Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Publishers and Writers and Libraries

And a Happy New Year! Warning: this post may have been written under the influence of champagne, or perhaps a sparkling wine hangover.

Many of you probably saw the Christmas Day article in the New York Times about publishers and why they hate libraries so much.

That’s not quite the way they put it, but it might as well have been. The “executive vice president and chief digital officer” of Simon & Schuster explained why they hate libraries and don’t allow libraries to lend their ebooks: “We’re concerned that authors and publishers are made whole by library e-lending and that they aren’t losing sales that they might have made in another channel.”

Which makes a lot of sense, because the sort of people who are willing to be number 99 out of 400 on a wait list for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are pretty likely to buy the book themselves if libraries didn’t have copies.

The explanation for why Simon & Schuster hates libraries but only for ebooks is dissembling at best. Supposedly, it’s because “publishers didn’t worry about lost sales from library lending of print books is that buying a book is easier — no return trip is needed to the bookstore — and the buyer has a physical collectible after reading it.”

Yeah, right. That’s all it is. They’re only concerned now because it’s so darned easy to check out that ebook. It’s just as easy to purchase an ebook as check one out from a library (easier, actually), just as it’s as easy to purchase a print book from a physical bookstore as it is to borrow one from a physical library.

The same excuse that she gives, that publishers might be losing sales they might otherwise have made, is just as true with printed books as with ebooks. The major difference before ebooks is that publishers couldn’t control the distribution of the books, only the content.

Once physical books were printed and sold to book vendors and bookstores, the publisher’s control ended and they couldn’t prevent libraries from buying their books. Then there was that annoying “first sale doctrine” that let people and libraries do what they wanted to with books they purchased. Crazy!

Publishers hated libraries then, but there was nothing they could do about it. The difference is, now they can control the content as well as the distribution, their ebooks aren’t sold but licensed (evading the first sale doctrine), and the publishers can dictate how people get to their books.

It’s this hatred, or maybe just fear, of libraries that explains why of the Big Six publishers three never allowed library ebook lending, one has restricted the number of loans for a purchased title before it expires, another has removed their most recent and popular books from library ebook lending, and  the sixth is “actively reviewing” its ebook lending practice.

They would have restricted library sales all along if they could have.

One claim is that it reduces royalties for the authors, which I’m sure is a huge concern for major publishers. The funny thing is, a lot of authors actually like libraries, probably because good writers probably can’t become good writers without access to more books than they could ever afford or want to carry around.

This article is a typical example of writers protesting library closures, unsuccessfully in this case. Writers like Philip Pullman and Zadie Smith believe in the importance of libraries. But of all the writers who support libraries, how many publish with corporations that won’t allow library ebook lending? How many even think about that? Or the likelihood that in a few years most books might be ebook only, and probably unavailable to libraries?

Philip Pullman publishes with a subsidiary of Random House, which does allow ebook lending. Zadie Smith with Penguin, which is restricting their lending policy. But others?

Even of the authors who resent libraries and think they steal sales, would they really want a world without libraries? They might not like it that people can borrow their books without paying for them, but would they never want to do the same with other books? Or have we gotten to the point where writers don’t need to read books anymore? It seems like people who write business or self-help books are only semiliterate, but good novelists must still read the works of others.

The contrast between publishers trying to destroy the ability for libraries to lend books and the very vocal support of libraries by many writers makes is significant, but what to make of it for libraries is unclear.

Writers who support themselves through their writing are unlikely to leave their publishers just because the publishers won’t allow libraries to lend their ebooks, but something like a mass protest by writers might be the only leverage libraries have with publishers.

Libraries can protest ebook exclusion all they like, but they have no leverage at all when dealing directly with publishers. Librarians will abuse themselves to no end to make sure the public has free access to bestselling novels, and without access to popular books libraries would be less popular with the public.

However, that’s a reason for libraries to want ebooks, not for publishers to allow them access to ebooks, and so far librarians haven’t come up with many good reasons that publishers would accept to allow ebook lending.

Maybe it’s time to start with the writers. Or maybe it’s time to finish that conversion of public libraries into “tech shops” and gaming centers and move books and reading to the margins. The ALA can have famous people pose for posters with “PLAY GAMES” on them. It’ll be very inspiring.



  1. davidinvirginia says:

    It will be interesting to see if more authors move to self-publishing in ebook format. They will then be in control of whether libraries have access to their works. Will publishers become increasingly irrelevant?

  2. librarEwoman says:

    It’s significantly more of a pain in the butt to check out and download a library eBook than it is to purchase that same eBook. eReaders are designed to make eBook purchases wirelessly, directly from Amazon, B&N, etc. However, in order to borrow a free eBook from the library (or even from a site like Project Gutenberg), you typically must first download it to your computer and then transfer it via a USB cable to your device. That makes it a whole lot less convenient. If that’s not “friction,” I don’t know what is.

  3. Formerprof says:

    Libraries are screwed.

    Back in ’97, there was fear that the “WWW” would kill the reference desk, which it largely has. But then, we could always point to the 14 kilotons of books surrounding us and say, “at least we still are the gatekeepers for the books.”

    Now the core of the library, the collection, is at risk. AL accurately sums up the situation…publishers have NEVER liked libraries but up until now they’ve been powerless to do much about it. The shift from selling paper (right of first sale applies) to licensing content (whatever the publisher says, goes) on the massive scale is the beginning of the inevitable end.

