An Optimist-Pessimist’s Guide to Avoiding Ebook Armageddon

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Heather McCormackBy Heather McCormack, Book Review Editor, Library Journal

(Read: A Library-Publisher Peace Accord)

I’ve got a mantra I’d like to offer up to those who find me overly negative about the intersection of publishing and librarianship: my optimism is rooted in pessimism, meaning I come to workable solutions by entertaining Armageddon. While librarians and pundits have aired their grievances about the extreme difficulties of acquiring and using ebooks, I’ve only been able to step back from their catastrophizing by contributing to it.

Of course, every jagged optimist slides toward full-out “hater” status now and again. Two weeks ago, after digesting a conversation with publishing colleagues and an important study (PDF) released by the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies, a sinister thought arrived in my brain:

Maybe publishers and libraries have entirely different aims, business versus the common good. These institutions will likely never understand each other.

I sold this idea to myself for a fortnight, crossing into harrowing new psychic territory. I’m happy to report, however, that pessimism coupled with flinty angst has its benefits, first and foremost that, when done correctly, you see that your little black hole of woe is full of, well, holes in logic. Read: In the course of temporarily accepting the major arguments for cutting public libraries out of the ebook market, I have come back around to rejecting them with a vengeance.

eBooks Belong in Public Libraries

This blog post was supposed to be about ebooks and readers’ advisory, but that loaded subject will have to be deconstructed later. First, we have to establish once and for all that ebooks do belong in public libraries and that public libraries deserve affordable and easy access to them. The most obvious reason for arguing this position is excruciatingly difficult to impress upon certain parties, but I’d wager they’ve never seen these lump sums before (I hadn’t until a week ago): in 2008, U.S. public libraries dropped a whopping $954,540,970 on print materials (both books and periodicals) and a not-too-shabby $155,646,650 on digital, including e-books, e-serials, and databases.

(See the full report here; statistics for 2009 were being tallied as I wrote.)

Tons of cash like this, even if they make up single-digit percentages of total publisher sales, should at least earn public libraries the mantle of “consumer,” no questions asked. Money is money is money, especially when you consider that libraries never return books and that, unlike Jane or Joe Consumer, they have a mandate to buy books no matter how much their budgets are slashed.

Chew on this as well: the only difference between an Amazon addict on a Stieg Larsson bender and a public library is that the library can expose hundreds, if not thousands, to the dead Swede’s oeuvre while the addict’s copies will likely languish on her bedside table only to be replaced by next year’s best sellers. This is my euphemism for “lending,” which many consider a big handicap of public libraries at the bargaining table. I hereby move to replace it with “viral marketing” per the brilliant suggestion of the Skokie Public Library’s Toby Greenwalt.

It makes a whole lot of sense if you put it in a sentence: “The New York Public Library is viral marketing Alex James’s Bit of a Blur.”

Meaning, once the library gets the book in my hands, I’m not only going to devour it, but I will also flash its pop-arty cover on the subway and talk it up online and in old school conversations for the month I know it will rock my world. In short, I guarantee you someone in America who loved Blur in its 1990s heyday is going to hear about the book for the first time because me and the library did a better job of blurbing it stateside than its publisher.

A few sales will register online or in bricks-and-mortar, and the reading ecosystem as I outlined it in an earlier post will have been nourished in a small but significant way.

Libraries Reach More Readers

Truth: I don’t have any romantic illusions about the library-bookstore loop as it exists now “saving” publishing. Houses of all sizes need more than library consumers to survive, and I believe they can break through to a lucrative new mindset and model by using public libraries as adoption agents.

Ebooks, as much as we’ve read about skyrocketing sales, remain a luxury in most parts of the world (as do hardcovers). In New York City, I am surrounded by people with the drive, ways, and means to drop $500 for an iPad or a couple hundred for a Kindle, but this is not the America that Steve Jobs, Markus Dohle, and Co. need to attract and convert. That territory is overseen by U.S. public libraries, all 9,221 of them, and according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, they provide access to about 14 million ebooks as of FY2008, up from 8.9 million in FY2005.

