The Growing Pains of E-Books

Like many librarians in public libraries, I spend a fair amount of time explaining how various e-readers work, how the digital media catalog (separate from the regular library catalog) works, and how to accomplish the many steps required to download an e-book from the library collection.

I know that we live in a time of unprecedented and rapid technological growth and change, and that what we are going through now is just growing pains. The book industry, like other media industries (music, film), is trying to figure out how to deal with this change.

But it’s not happening fast enough, or thoughtfully enough. The prevalent model right now is one book, one reader: libraries buy (or, more often, license) one digital copy of a book, and one library user can borrow it at a time. With vendors and digital rights management (DRM), publishers are attempting to make the digital world obey the same rules as the print world, but this is artificial and must give way to a better model.

Even with the current model, most major publishers are not participating; they refuse to sell or license e-books to libraries. This comes as a surprise to many library users, which means librarians must do a better job of raising public awareness, notes San Rafael Public Library Director Sarah Houghton (a.k.a. the Librarian in Black).

There are other models out there: Brian Herzog (a.k.a. the Swiss Army Librarian) explains a newer platform called Freading, a token-based system that eliminates waiting lists. The main catch is that Freading’s 15,000+ books don’t include any from the “Big Six” publishers (HarperCollins, Random House, Penguin, Macmillan, Hachette, Simon & Schuster), and therefore many popular titles.

Eventually – sooner rather than later, one hopes – the major publishers will see that their fears are unfounded, and that selling or licensing e-books to libraries will not gut their sales. (After all, selling print books to libraries didn’t kill the book industry.) In an article that reported research findings showing “a symbiotic relationship between library patronage and consumer book purchasing,” School Library Journal editor-in-chief Rebecca Miller said, “It’s exciting to have data to back the sense that library use is also an economic engine for the book industry. Publishers now have proof of how libraries support their business models.”

For years, articles asking “Are libraries obsolete?” and wondering, “Will [fill in the blank] be the death of libraries?” have abounded. Libraries are still here, though, and most want to remain relevant; we want to continue offering “the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources” (ALA Code of Ethics). In many cases, libraries offer not just access to resources but also a community center, a place for people to meet, learn, work, and create. Now, with the rise of self-publishing, the question has become: Are publishers relevant? Are publishers obsolete?

Not quite yet. The mainstream publishing industry still has value. Its editors and publicists have decades of experience in identifying great work, improving it and polishing it through the editorial process, spreading the word about it through publicity and advertising, and printing and distributing it.

But the Big Six aren’t the only game in town. While they drag their feet, libraries would do well to consider other sources of e-content. As Jamie LaRue points out in his recent Library Journal piece, “All Hat, No Cattle: A call for libraries to transform before it’s too late,” independent publishers have shown themselves to be much more open to working with libraries than mainstream publishers have been. Additionally, digitization projects throughout the country have made more content available online; and of course there is self-published material.

So, publishers: what’s stopping you from reaching more readers by selling e-books to the “staggeringly effective marketing machine” (LaRue) that is the library? And librarians: it’s time for us to work together to explore other options instead of letting the Big Six call the shots. As LaRue points out, “If we pay public dollars for content, then we must be able to take possession of the copies. Anything else is sheer vendor lock-in and shirks our obligation to preserve the public record.”

Libraries and librarians are waiting, impatiently but often too quietly, for publishers to work with us on this. It has the potential to be a situation where everyone wins: publishers profit, authors reach a wider audience, libraries provide excellent service, readers have access to a wide variety of resources.


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