Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

One librarian’s take on ebooks and the future of publishing

Ice harvesting


Consider this simile: publishers are like ice houses. Ice houses offered a beautiful, polished, and professionally crafted product, but with the advent of home cooling technology (the refrigerator) there was no longer a market for their products. Publishers are likewise becoming obsolete, since digital technology enables their customers to create and publish their own content.

I borrowed this comparison from Eli Neiburger, associate director for IT & Production at the Ann Arbor District Library (AADL), in his 2010 talk, “Libraries are screwed.” Neiburger and the AADL director, Josie Parker, were recently interviewed by Publishers Weekly on the subject of ebook lending, in which the interviewer referred us to a YouTube audio recording of the talk.

Ebook lending is a contentious subject among librarians and publishers. Publishers are hesitant to sell libraries ebook titles over security and profitability issues, and most librarians argue that they are entitled to purchase ebook titles just as they are with print titles. In fact, with the exception of Random House, which last month announced special ebook pricing for libraries that everyone was up in arms about, none of the big six publishers sell ebooks to libraries at all.

In the interview and in his earlier talk, Neiburger seems to offer a pretty bleak future for library ebook lending and for the impact of ebooks on the industry overall. He argues in the talk that libraries are screwed because “the value of library collections are rooted in the worth of a local copy.” Now that most people have access to the Internet 100 percent of the time (and therefore access to a growing number of books at any time) the idea of a local copy doesn’t make much sense anymore. He also contends that digital technology makes it possible for content creators to bypass traditional publishers altogether (hence the ice house analogy.) Which leads me to wonder, if libraries are screwed, and publishers are screwed, shouldn’t they be working together to come up with a mutually beneficial strategy to save themselves?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like either side is ready to concede anything to the other. Parker explains that “the [publishers’] policies are simply more restrictive on digital materials than we have set on physical materials. We’re not willing to take that step backwards. We haven’t had checkout or request limits here in over a decade, and we’re not about to apply them to the digital world.” Additionally, Parker says the pay-per-use lending model that some publishers would prefer just isn’t feasible for libraries, which have a fixed annual budget and must project their expenses well in advance of actually making purchases. If anyone should know that it’s nearly impossible to project unit sales of any given title, it should be publishers.

I’m sure you now understand why I described Neiburger’s analysis of ebooks and their impact on libraries and publishers as bleak. I would argue, however, that we should take another look at the relationship between publishers, their digital products, and libraries before we completely discard all hope.  The ice house comparison doesn’t hold much weight, in my opinion. Publishers provide a value-add service to content—not just production and distribution. In contrast, my refrigerator keeps perishable food just as cold as blocks of ice would, and it’s definitely more convenient than stocking an ice box. Would all books, professionally published, end up being the same product if their authors opted to self-publish instead of going the traditional route? Of course not.

It’s this kind of fear mongering that has pushed publishers to protect their digital content in ways that are disserving both libraries and readers. We’ve seen digital lending work with third party companies such as OverDrive. Why can’t publishers and libraries build on that experience and actually come up with a sustainable model? Kudos to Random House for at least trying to compromise, but with financially strapped libraries backed into a corner, it seems the newly proposed terms have fallen on deaf ears.


This entry was posted on April 10, 2012 by in Opinion, Technology and tagged , , , , .

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