Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Suckers, but Resilient Suckers

A long time ago public librarians worried that by providing the public with popular novels they were lowering the taste of the public, or at least not trying to elevate that taste. In this, they were correct.

As it turned out, the public didn’t want its taste elevated. Lowbrow reading was just what they wanted.

Over time sentiments changed. The readers with the lowest brows, metaphorically speaking, abandoned reading altogether, or confined their reading to Maxim and the National Enquirer. Lowbrow readers had no need of the lowbrow fiction because they had television and videogames.

But still there was a small core of Americans who wanted to read popular novels, who were still able to derive some emotional pleasure from words and not just images. Public libraries devoted themselves to these people, doing everything they could to make sure that all and sundry could get quick access to the latest bestsellers.

Libraries devoted their scarce resources to buying multiple copies of popular novels that would then be discarded in a few months or years, depending on the longevity of the author’s popularity. At all costs they wanted to avoid the bitter ire of library patrons who desperately wanted to read the new John Grisham, but were too cheap to go out and buy it.

These people have important information needs! They must be satisfied at all costs!

Put the recent HaperCollins announcement in this context. Ignore my arguments from last week about publishers needing libraries (even if they’re true). Ignore the boycott, and the pointless ebook reader’s bill of rights. Let’s look at this from HarperCollins’ perspective for a moment.

Were I at HarperCollins, I would look at the history of public library book buying and think, these people are suckers. They’ll buy anything, jump through any hoop, just to make sure that people too cheap to buy bestsellers can get quick access to them. They’ll even pay for digital copies of books, and then only let one person at a time read them! Suckers!

So we’ll make them jump through another hoop! Dance, monkey, dance!

HarperCollins’ move to squeeze more money from libraries makes sense in some ways, since public libraries have long been willing to throw money hand over fist to keep themselves well stocked with popular books.

What they didn’t count on, for the moment, is that libraries don’t necessarily need ebooks yet. As long as print books remain, including ones from HarperCollins, they don’t have the monopoly necessary to squeeze the libraries.

If HarperCollins is serious about squeezing libraries and having complete control over every copy of every book they sell, they need to get serious about ebooks, and the way to do that is to quit selling print books.

This has been happening with academic journal publishers for years. They finally realized it’s silly to keep selling print subscriptions when they could just license digital journals and gouge libraries every year with impunity. It was a smart move on their part, because librarians are suckers.

HarperCollins and the rest of the library hating book publishers need to wake up and realize that as long as there are print books around, there’s nothing they can do to keep libraries from lending them and people from selling or giving away used copies.

Sure, these practices might be good for the common culture, for general literacy, and for promoting a love of reading that extends to other books, but they have a deleterious effect on the immediate bottom line of publishers, and that’s the only thing that matters to shortsighted businesses floundering in a rapidly changing world.

So go ahead and do it, book publishers. Quit printing books so you can have control over your DRM-saddled digital books. Then libraries will be in thrall to you!

Of course you’ll be in thrall to Amazon. Unlike Wiley and other wiley publishers, you won’t have a big academic library market addicted to your products. You won’t have sucker librarians to work with. You’ll have Jeff Bezos, and that guy plays hardball.

It looks to me like you have two choices. If you really want to control what libraries and others do with your books after they buy them, you’ll have to selling print copies. As long as print copies exist, libraries can limp along without succumbing to your arbitrary ebook demands.

On the other hand, going ebook only will give Amazon a lot more power over your product. It’ll also mean that the bestselling authors you’ve placed all your hopes on in the last couple of decades don’t really need you. They can just publish Kindle versions of their books directly, and still have the ability to publish in other venues and formats.

Authors might even give one restricted digital copy of their books to every library, just to give people a taste and to promote reading. Some say libraries are dying, but it’s the traditional book publishing model that’s dying.

Libraries show a long history of adapting to whatever demands the culture throws at them. Libraries may be suckers, but they’re resilient suckers. Book publishers haven’t shown that sort of resilience. The next decade will be the test.



  1. Randal Powell says:

    I think ebook readers will need to go substantially down in price before any of this plays out. People cannot just buy an ebook reader and having one for life – they break, batteries wear out, people lose them, steal them. Prices range from $139 and $149 for a Kindle or Nook, respectively, to $499 for an iPad. Right now, the economic argument is not really there for most people.

