American Library Association Open Letter to Publishers on E-Book Library Lending

With Macmillan coming out with a reported pilot program, Hachette’s new e-book pricing for libraries and the expansion of library e-book distribution, the topic of library e-book lending is gaining momentum.

Today, an open letter from the head of the American Library Association, Maureen Sullivan, to publishers:

An Open Letter to America’s Publishers from ALA President Maureen Sullivan

It’s a rare thing in a free market when a customer is refused the ability to buy a company’s product and is told its money is “no good here.” Surprisingly, after centuries of enthusiastically supporting publishers’ products, libraries find themselves in just that position with purchasing ebooks from three of the largest publishers in the world. Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Penguin have been denying access to their ebooks for our nation’s 112,000 libraries and roughly 169 million public library users.

Let’s be clear on what this means: If our libraries’ digital bookshelves mirrored the New York Times fiction bestseller list, we would be missing half of our collection any given week due to these publishers’ policies. The popular Bared to You and The Glass Castle are not available in libraries because libraries cannot purchase them at any price. Today’s teens also will not find the digital copy of Judy Blume’s seminal Forever, nor today’s blockbuster “Hunger Games” series.

Not all publishers are following the path of these three publishers. In fact, hundreds of publishers of ebooks have embraced the opportunity to create new sales and reach readers through our nation’s libraries. One recent innovation allows library patrons to immediately purchase an ebook if the library doesn’t have a copy or if there is a wait list they would like to avoid. This offers a win-win relationship for both publishers and library users since recent research from the Pew Internet Project tells us that library users are more than twice as likely to have bought their most recent book as to have borrowed it from a library.

Libraries around the country are developing mobile applications and online discovery systems that make it easier to explore books and authors on the go. Seventy-six percent of public libraries now offer ebooks – double the number from only five years ago – and 39 percent of libraries have purchased and circulate e-readers. Public libraries alone spend more than $1.3 billion annually on their collections of print, audio, video, and electronic materials. They are investing not only in access to content and devices, but also in teaching the skills needed to navigate and utilize digital content successfully.

Librarians understand that publishing is not just another industry. It has special and important significance to society. Libraries complement and, in fact, actively support this industry by supporting literacy and seeking to spread an infectious and lifelong love of reading and learning. Library lending encourages patrons to experiment by sampling new authors, topics, and genres. This experimentation stimulates the market for books, with the library serving as a de facto discovery, promotion, and awareness service for authors and publishers.

Publishers, libraries, and other entities have worked together for centuries to sustain a healthy reading ecosystem – celebrating our society’s access to the complete marketplace of ideas. Given the obvious value of libraries to publishers, it simply does not add up that any publisher would continue to lock out libraries. It doesn’t add up for me, it doesn’t add up for ALA’s 60,000 members, and it definitely doesn’t add up for the millions of people who use our libraries every month.

America’s libraries have always served as the “people’s university” by providing access to reading materials and educational opportunity for the millions who want to read and learn but cannot afford to buy the books they need. Librarians have a particular concern for vulnerable populations that may not have any other access to books and electronic content, including individuals and families who are homebound or low-income. To deny these library users access to ebooks that are available to others – and which libraries are eager to purchase on their behalf – is discriminatory.

We have met and talked sincerely with many of these publishers. We have sought common ground by exploring new business models and library lending practices. But these conversations only matter if they are followed by action: Simon & Schuster must sell to libraries. Macmillan must implement its proposed pilot. Penguin must accelerate and expand its pilots beyond two urban New York libraries.

We librarians cannot stand by and do nothing while some publishers deepen the digital divide. We cannot wait passively while some publishers deny access to our cultural record. We must speak out on behalf of today’s – and tomorrow’s – readers. The library community demands meaningful change and creative solutions that serve libraries and our readers who rightfully expect the same access to ebooks as they have to printed books.

So, which side will you be on? Will you join us in a future of liberating literature for all? Libraries stand with readers, thinkers, writers, dreamers, and inventors. Books and knowledge – in all their forms – are essential. Access to them must not be denied.


7 thoughts on “American Library Association Open Letter to Publishers on E-Book Library Lending

  1. Lilian Gafni

    Dear Ms. Sullivan,
    Our country was based on freedom of speech, and for publishers to restrict access is tantamount to violating this sacred oath.

    On the other hand, there is an untapped market of excellent, self-published books to be recognized in their own right to promote literacy at a low cost to libraries. Granted, these markets of self-published books need to carry a seal of approval as practiced by to sift through books worthy of that seal.

    Thank you.

    Lilian Gafni

  2. Dale Copps

    Wait lists are obsolete (as, indeed, are books on paper). Legislation may be required to shake publishers loose from their obdurate stance. In this political climate, we shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for that.

    Finally, authors must realize how these fearful and shortsighted publishers are denying them audience and income, and must act to either change publishers’ ways or do without them. Authors want readers and readers want eBooks. They will find their way to one another through any obstacles.

    See, The End of Libraries

  3. Maxine Flam

    I would give anything to get my book in more libraries. I am in only nine right now. If that means giving the book away to libraries to find my audience, then so be it. The problem I see is mainline book publishers are scared so they are holding the libraries hostage by not having their books available. What libraries need to do is to look to alternative authors, i.e. self-published books, to fill the gap. Once readers discover these wonderful authors and books, the big guys will come around. Then the libraries will have the final say to pick and choose which books they want, not the other way around as it is now.

