Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Be Grateful Publishers Don’t Like You

Remember a year ago when librarians were up in arms about HarperCollins’ decision to cap library borrowing for their ebooks at 26 copies? Boy, was there a lot of uproar.

There were boycotts and petitions and some earnest librarians even came up with a “ebook user’s bill of rights,” perhaps forgetting that rights aren’t much good if no one enforces them.

The hostile rhetoric was hot and heavy for a while. Librarians felt good about themselves for standing up for principle and against The Man. It was collective action, baby! They were going to show those publishers just what stern stuff librarians were made of!

Except nothing happened, I mean, nothing other than a lot of librarians frothing at the mouth in their condemnation of HarperCollins. As reported last week in this LJ article, even some of the libraries that joined the boycott have changed their minds and started licensing ebooks from that mean old HC again.

What has prompted this betrayal of the collective? As one librarian put it, the HarperCollins deal is “more generous than what we are getting from other publishers.”

Librarians are so desperate for ebooks they don’t care what the deal is. Libraries are actually stopping their boycott of HarperCollins ebooks because HarperCollins is willing to let libraries pay them for ebooks when other publishers won’t.

The lesson? Libraries have no clout when it comes to ebooks and they’ll take a bad deal over no deal at all. Good bargaining strategy!

And let’s be honest, any deal where libraries are giving publishers money for access to an ebook that is then loaned out to one library patron at a time as if it was a physical book is a bad deal. The arbitrary 26-loan cap just makes the deal worse.

Oh, I know. Library patrons are demanding ebooks! Thus, libraries should make whatever bad deal they can to get them.

What library patrons should be demanding is that libraries stop spending their money on ebooks that cost more than print books but come with the same usage limitations. Library patrons should be asking, why are we spending money on ebook titles and I still have to wait for 38 other people to read this book before I can check it out?

The whole thing is a little crazy when you think about it.

The lesson this teaches publishers is that they can do anything they like and librarians will line up like sheep. HarperCollins is probably considering right now whether to lower that lending cap to 20, or 15. After all, what are libraries going to do, boycott them? [Gales of laughter from HarperCollins executives.]

Librarians claim to be doing all this for the readers desperate for ebooks, and they’re fighting right now for the chance to get screwed over by any other publishers who will work with them.

If what they really want is to promote reading, then print books do that just fine. Really they just want to promote convenience, which is a nice thing, but it comes at a high cost. Instead of fighting for a chance to get screwed over, maybe libraries should be grateful that publishers don’t want to embroil them in ebook swindles.



  1. I don’t understand this rush from librarians to get ebooks to patrons no matter the cost. It seems to me that the kind of person with enough disposable income to blow on an ereader is also the kind of person with enough disposable income to blow on the latest Robert Ludlum or whatever potboiler du jour is climbing the New York Times bestseller list.

    The solution seems simple. If the publishers are offering such a bad deal then don’t take it. Are libraries really so terrified of losing patrons over a lack of ebooks that they’ll let publishers bend them over the proverbial barrel on this issue? I don’t work in a public library, so I’m genuinely curious about the reasoning behind accepting such a one sided deal.

  2. Re: “Libraries have no clout when it comes to ebooks and they’ll take a bad deal over no deal at all.”

    I think the people would be shocked if they knew how ineffectively public libraries spend their money.

    In its OhioLINK–Collection and Circulation Analysis 2011, OCLC concluded:

    OCLC recently published an analysis for the state of Ohio and found: The most fascinating result of the study was a test of the “80/20″ rule. Librarians have long espoused the belief that 80% of a library’s circulation is driven by approximately 20% of the collection. The analysis of a year’s statewide circulation statistics would indicate that 80% of the circulation is driven by just 6% of the collection.

    The most fascinating thing to me is that the institution, despite the widespread availability of materials and knowledge gained elsewhere over the past 30 years about operational efficiency, continue to blithely accept the 80/20 premise – and to underperform that standard so badly.

    Libraries need to get real about asking how much money they spend & how much value they deliver — and then bring these two items into closer alignment. A continued poor economy & the low cost of digital content will encourage greater scrutiny of library spend … and people will likely respond the way Spencer did when analyzing Fort Worth’s 2010 budget: If [these numbers] don’t bother you- then you should ask yourself why.

    • publicschmublic says:

      Oh gosh… I could give so many examples of this (wasting of money) from my time in the public libraries, but I’ll just pick one of my favorites. “Excessive wear & tear” is considered by most, if not all, a genuine indicator that an idea should be deselected. However, most people would not equate the discarding of loads of books because they “don’t look pretty” with discarding books because of genuine wear and tear. The people who definitely would not agree with that are the patrons who then requested those books, were told they were discarded, & then were told there were no plans to replace them… because there was no money.