Public libraries are even better positioned to expose people to digital literature when you take into account the staggering 1,433,734,000 visits they logged in 2009. Even institutions with the crudest user interfaces and the boniest skeleton crews will strive to give the people what they want, and ALA stats indicate they desire ebooks. Between 2007 and 2010—years that have mostly witnessed decreases in operating budgets—ebook offerings spiked from 38.3 percent to 66 percent.

Now consider that ebooks remain a mysterious concept to many, and that libraries have long taught basic how-to computer classes, and you have an ideal arena for navigating a technological sea change that won’t happen overnight or in a few years. For publishers to fulfill their projections that ebooks will make up as much as 25 to 60 percent of their business in 2015, they need to grow new readers every day; this happens in public libraries without their cooperation.

Imagine the outcome if a partnership arose.

Yes, yes, I know: What about the oft-regurgitated ebook boogeymen? What about DRM, the lack of a universal format, the expense of e-readers, etc.?

My solution is to treat the library like a laboratory for a crucial social experiment. Publishers and vendors donate books, software, and hardware and let librarians set up opportunities for education and discovery. The general public learns the difference between a DRM-free work in the public domain versus a DRM-protected of-the-moment best seller; or even how to operate, say, a Sony Reader.

Empowered with this knowledge, patrons, that is, consumers (because they’re often one and the same) are more likely to invest in a future that they perceive as taking them into consideration.

Heather McCormack is Book Review Editor of Library Journal magazine in New York City and a formerly conflicted novelist in training. She will be moderating a panel on ebook reader’s advisory during LJ’s virtual ebook summit on Sept. 29, 2010, and encourages librarians to participate in LJ’s free ebook survey.

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5 thoughts on “An Optimist-Pessimist’s Guide to Avoiding Ebook Armageddon

  1. Great article. I’ve been kicking around the notion of libraries trying to do a deal with Amazon. Does anyone know if there has been any talk between the company and the library community??

  2. I doubt it’d be a good idea for libraries to “do a deal with Amazon.” It already dominates online sales of printed books and is doing its best to dominate that for ebooks. Giving it near total control of the lending market would not only be foolish, it makes no sense. Libraries are themselves distributors of books with an excellent presence online. Unlike book publishers, they don’t need outsource that presence to Amazon.

    What we need is a system run by and for libraries and their clients. It’d acquire books directly from publishers or multiple distributors and supply them to local libraries who’d handle the actual distribution, funded by local taxes. If Amazon wants to play that game, supplying ebooks from its collection and displaying those ebooks on Kindles, that’s fine and good. Amazon can be part of the team, but it shouldn’t be calling the shots. It’s not to be trusted.

    Keep in mind what a good ebook lending system could do. Even a small town library could offer–for immediate checkout–hundreds of thousands of different titles. When a hot, new Harry Potter title comes out, their supply of copies would be infinite. Having an ebook on the shelves would cost them nothing and checking it out could cost less than processing a printed book in and out. Authors would benefit too. Instead of a flash of income when a book comes out and then nothing, they’d get a steady flow of income.

    Personally, I don’t think Amazon wants to go into the lending business. Their profits are in selling and that’s probably why they make getting ebooks on a Kindle from any source but themselves such a hassle. Librarians need to create a system for lending that’s so compelling, even Amazon is forced to participate. They shouldn’t be “doing a deal” with Amazon as the weaker party.

  3. Excellent article. I will be publishing my ebook in Sept. or Oct. 2010. Since it’s a true story of cold war espionage and American libraries, I have every intention of making it available to public libraries. BTW: I was a librarian in NYC back in the 1980s. I’m a roofer now.

    Once again, thanks for providing me with yet another potential market for my ebook.

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