  4. James

    What a load of self-serving blather. I expect there are plenty of authors who don’t appreciate having librarians (who have secure pay and pensions from the public treasury) preaching to them about how virtuous libraries are and how wicked anyone is who tries to maintain control over the intellectual property that is a writer’s only income and pension.

    Even worse are the self-righteous \information wants to be free\ preachers who think that charging money for books is tantamount to totalitarianism.

    It’s absurd to suggest that publishers are depriving the poor of culture simply because the poor can’t get The Hunger Games for free on their Kindles. Getting entertainment in the format of your choice is not a human right. Read the paperback at your library if you’re that desperate.

    1. PJ

      Poor, ignorant, and bitter James. I do love that you’re arguing that the people looking to keep the public informed, and willing to PAY to do it, are self-serving and not the ones trying to extort more and more money out of people under the guise of ‘protecting intellectual property’. Give me a break. If you want half of your population to remain ignorant and unread, fine. Move to a third world country. But me, I prefer my population to be intelligent, informed, and hopeful and therefore low on crime. The poorer and more ignorant a population is, the more inclined they will be to knock off those who seem to think that all things should be in the hands of a few.

  5. Soni Martin

    What I don’t understand is why libraries can buy hardback books from all publishers but some of the larger publishers refuse to sell them ebooks. The open letter is me in many regards. If the hold list is too long and I really want the book…I buy it. But there are times that I want to be able to check it out from the library. I am an avid reader…I read between 2-3 books a week. I can not afford to buy every book I read.

    Yes…per Rachel Thompson (above), I chose the method of how I read a book but I have the ebook for convenience (I can throw it in my purse and take it everywhere and it is light) as opposed to carting a hardback around and not always having it available.

    Also…ebooks are the wave of the future…many magazines and newspapers are going digital…why publishers are dragging their feet so much rather than embracing this and looking for ways to enhance the experience just doesn’t make sense to me.

  6. Kate Barsotti

    Wow. Just wow. Such a letter at such a time. If I were in publishing right now, I’d be mad as hell.

    Accusing publishers of being discriminatory is not likely to garner the reaction you want. It’s insulting, especially when many publishers may be looking at hiring freezes and layoffs, and facing unprecedented technological changes in their industry.

    The whole tone of this letter is unprofessional, strident, and counter-productive. The more libraries wag their finger in other people’s faces, the more those people are going to back away. You cannot expect to accuse people of lacking ethics and moral fiber, then also expect them to turn around and do your bidding. What is the ALA thinking? This is the letter you write to vent your frustration, but don’t send to anyone. This is the way you settle yourself down before putting your game-face on and working toward a mutual solution, even if you are gritting your teeth the whole time.

    Of course everyone likes libraries and wants them to survive. We are book people. We just have not figured out HOW to do that and keep publishers profitable in all cases. Libraries are one of the institutions that makes our culture special–libraries do not exist in all countries, which is a shame. They are a unique institution embodying many of our best values and characteristics.

    Here’s the rub as far as e-books go:

    As a reader, I would LOVE to have better access to e-books and audio books in the format I need. I am also willing to be honest and admit there are many e-books I buy today that I would not bother paying for if I could obtain it for free at a library. I tend to buy traditional books as \keepers.\ E-books and some audio books are read once and I have zero desire to read them again.

    Here are the mud and muck of the problem, as far as I have a grasp on it:

    1. One of the reasons the e-book ecosystem is complex and muddied is the millions of books libraries handed to Google Books. Google is a corporation. They are about profit. Libraries took a product from one corporation/author and handed it over to another, and didn’t care what sort of problems that might cause to the publishing business model. What they found is Google then decided to do whatever they thought best, and damn what libraries or publishers or authors might want.

    Libraries should have stepped up and done it themselves, the right way, with partnerships and agreements that protect copyright. When you begin mass digitization of other people’s work without those frameworks, we end up mired in legal battles that is bad for everyone except law firms. In this scenario, libraries would have been the true caretakers of digital information and culture–while still shielding reader privacy.

    2. Publishers are reeling from the settlement with the DOJ with expensive fines, new rules and regulations, with the result that they are nervous about doing much of anything with e-books. They didn’t wake up and say, \Gee. I have some free time today. Let’s screw libraries.\ They woke up with less money in the bank and less control over distribution/price of their e-books, unsure how to proceed so they didn’t get smacked once again by the DOJ. Any deal they offer libraries could be scrutinized and they might be accused of price fixing again. Being cautious is smart and about survival, not making libraries angry or depriving low-income readers.

    3. \Public libraries alone spend more than $1.3 billion annually on their collections of print, audio, video, and electronic materials.\

    Please be specific. Publishers are not effected by library purchases of video and, I suspect, \electronic materials.\ What does that mean? What’s the real investment in books, e-books, and audio books?

    4. The risk to publishers is real because the music industry, by and large, lost their battle with digital distribution (although they may eventually recover…the last decade has been nasty). Current library customers may both use the library and purchase books as well. That behavior can change very quickly. The younger generation spends very little on their music consumption; sales of singles have not replaced the income musicians once earned from selling albums.

    The critical factor is that people love music and now they are used to getting their music for next to nothing. Wouldn’t it be great if e-books were that way, too? For readers, sure. Not for authors or publishers. An author cannot sell a chapter the way a musician can sell a single song.

    \Researchers and industry consultants say online music sites are being used by a growing number of listeners as a substitute for purchasing music rather than serving as a catalyst for more purchases.\



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