    • I must be stupid. The OCLC analysis reports on OHIO public universities and colleges. How can you extrapolate this 80/6% rule to public (local) libraries??? The whole discussion here is about local public libraries, not public universities!

      Sounds like the universities and colleges have the problem with collection policies, not public libraries. After all, they have boatloads more of taxpayer money to spend on books that nobody reads…

      Maybe I missed a new ALA campaign: Pick on Public Libraries by Academic Librarians Week!

    • Solo Boy – It’s good you pointed out the OhioLINK study focused on academic libraries. Thanks.

      The 80/20 mindset (or a close approximation)and the collection practices I described in my reply to Mike exist in public libraries too, right?

  3. publicschmublic says:

    Sorry… by “idea,” I mean “item.” Monday.

  4. Why aren’t they doing what everyone else does? Lobbying!

    As for:

    >>>The analysis of a year’s statewide circulation statistics would indicate that 80% of the circulation is driven by just 6% of the collection.

    Are you suggesting dropping everything except that 6% That’s not why libraries exist. They are libraries, not Blockbuster for books!

    • Hi Mike – I’m suggesting libraries re-orient their collection development practices in the context of contemporary reality rather than the reality of 50, 70, 100 years ago. What I see now is a hodge-podge of practices that are extremely wasteful:

      1) Part top-notch selection to make each library’s collection a well-balanced, authoritative source “in case” a patron has need for the material. This method made sense decades ago when materials were scarce and mobility was limited. As libraries grew and materials became more abundant, it meant that a significant portion of every library’s collection never or hardly circulates – which is very wasteful.
      2) Reliance on auto-fulfillment programs where publishers or vendors determine what goes into the collection. I roundly reject this model for a number of reasons. One is that the temptation and opportunity for publishers/vendors to serve more of their own good than the public good is too high. The second is that if we’re going to outsource such a fundamental library function, why are we paying library staff? Let’s realize some cost savings and have vendors do the materials management for our libraries.
      3) Lots of “hurry up and spend our money by the end of the fiscal year so our budget doesn’t get reduced next year”. I’m in contact with library folk from around the country and all report this common institutional behavior. There’s no way thoughtful collection development is occuring in this mad rush to spend end-of-year money.

      I could recommend a number of models that would, I believe, better serve the public and be a better use of resources. Wouldn’t it be better, though, if we saw more serious discussion of contemporary collection development practices coming from within the library community?

      NOTE: I applaud the work of Rick Anderson (Associate Dean for Scholarly Resources & Collection in the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah) and a few other progressive library leaders who are taking the lead to speak about the wastefulness of the just-in-case model and are thoughtfully analyzing others.

  5. I’ve been convinced for awhile that there’s no good deal for libraries if eBook business models resemble anything like pBook models. John Cady, Trustee of Roeliff Jansen Community Library in Hillsdale, NY has proposed a model I hope gets further attention from all interested parties: authors, publishers, device makers, libraries and patrons. His suggestion to “pay-when-you-read” versus “pay-when-you-publish” could potentially get everyone on the same side to create, discover, promote and make available good content.

    1) Libraries could focus on becoming discovery zones and promoters of good work and not be saddled with the high cost of “just-in-case” collection models I referenced in the previous comment. Libraries have what no other entity in the value chain has: widespread public trust, intimate embodied connections with people in nearly every city, town and hamlet in America, and trained librarians who know how to find and associate content, do reader’s advisory, etc.
    2) Authors/publishers who create & distribute good material would be highly compensated. They’d have every reason to support libraries who were promoting their content.
    3) Retailers such as Amazon, Apple and Google could view libraries as competition – though if libraries played it right they could position themselves as “frienemies” and co-exist with the large retailers. This is because they’d be courting and reaching customers who would not otherwise purchase content from the larger retailers. And, if libraries were smart enough to stay out of the device business (a real rat hole for libraries) they could be seen as helping drive the device business for the large retailers. (To grow a content consumer is to grow a device consumer.)
    3) Patrons would have a variety of means to access good content. Big retailers could continue to offer it as part of a broad product offering (as Amazon, Walmart, etc do now). They’d promote content generally, as they do other commodities. Some people like the convenience of shopping for books and toothpaste in the same place, and would still have the option. Libraries would service those who seek subject specific content, or something good for a 4hr plane ride, etc. I’m talking research and reader’s advisory here — something no computer algorithm will ever do as well as a good librarian.

    Lots to work out here, for sure, though I think it’s a very promising idea — much better for libraries and patrons than what we’ve seen playing out over the past two years.