  2. AL…if you’re talking about bestsellers, the future focus will be on the authors, not the publishers, and not libraries. Bestselling authors are losing tons of money under the current arrangement. They are the ones who will go directly to readers and bypass the middleman (publishers and libraries acting as e book portals). It just makes too much financial sense for them not to do this. The e-book format is perfect for the bestselling author. E-books are ephemeral and what could be more ephemeral than a bestseller? What will the result be? The big publishers will die off fairly quickly because they live off bestsellers, and public libraries can get back to the business of giving the patrons what they don’t want.

  3. librarEwoman says:

    Even if people do start getting their bestsellers in ebook format directly from the authors, those same people will still have uses for public libraries. What about nonfiction books, for instance? Will people also get these in ebook format directly from the author? That doesn’t seem as likely. On a daily basis, teachers come to or call my public library in order to request large collections of nonfiction books for a specific topic. How will this type of informational need translate into the ebook format?

  4. 4. Ewoman…there are definite advantages for libraries to stop being a provider of bestsellers. This will mean more money for the educational mission of the library, which is our most important function by far. I have been arguing this point for 40 years. It’s still valid today. Ebooks have a niche for popular fiction, but they have too many disadvantages to prevail in other areas. Public libraries need to stop wasting money on e-ephemera and get back to the basics of being the university of the people.

  5. Will,

    actually, i do see a use case for scholarly e-books with their high overhead (in print) and low “long tail” print runs. However, I think that publishers are still struggling to find a good solution for encyclopedias and textbooks. But do people still use encyclopedias? They don’t seem to, at least in the way they once did. the browsers turn to online sources and the scholars need more rigorous sources than the overviews provided.

  6. Librarian Gamer says:

    Been quite a while since there was an honest-to-goodness “hurrah for libraries” from you, AL (even if there were more than a few backhanded comments tied to it). Well said!

  7. rpglibrarian says:


    I had to explain what an encyclopedia is to someone in middle-school a few weeks ago. I don’t think print or CD encyclopedias will be used by anyone who has access to the Internet / wikipedia.

  8. Plain Jane says:

    “This has been happening with academic journal publishers for years. They finally realized it’s silly to keep selling print subscriptions when they could just license digital journals and gouge libraries every year with impunity. It was a smart move on their part, because librarians are suckers.”

    Even more dire: These aren’t “e-ephemera” but the lifeblood of academic libraries. Faculty and students need these publications for their research. This is not unlike how bestsellers have been the lifeblood of public libraries.

    HarperCollins is just a little late to the party, and they showed up in a gauche manner, but they’re just doing what they’ve been doing already for years.

  9. Will Manley – why do you think that “bestseller” must naturally equal “non-educational”? It’s not always an either/or in terms reading for pleasure or reading for information. Look at novels like THE HELP and WOLF HALL, and nonfiction like JOHN ADAMS. This is why Nonfiction RA is such a growth area in libraries.

    I’m tired of general reading being ignored in favor of ebooks, bestsellers-all-the-time, social media, kids-books-as-what-the-library-is-all-about (no offense to juvie materials, but you’ve got to support their parents as well) – whatever. But then, these general readers don’t make a fuss.

  10. AL, it is a serious business what has happened to the science journal, and it is a dire situation for all at hand. The publishers got smart – they realized the universities and industry HAD to have access to this material for further research, so they bought it all up into a nice little block – an oligopoly.

    the real killer was when we signed those TOS without reading them, or even after reading thme, did so because we HAD to have access. And we forgot that Access is no good if the library itself is not the gateway – the gateway, today, is the PUBLISHER! Library EPIC FAIL!

    I think we could get them back, though, if every single library and corporate entity simply did not buy a subscription for a year, and turned to publishing in a central publically held entitiy – one where no publisher could ever get conrol, where the researcher pays to have his work entered into the tomes. It’s about damn time we did this Ourselves as librarians [why AREN’T we the CENTER of university publishing???!!!], instead of relying on the nannystate to take care of our infrastructure. SUCKERS!!!

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