Penguin’s decision last week to sever its connection with OverDrive and halt e-book lending in US public libraries brought the discussion of how publishers should interact with libraries in the digital age front-and-centre on the first morning of O’Reilly’s Tools of Change Conference in New York.
The Internet Archive’s Peter Brantley, who moderated on “The Library Alternative”, asserted that “libraries are quite angry” about publishers “moving backward”. If publishers “want to target OverDrive because of Amazon”, Brantley added, then “libraries are happy to have an alternative [supplier]” but the one thing they are not willing to be is “collateral damage. We don’t have much sympathy for large foreign-owned media conglomerates,” he said. Reportedly, some libraries are even considering class-action legal remedies in the face of increasing frustration. Penguin’s move sparked the controversy, but with Simon & Schuster, Macmillan and Hachette already withholding e-books from library loan, and Harper setting a 26 check-out limit, the topic has been building towards fireworks for a long time.
If timing is everything, Penguin’s seemed particularly bad, for hope had so recently sprung up within the library community that a lending resolution might be on the horizon. Random House had just announced a breakthrough: in return for raising the prices of its e-books sold through library wholesalers, they would allow unlimited check-outs. The price structure itself has not been announced.
Hope had even extended to the prospect that the RH move might presage a similar development with other major publishers, after an American Library Association delegation had called on the Big Six.
On the same panel, The Revson Foundation’s Julie Sandorf called libraries “the last remaining civic public square”. She and others reminded listeners that at a time of declining bricks-and-mortar stores, “libraries have real estate in every community. They can showcase and sell; they could become the new Barnes & Noble front window. Think about the utility of that”.
Meanwhile, in a panel discussion “The Changing Face of Retail Bookselling,” Verso Digital’s Jack McKeown put it another way: only 45% of the US population is now served by an independent store within 10 miles of home or work, and only 55% live or work within 10 miles of a B&N or Books-a-Million.
The New York Public Library’s Micah May reckoned that libraries can help publishers introduce points of effective price discrimination. They can also help publishers connect with users since they have the advantage of information about patrons’ borrowing habits that they could share. May also reminded listeners that “something like 90% of e-book circulation comes from the top 1,000 titles”.
Bilbary’s Tim Coates added: “twice as many books read in the US come from public libraries as come from bookstores. Every year, two billion books are circulated. That is a huge reason why publishers should take an interest.”
Coates expanded upon May’s point, claiming “the publishing industry has become separate from the public library” at a time when the library can provide “a goldmine of information”. No such information goldmine is open to publishers via Amazon. Library Journal’s Barbara Genco had pointed out in her morning session that “the library market—with 169 million users—is one of the largest sleeping giants in the United States”.
The giant is waking up, stretching, and feeling its strength. The take-away was clear. As Coates said: “publishers need libraries more than libraries need publishers. These issues need to be resolved.”
Photo of ToC audience by Pinar Ozger