    • Joe Schallan says:

      “I’m talking research and reader’s advisory here — something no computer algorithm will ever do as well as a good librarian.”

      If Target has analytics that can figure out more about a customer’s family than that customer knows, I wouldn’t be so sure about that. There is every reason to believe that a computer algorithm will perform better than a good librarian, and will probably do so sooner rather than later.

      Libraries have neither the talent nor the money to develop such a thing, but Amazon does, and I am surprised their recommendation engine doesn’t do as well as Target’s.

      As for the 80/20 (or 94/6) rule, that directly involves the debate over “give ’em what they want” vs. having a collection that caters to the long tail. I imagine that a shift to spending on e-content won’t change that debate, although e-access provides a new mechanism for catering to niche interests. (It doesn’t improve free access, necessarily, as anyone who has used an electronic database and found him or herself invited to plunk down $30, via credit card, to access a particular journal article, has found out.)

      The question remains as to how much we want the library (i.e., the taxpayer) to subsidize the patron with special interests. A library consisting solely of hot bestsellers and current DVD movies will generate numbers that show it is efficient in delivering bang for the buck. Such an approach would certainly bring the circulation/spending numbers into better alignment.

      A library may spend $39.95 on a book on an off-the-beaten-path topic that ends up circulating once in three years. But that one circ delights that patron and exactly fulfills the search he or she has carried out for the book and for the information it contains. How much is a single patron’s delight worth? Is there a way to deliver the delight more efficiently? (The old answer is ILL, but that just means passing the hot potato. Which one of you is going to spring the forty bucks for the book? And it completely ignores the inefficiency and high cost of ILLs.)

      Worrying about the 94/6 rule is a red herring, however. The bulk of the cost of running a public library is in personnel. That’s the place to ferret out inefficiency, and that’s where e-delivery gets interesting. That is also another discussion entirely.

    • Joe Schallan says:

      Should have said “80/6 rule.”

    • Analytics and algorithms are powerful indeed. I work with them every day as a technical project manager for a world-renown publisher. What they cannot get at though, is the rich context motivating a patron’s inquiry that can be discerned by asking a few perceptive questions, observing body language/tone of voice, etc. They also cannot get at serendipity … the type that might come from a librarian saying “Oh, last week I helped someone with a similar interest who …” that takes the inquiry down a whole ‘nuther path. Mind you, I said machines can’t compete with GOOD librarians. How many good librarians work in our libraries — not nearly enough based on my personal experience and that of many other commenters in this forum.

      Personnel does comprise the largest portion of library budgets – but this does not render the concern over the wastefulness of just-in-case collection management a red herring. It’s personnel, after-all, that are tending these unused/underutilized collections by dealing with vendors, perusing book reviews, and doing tons of hand work. It’s very, very wasteful.

    • Joe Schallan says:

      I know you can’t tell us which world-renowned publisher you work for, but is it one of those who won’t deal with libraries?

      I’ll agree with you somewhat about a good librarian, though with the caveat that we still don’t know how good algorithms are going to get. IBM’s Watson, after all, has given up appearing on game shows and is now advising oncologists on diagnoses and treatments. And a “good enough” bot is way cheaper than a good librarian. A bot needs no health insurance or pension.

      You won’t get an argument from me that libraries waste their human talent, and a lot of that is due to our penchant for continually reinventing the wheel and launching upon schemes in the absence of evidence. There’s a lot of reduplicative effort and long trips down blind alleys.

      But pointing out that a lot of effort goes into the selection and maintenance of the 94 percent that is lightly used ducks my question about the role of the public library, for that is exactly what my question is.

      I’ll make it personal. I don’t generally read best sellers or watch Hollywood movies. My interests, and my reading, are off the beaten path. I personally think most of what is in the six percent of the collection that is heavily used is of fleeting value or no value at all. There’s a lot of both crap fiction and crap nonfiction there. That’s why it’s popular. (And, yes, the value judgment is mine as a patron, not as a professional.)

      Under the calculus of library efficiency, what becomes of patrons like me? Are we just out of luck?

      Public libraries have traditionally defined themselves as having a mission that includes factors besides popularity. Should that change?

      I’m not saying it shouldn’t change. Give scarce resources and the small numbers of patrons out on the tail like me, perhaps we should simply be told that we’re on our own, and if the offbeat item is that important to us, we can buy it for ourselves through Amazon.

      It seems to me this is a question we never ask our patrons/taxpayers: “Which way do you guys want it to be?”

      We will henceforth be spending on ebooks (or not, if the Big Six have their way). Whatever we spend won’t change the fundamental question of the library’s mission.

