Libraries and Ebooks: Spending Big on Fifty Shades of Grey
Related: Libraries Respond
How much do you think is a appropriate for a library system to pay to give access to its patrons to an ebook like Fifty Shades of Grey?
I realize this is a loaded question, but it’s loaded for a reason: I’m on a webcast right now with the American Library Association in which one librarian — Sari Feldman, executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Cleveland, who is also running for the American Library Association presidency in 2015-2016 — revealed that her library spent roughly $23,400 on purchasing 300 ebook copies of the E.L. James best-seller.
Now, before you become outraged about the level of expense for a public institution for the book OR that each copy cost the library system about $78, let me give some background.
Hear more about libraries, ebooks and discoverability at Digital Book World 2014
I spoke with American Library Association leadership a few weeks ago in a private meeting about a wide range of topics. When I challenged them on the idea that maybe it wasn’t essential to the library mission to provide patrons with easy, free access to titles like Fifty Shades, they had a very convincing rejoinder:
Barbara Stripling (ALA president): When some people can read these best-sellers and others can’t, it marginalizes those people. These books are a literary touchstone and everyone deserves to have a chance to be a part of that.
Me: How does it relate to the overall mission of the library?
Stripling: So, when you restrict access to any information, the library has been thwarted in fulfilling its mission to give people in the community the information they need.
But what about something like Fifty Shades or best-seller Gone Girl? Is that information people “need”? Another good answer from the ALA:
Maureen Sullivan (ALA past-president): It’s not for us to decide that the public needs Gone Girl as much, more, or less than any other book.
Read more of this interview here.
While all of that resonates with me, I think it needs to be balanced with dollars-and-cents sensibility — $23,400?! So people can read a book that I think many would agree has very little value when it comes to promoting literacy, spreading and securing democracy and giving people access to the information they “need.”
“Laters baby” doesn’t strike me as essential.
But that’s the great thing about libraries: They don’t make those judgement calls — nor should they. If it’s in the zeitgeist, it should be in the library.
Except that they do. Go to your local library and say to the librarian there, “what should I read next?” And they’ll tell you. I’d wager few would suggest Fifty Shades before many, many other titles.
So, on the one hand, it’s not for librarians to decide what they offer. On the other, it is for them to suggest what you should read. And buying a lot of copies of something is a way of doing that.
Therefore, I would suggest that it’s a foolish use of funds to buy more than a handful of copies of a very expensive ebook if it doesn’t have extreme value as judged by the librarian to promoting literacy, spreading and securing democracy or providing a community with access to information it “needs” — no matter what the demand.
Librarians aren’t robots. They can make judgement calls and do every time you ask them, “what should I read next?”
If it were cheap or free to provide, sure, make sure everyone who wants to can read a copy of anything they want. But that’s not how libraries and publishers currently work together on ebooks and tough decisions sometimes have to be made.
Imagine the library only purchased 10 copies of Fifty Shades for $780, forcing its patrons to wait weeks and months or even years to read it for free. It may not be ideal, but aren’t there better ways that library could have used nearly $23,000?
Now, on to the matter of working with publishers. Penguin Random House, the publisher of the ebook, reportedly charged roughly $78 a copy for it (and now charges about $48 a copy, according to Feldman on the webcast). Is that right? Is it fair?
I would argue that it’s a business decision and if it helps the company continue to bring in revenue and keep people employed, then it’s “right.” If outcry from librarians is so loud that it causes PRH public relations issues, or for its library sales to decrease, then I would say it may not be the right decision.
Librarians: If the ebooks pricing problem is such a big issue, I have some very simple advice for you as to how to change it — stop buying the ebooks at those prices and on those terms. The publishers want your business. There are many people at each major publisher who would be under a lot of pressure if the revenue they derived from libraries plummeted and they might be forced then to rethink their business models.
By spending over $20,000 at one library system for one book, even though it may priced egregiously high, is only reinforcing that pricing policy. You’re saying to them, “It’s working! Keep on charging us these prices because we’ll pay!”
I think the ALA has done a great job advocating for libraries and certainly if the organization’s goal is to get more access to ebooks for patrons, it is moving forward with that goal. But when I hear that a library system spent that kind of money on providing its patrons that kind of book, well, it makes me think that there’s something wrong here.
Libraries and ebooks isn’t just about right and wrong. It’s about dollars and cents and librarians — and perhaps publishers — need to know that.
Related: Libraries Respond
At Digital Book World this year, we’ll be holding a pre-conference workshop with the ALA on libraries and discoverability. It should be a great session and I urge everyone interested in forwarding this and other related conversations should attend. Learn more about the Digital Book World 2014 conference here.