    Well, not THE END exactly. Just the further marginalization of the library as communal public institution. I’m sure there will always be some demand for that copy of Popular Mechanics from 1985 on how to build a sailboat out of stuff in your pantry, or some marginally popular novel, but at that point, “Libraries” become “Archives”. And that point is sooner than librarians want to admit.

    Never forget…the taxpayer-funded, publicly available library that you know and love today is neither permanent nor sacrosanct.

  4. As an author of a technical book, while writing the book, I talked with my publisher (Wiley’s Sybex imprint) about making it available to libraries. It was important to me to publish under a publisher that supported library lending. Having spent many a summer at my local library, I truly appreciate what libraries do for both the community as a whole and for patrons individually.

    I’m watching as brick and mortar bookstores are going by the wayside, as online counterparts are more affordable and more diverse and eBooks are growing in popularity. I’d hate to see libraries fall to the same demise.

  5. You should also mention that writers love libraries since that’s where they gain many readers. Most people, myself included, don’t want to drop the money for an untried author. However, we’ll try that author in a library, like them, and start demanding more books by them. Hey, looky there, demand for that author to write more books.
    Case in point: I checked out the first couple of Harry Potter books, discovered I loved them, then bought the whole series. I probably wouldn’t have bothered if I hadn’t been able to check them out first.

  6. I Like Books says:

    I’m sure publishers will learn how to make money from libraries. The model will be similar to the electronic databases of today. That is, they’ll offer a suite of titles. There will be some limitation on the number of instances that can be checked out at a time (and will depend on how much the library pays). They might have to pay a premium price for new publications. And, most important, it will be a subscription service– the library will pay a recurring cost for access to those titles. Any concerns about lost sales will be balanced by adjusting titles available and subscription price, with the bonus of a predictable revenue stream.

    That means the plug can also be pulled, whether because the library can’t afford to keep paying it, the company goes out of business, the business model changes, or whatever. You can still find the 1790 volume of Philosophical Transactions on university bookshelves around the world, and if one is lost there’s still thousands of them out there. But the sort of permanence of widely distributed physical artifacts will be a thing of the past. The gatekeepers of knowledge will be a few large companies, and libraries will only mediate for them.

    • Righto ILB – what you describe seems like a reasonable scenario to me.

      It’s not that publishers ‘hate’ libraries; it’s that they have been just as disrupted as libraries and are still trying to figure out new business models. The lack of leadership within the library community means it cannot partner with publishers and other parties to devise solutions what work for all involved. Instead, publishers & others will craft their own plans and libraries will be faced with take-it-or-leave-it propositions.

      My question is whether it’s worth supporting an institution that …
      * Does not have the organization or stature to negotiate prices for the materials it provides;
      * Has little or no influence over what materials it provides;
      * Cannot ensure availability of materials it provides beyond a small time horizon.

  7. Castle Librarian says:

    Libraries spend a ridiculous amount of money on books each year. I serve a school of 500 students and I guarantee that they would not have purchased the 3000 books currently in my collection on their own. I’ll probably be spending about $60 per student just this year. It is a rare student who would spend that much on books. Maybe libraries should take a year off from spending money on books to help publishers see the error of their attitude.

    • I suspect that most public libraries spend far less though. I know my library spent about $2 per person last year on our collection, but we serve a much larger population.

    • Castle Librarian says:

      Still, add all the library materials budgets together, we are talking a significant chunk of change. Publishers are not losing money on libraries. Just the opposite.

    • Formerprof says:

      If publishers aren’t losing money on libraries, then why are they not licensing e-content to libraries under the same terms as right of first sale?

    • Castle Librarian says:

      Publishers think they are losing money. It is a false perception. They think that every book borrowed from a library is a book that would have been purchased by the reader if not offered by the library. This is not the case. Instead, there are thousands of books purchased by a library that would not have been purchased otherwise. Some never leave the shelf. Same applies to ebooks and databases. Libraries will buy packages of ebooks. Some of those titles will be read, some will not. The actual “usage” is not likely to exceed what was paid.

  8. Hey al, long time no see…good hard work keeping me busy!!

    Anyhow, what’s your thoughts on the use of Police in Massachusetts to enforce overdue books? It seems to be working!!

  9. Formerprof says:

    Righto Jean

    Here’s the nasty confluence of forces that I see…
    Public libraries are doing their best to give people what they want (bestsellers/pulp/DVDs) at the same time the publishers are being beset by threats to their business model and revenue structure. Libraries are continuing to lend the exact materials publishers depend on to remain in business…bestsellers. Publishers don’t hate libraries, but libraries are bad customers because they are giving away the content the publishers are trying to sell. So it is, and so it always has been.

    Currently, someone can weigh the inconvenience of dealing the the library (delay to acquire, return trip, overdue fines, restrictions, etc.) to the amount of the purchase price. In future, the library may be out of the equation.
    Publishers can now circumvent the library and deal directly with the paying public. The can say, “Here’s our product. It costs this much under these conditions. Do you want it?” If you want it, you’ll pay. If it’s too expensive, you don’t get it. If enough people don’t get it the price will go down to a point where people will get it. Simple supply and demand.

    The point is…the library will not be able to deliver it’s most popular service i.e., the provision of popular books/DVDs for free.

    This a very complex topic and one that is not discussed enough in the library world. Any way I look at it, I just can’t see how libraries come out ahead, or even maintain status quo.

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