      Even if the answer is that at least some libraries should cater to the long tail, efficiencies through cooperation and automation could no doubt be realized. But there will always be an added expense for handling the 94 percent of a broad and deep collection that is lightly used.

  6. Joe Schallan says:

    “Are libraries really so terrified of losing patrons over a lack of ebooks that they’ll let publishers bend them over the proverbial barrel on this issue?”


    Ebooks terrify librarians in precisely the same way that they terrify the Big Six publishers. Both cling to an antiquated business model. Both fear that technology and public preference will sweep them into the dustbin.

    • Joe, that’s why we spend so much more time training staff in how to download an ebook than we do to actually deal with the content (i.e. Readers Advisory)

    • Joe Schallan says:

      Amazon and B&N seem to have successfully outsourced tech support for the Kindle and Nook to public libraries. Pretty slick!

      (They must have talked to the folks at the IRS. ;-> )

    • Re: Amazon and B&N seem to have successfully outsourced tech support for the Kindle and Nook to public libraries. Pretty slick!

      I’ve had the same thought. Same thing with libraries on auto-pilot, purchasing and circulating whatever ‘popular’ material the publishers and aggregators want to put into the pipeline. Or spending public funds on computers that people use mostly for Facebook and other commercial endeavors. These are all examples of public funds being used to subsidize and promote commercial good in the guise of serving an arguable public good.

  7. ** Reply to Joe Joe Schallan comment of 6:06 pm **

    Hi Joe – it seems from your last comment that we may have a lot in common insofar as we are patrons with a great interest in libraries.

    I didn’t duck your question about the role of the public library, Joe – I just missed it:) The role, in my view, is to provide the public with resources for our enlightenment, education and entertainment that we cannot provide for ourselves as individuals. I think libraries did this well when they came into prominence roughly 100 years ago, when resources were limited and the population was largely uneducated and far less mobile. IMO, we have not evolved our library systems to keep up with the growth of resources or the education & mobility of our population, and performance has suffered greatly as a result.

    I’m not sure we can continue to support public libraries’ function of supplying popular entertainment and internet terminals to a small percentage of the population. I also doubt we’ll support the expense of acquiring materials for diverse interests, the long tail as you call it — particularly when so few people with those interests use it.

    How do you see things? Can public libraries endure on their present course?

    • Joe Schallan says:

      Thanks, Jean.

      I’m not sure that they can. I know of one public library that has succeeded in significantly jacking up its circ stats by focusing on large numbers of copies of bestsellers and Hollywood movie DVDs. It works. It seems that’s what people want. And the library in question takes its impressive circ stats to city council to show just how well it is meeting the desires of its patrons.

      But what happens when money gets really tight, and especially if the past three years are merely prelude to something much worse to come, as some believe? How high will providing entertainment rank in the priorities of a city government that is pushed to the wall?

      Oddly, in such a scenario, the library would get more support if it had been providing resources for self-education and improvement, even though its patrons hadn’t been using them all that much.

      In short, an “uplifting” mission is a better sell to funding agencies than an entertainment mission. I don’t know if handing out bestsellers and movies is something that can sustain libraries. Taxpayers and their representatives will wonder about funding free entertainment for the middle class when there is no apparent “higher” mission.

      If libraries can somehow finesse the ebook issue, then there is the prospect of being able to operate elibraries “staffed” by book-recommending bots. No need for bricks and mortar at all, and for far fewer staff. For now, the stuff of science fiction…

      And if ereaders and ebooks become cheap and ubiquitous, as I suspect they will, then all that may be needed is a subsidy — information access stamps, if you will — for the few remaining people on the wrong side of the digital divide.

      Naturally, I have no clue as to how it will all actually play out. No one does.

      But I just don’t see entertainment as a mission that will sell the idea of the library to its funders.

  8. Agree on all points, Joe. Being outside the library community, you & I may be able to “sit with” these considerations longer because our livlihoods and social networks are not bound up in them.

    • Joe Schallan says:

      Full disclosure. I am a retired public librarian, and now a part-time academic librarian.

      But I use my public library heavily, and in my current guise I am a patron. Most of the people there I used to know have retired, so for the current staff I’m just another citizen bozo on the bus.

    • Ah Joe – I was thrown off by your LinkedIn headline and photo (didn’t imagine writing was a second career).

      And, I was sort of excited to think I wasn’t the only rabid, er radical patron out there.

      Still, I so value the thoughtfulness and consideration your experience brings to the issues … and am glad our paths have crossed online.

  9. I Like Books says:

    Just so that librarians don’t feel TOO singled out and abused, everyone else seems to be getting pissed off at e-book publishers, too.

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