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Inside Annoyed Librarian

The ALA Ebook Standoff

According to this article, librarians have lost patience over ebook library lending. And we all know what that means. Absolutely nothing.

The article is about a meeting between the ALA and publishers over ebook lending concerns, the main librarian concerns being that not all ebooks are available to libraries and that when they are they are too expensive.

There was little weirdness in the proceedings. For example, a publishing executive supposedly said, “our executives are confused as to what is a library.” That seems like it would be pretty easy thing to figure out. You just point them toward that building that’s handing out the publisher’s books for free and say, “that’s a library.” Question answered.

One publisher challenged the ALA. “When will the ALA start proposing to us some best practices on what models you think will work from your digital solutions working group? You put a lot on us and it’s created a lot of chaos and clearly it’s [e-book library lending] broken. We have twelve different models….You have to come back to us with more than just ‘equitable access at a fair price.”

Ay, there’s the rub. Publishers selling or licensing or renting ebooks directly to libraries won’t work. They’ve never done that for print books on any scale, which is why we have book jobbers like Baker & Taylor, but they buy print books for libraries the same way a jobber would buy books for bookstores. The end result doesn’t matter.

The rough equivalent for ebooks is Overdrive. So the technical problem of getting ebooks from publishers to library patrons has been solved. It’s not a great model and it has annoying limitations on numbers of simultaneous checkouts, but if you don’t mind the idea of restricting 21st century technology to 19th century standards it’s not bad.

The only serious problem is the pricing model. The ALA complaint is that ebooks aren’t available for equal use at a fair price: “equitable use at a reasonable price.”

One big problem with this is that nobody really knows what a fair or reasonable price would be. The market helps determine the fair price of a print book, because it’s the same for libraries as the general public, unless it’s even cheaper for libraries as it sometimes is.

But how do you determine the price for a digital book that can be infinitely copied and never wears out? Three times the price of the print? Ten times? We really have no way of knowing whether 300% of the print price is a great deal or a boondoggle. What we do know is that it’s more than a lot of libraries could afford and it limits their ability to supply ebooks to library patrons.

I don’t think that’s the end of the world or that libraries should be investing exorbitantly in expensive ebooks, especially until some good workable solution can be found. Some librarians act as if libraries will die out if they can’t supply ebooks. If that’s all libraries are good for, which I don’t believe, then maybe they should die out.

But what is that solution? Restricting ebooks to one checkout at a time while pricing them like print books seems fair. Publishers don’t like the lack of “friction” and think libraries will drive them out of business, but there’s not really a danger of that. Try to find an ebook you actually want to read that isn’t checked out with 30 holds on it is plenty of friction from the patron perspective.

There’s no evidence of libraries harming book publishers, but publishers don’t need evidence since they can control the end product.

Pricing ebooks higher and allowing multiple simultaneously circulation seems fair. Okay, libraries pay 3 times the cover price and get 3 simultaneous users, or maybe 5 times the cover price for 3 simultaneous users.

What publishers are moving toward is charging some multiple of the print price while restricting access as if it were still a print volume, and that’s what seems unfair from the library perspective. True, the book will never wear out, but how many individual books really ever wear out in libraries before they’re weeded? Do we have a percent on that, because I’d bet it’s 10% or under.

So we’re getting nowhere and librarians are losing patience. Supposedly they’re losing patience with the ALA and “are now frustrated in a leadership that they once believed in to represent their interests to publishers.” Eh, maybe. I think librarians are more likely to be impatient with publishers who haven’t given them everything they think they want.

Regardless, the ALA hasn’t exactly been a leader here. Overdrive has been providing ebooks to libraries for several years now, and they’re the only group that’s provided any large scale solutions.

Maybe now, instead of alternately whining and tough talking publishers, the ALA can come up with reasonable solutions. The publishers might still balk, but then the librarians won’t look so clueless. The problem is trying to figure out what would be “reasonable.”



  1. Thanks for this thoughtful response to my piece from last week. I feel like few people who are thinking about this issue are considering the positions of all stakeholders. It’s interesting to cover and even though I’ve been reporting on it now for some time, I have no idea how it’s going to end up.

  2. Shouldn’t libraries be able to buy ebooks at the same prices as the public, and then lend them just to one patron at a time? Wouldn’t that be fair and equitable, based on the system for print books?

    • It’s a different market – the individual vs. the institutional market. Having the same price would mean fewer sales.

  3. Former Library Director says:

    Why should libraries pay retail? We don’t for print!! And right now, what you get is a license which can be withdrawn at any time. Libraries don’t own the content. So, it should cost much less than the print.

    In addition, libraries acquisitions help the public find new titles, it is a demonstrated fact that library users purchase MORE books than library non-users.

    Finally, Annoyed does not even address those publishers who refuse to sell to libraries or to library aggregators.

  4. I don’t understand why librarians are so aghast over the fact that publishers don’t like them? If you look in the news, you see the publishing industry (I’m lumping music, movies, and books together) actively prosecuting people who are sharing products or using shared products, or at least expressing agreement in regards to that prosecution. Why on earth is it surprising that they don’t want to negotiate with libraries who propose to do the same thing: buy something once and let other people use it for free?

    This is why all of this is ridiculous because none of it actually addressed key issues with digital content that will continue to be issues no matter what pithy agreement the ALA and the ebook industry decide upon.

  5. Librarybob says:

    I think the gist of the problem is that publishers — by and large — are so scared of piracy that they’ve confabulated “piracy” with the “fair use” we librarians have always provided.

    Never mind our role as free publicists. Never mind our role as the main purchasers of high-quality non-fiction (no best sellers there, no siree).

    The idea of a “reading ecology” seems alien to the MBA minds now running the publishing industry.

    That said, I suspect the “librarian/library role” may be found in our deep history, when collection development was actually a difficult task. I think we need to concentrate much more on determining which “small press/self-published e-books” belong in our collections and develop standard contracts for paying those publishers.

    As it is, established authors have no reason to use a “publisher” since they can make more by bypassing them. We can help the non-established authors do the same.

    • So if a library buys an ebook and “lends” it to a patron (he downloads it from the library server and it then exists as a copy on his device/hard drive/etc) how is that different than me buying an ebook and “lending” it to my friend? Or buying a CD, ripping it to my computer, and then “lending” those files to a friend?

      The problem is that both publishers and libraries insist on forcing digital content and technology into the same structures that were used for print media. It will never work.

  6. Your estimate that 10% of a years purchase of library books actually stays in the library long enough to get weeded because it wore out – is probably very accurate.

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