preserving it so it will survive this transition, and preparing it to be available digitally. We are way behind, at present. The LOC is shooting for digitizing, what, 10 percent of its collection? And they are like the gold standard. Most institutions aren’t even close to that. 99.999% of the stuff out there is NOT accessible in digital form and it is probably going to turn to dust before we get around to it. It doesn’t help that library schools don’t even teach the skills needed to make this happen.

    Star Trek librarians, should they even exist in the future, will spend all their time apologizing for why more information didn’t get preserved when somebody had the chance.

  20. Karin Wikoff says:

    No one here has mentioned the trend in electronic publishing to take the opportunity of a new format to strip away privileges we have enjoyed for generations with physical books:

    E-books are not “sold” but rather they are “licensed.” When you “buy” an e-book for permanent access, you are actually only LICENSING it perpetually.

    A “purchased” e-book does NOT come with First Sale rights (i.e. you can’t regift it or sell it back at the bookstore at the end of the semester or donate it to your local library when you are done reading it) and the long-established “Fair Use” privileges are often curtailed such that most e-book licenses do NOT allow for their use as textbooks (which would cut into the publishers’ admittedly slim profit margin).

    Bit by bit, what libraries (and individuals) are able to do with a book after paying for it is being sharply restricted. Has no one noticed how these former rights and privileges are being stripped away with the excuse of the electronic format being different?

  21. Consumer sovereignty trumps publishers, online vendors and crochity librarians. These things will sort themselves out according to what consumers will tolerate at what price.

  22. fat and grumpy says:

    Okay, I’m a geek, too. From Memory Alpha @

    A librarian is a person who works in a library, organizing and managing of information services or materials for those with information needs.

    Mr. Atoz oversaw a library on the planet Sarpeidon. He had replicas of himself to help him in the library. (TOS: “All Our Yesterdays”)

    Mira Romaine, a Starfleet lieutenant on her first space assignment, was heading for Memory Alpha, where she was to be the librarian. The planetoid had been designed as an open research facility containing records of all Human knowledge. On the way, a community of alien beings’ thoughts tried to take over Romaine’s body, but she was able to resist. Although the beings had killed everyone on Memory Alpha and caused catastrophic damage to the databases, Romaine went back there to try to rebuild it. (TOS: “The Lights of Zetar”)

    After being captured on Delta Theta III, James T. Kirk remarked that “There are times, Mr. Spock, when I think I should have been a librarian.” Spock observed that “The job of librarian would be no less challenging, captain, but it would undoubtedly be a lot less dangerous.” (TAS: “Bem”)
    In a deleted scene in Star Trek: Insurrection, a librarian serving on the USS Enterprise-E appeared (played by Lee Arnone-Briggs). She was a sciences division lieutenant.

    So Star Trek believes I have a future.


    PS This comment systems SUCKS!

  23. @anonymous re: preservation – I couldn’t agree more.

    RE: DRM and copyright law – I don’t know what the answer to this is. Many people (like Lessig) have proposed logical solutions, but those solutions depend on political power that we don’t have, thanks to every congressman being bought and paid for by big business.

  24. The only “answer” that counts is the one the consumer provides by virtue of the very clear choice to buy or not to buy.

    Mr. Lessig is a very smart man, but the average consumer doesn’t really know or care what he thinks.

  25. “The only “answer” that counts is the one the consumer provides by virtue of the very clear choice to buy or not to buy.”

    Right. Consumers may end up latching on to one particular tech innovation over another for a number of reasons other than what is actually “best.” Look at VHS vs. Betamax or cassette tapes vs. LPs. People may choose what is cheaper, more easily available, more convenient, what has better marketing etc. over what might actually be preferable from a technical standpoint. If somebody invents an electronic reader that catches on like the Ipod, then that might be what we are stuck with even if it isn’t the “best” choice for lots of other reasons.

  26. re: People may choose what is cheaper, more easily available, more convenient, what has better marketing etc. over what might actually be preferable from a technical standpoint.<< Wow, what a surprise. I think you made my point. Consumers rule. What you or Lessig or AL or the Pope thinks is best is pretty much irrelevant. It’s called consumer sovereignty. Look it up :)

  27. One Born Every Minute says:

    I didn’t realize that these format wars were really so consumer based. Like DVD’s vs VHS. Companies promoted the DVD’s because there was more money in the new format, forcing consumers to rebuild collections and they quit releasing new titles in VHS. It wasn’t so much a consumer “choice” as it was DVD’s or nothing. They said it was choice but it wasn’t. It was mostly hype. Did we really need the new format?

    And from a library perspective are DVD’s any better? They certainly don’t hold up to 200 checkouts as well as a VHS would.

    Just playing the Devil’s Advocate

    Ah whatever. Go buy your kindle. Or your Blue-Ray. Or your Digital Downloadable. Whatever they tell you to do.


  28. re: Companies promoted the DVD’s because there was more money in the new format, forcing consumers to rebuild collections and they quit releasing new titles in VHS.<< Well as I recall, consumers shunned dvds until they begain getting hi-def tvs. Dvds offered so much better resolution that consumers began dropping vhs in droves. Consumer choice. Consumers also rejected SACD cds because of the price point at little perceived benefit over regular CDs. Bluray is not taking off as predicted because consumers are happy with hi-def on-demand movies through their cable companies, and consumers are taking a serious look at the advantages of direct streaming of content over the internet. In a free market, the consumer always gets his way in the end.

  29. RadicalPatron says:

    There’s an interesting post and reader comments on this topic at the Scholarly Kitchen,

  30. If its true that in a free market, the consumer always gets his way in the end, and if its true that Blue Ray is not taking off – why is half the DVD inventory at my local Best Buy – blue-ray?

    I’m sure theres many reasons, but I bet one is that the retailers stand to make a killing if people convert to blue ray. So even though I – a consumer – don
    t want blue ray – in the end – that’s all that will be available and I’ll get what I want.

  31. Lying Librarian says:

    According to Seth Godin, the ship is already sinking for the publishing world:

    “If you want to know if a ship is going to sink, watch what the richest passengers do.

    iTunes and file sharing killed Tower Records. The key symptom: the best customers switched. Of course people who were buying 200 records a year would switch. They had the most incentive. The alternatives were cheaper and faster mostly for the heavy users.

    Amazon and the Kindle have killed the bookstore. Why? Because people who buy 100 or 300 books a year are gone forever. The typical American buys just one book a year for pleasure. Those people are meaningless to a bookstore. It’s the heavy users that matter, and now officially, as 2009 ends, they have abandoned the bookstore. It’s over.

    When law firms started switching to fax machines, Fedex realized that the cash cow part of their business (100 or 1000 or more envelopes per firm per day) was over and switched fast to packages. Good for them.

    If your ship is sinking, get out now. By the time the rats start packing, it’s way too late.”

    What does this say for libraries? That they have as much time as it takes for the Kindle (or a similar product) to get low enough in price that the average consumer sees it as preferable to hard copies of books. Maybe a decade?

  32. Yeah Right. says:

    Or is it because no sales tax is charged at Amazon?

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