Speaking at a private gathering of publishers organized by the Association of American Publishers, Sullivan was explaining why earlier this week the ALA sent a strongly worded open letter to publishers about the need to figure out way for publishers to sell libraries e-books for “equitable use at a reasonable price.”
Later in the week, the AAP sent its own letter in response to the ALA letter, citing anti-trust concerns and other reasons for a lack of collective publisher action and criticizing the ALA’s letter in light of the private audience the association would have the AAP’s New York offices on 5th Avenue later that week.
While squabbling publicly with crossing missives, behind closed doors, the ALA and AAP played nicely, thanking each other for the event and for past support. A video was played at the beginning of the meeting praising cooperation on an issue both organizations support: Banned Book Week.
Publishers in the room, however, were not so conciliatory.
An executive from Perseus Book Group who did not identify herself said, “our executives are confused as to what is a library?” She cited concerns that the free and wide availability of e-books to library patrons could undercut publisher business.
Tim McCall, vice president of online sales and marketing, digital sales at Penguin Group USA, criticized the ALA’s supposed stance, as written into its letter earlier in the week, that e-books should should be available to libraries under the same business models as print books.
“We recognize that e-books are a different character than books in print,” said Sullivan, clarifying the ALA’s position. “We want to ensure with e-books that there is equitable access and that access is at a reasonable price.”
But the most pointed questioning came from Wiley’s director of digital business development Peter Balis.
“When will the ALA start proposing to us some best practices on what models you think will work from your digital solutions working group? You put a lot on us and it’s created a lot of chaos and clearly it’s [e-book library lending] broken. We have twelve different models,” he said. “You have to come back to us with more than just ‘equitable access at a fair price.'”
As the question was being posed, many heads in the publisher-heavy audience were nodding in assent.
Bob Wolven, associate university librarian at Columbia University and head of the ALA digital working group agreed that it was incumbent now upon librarians to think of models that can work for both publishers and librarians. Wolven also referred to a document issued to the public by the ALA in August but sent to six of the largest U.S. publishers months earlier reviewing the state of e-book library lending and proposing several new business models for publishers to consider.
The document, titled EBook Business Models for Public Libraries, includes a list of three essential characteristics that libraries will look for in plans to buy e-books from publishers — inclusion of all titles, enduring rights (the option to own the e-book) and integration of e-books into the existing library processes — but no concrete recommendations on models.
The business model suggestions have to “come from you and [have] to be a lot more specific than what I’ve heard here. I challenge you with that,” said Balis.
“That’s a good challenge,” said Wolvin.
Balis again confronted the ALA delegation on the mission of libraries, questioning whether e-book access was for the “less fortunate” that libraries are, in part, there to serve or for “wealthy residents of Greenwich [Conn.] who just want to have a lot of nice, free access to a lot of books?”
Sullivan answered that libraries serve the communities that they are located in and that many are struggling to figure out what they should be in the context of the digital content revolution and dwindling library resources.
“If we had our way, everything that you published would be available to everyone, but it’s not possible for us to do that,” she said.
The meeting occurred against the backdrop of slow but steady movement on the part of the publishers in attempting to solve the problem of e-book library lending.
Just this week, it came out that Macmillan, which does not make any of its e-book titles available to libraries, would engage in a pilot program for selling e-books to libraries. Hachette and Penguin also recently announced pilot programs. Random House and HarperCollins both already sell e-books to libraries — though not without stipulations that have rankled the library community. Of the six largest publishers in the U.S., only Simon & Schuster does not currently make its e-books available to libraries.
“We are very heartened by the news that pilots are underway and we’d like to see more of them,” said Sullivan.
While there has been progress in the eyes of the ALA, it hasn’t been without setbacks. It recently came to light that Hachette, which makes its back-list of books available to libraries for purchase as e-books, raised the prices on its digital offerings to libraries by an average of 104%.
The progress, however, hasn’t been fast enough for the ALA’s constituents, who are now frustrated in a leadership that they once believed in to represent their interests to publishers.
When asked what the ALA would do now that librarian patience has run out, Sullivan said, “We’ll be giving careful thought in the next few weeks as to what we will do. Our hope is we’ll see a greater response [from publishers] to some of the needs and concerns that we have.”