GuestColumn: Libraries + E-books
We have witnessed rapid changes in how we live our lives in the past two decades. Each time we begin to be comfortable with new ways of doing things, the next new thing comes along and challenges us to adapt. Our somewhat unsettling experience with new technology springs from wanting everything to work smoothly—no glitches, our machines performing exactly the way we expect. When we are moving through periods of rapid change, we feel much more in a state of flux.
It is through this lens that I view our current state in relation to e‑books and libraries. Recently, the leadership of the American Library Association (ALA) met with senior management from several large publishing houses. Some of them allow libraries to purchase and own their e‑books (Random House; Perseus). Some of them are not making their e‑books available to libraries (Macmillan; Simon and Schuster). And some are somewhere in the middle (Penguin, until recently; and Harper–Collins with its "26 circulations" loan cap model). In all of our meetings with the publishing executives (all of the aforementioned except HarperCollins), we found that for those not making their e‑books available through libraries, the sticking point was identifying a business model that protected their digital editions from piracy and loss of sales. These are understandable concerns.
It is natural for us to be in a time of flux now. And it is natural for libraries and library leadership to be pushing for resolution to this situation—and the sooner the better. Publishers and libraries have been working together for a very long time. Our shared goal of putting authors and readers together is a powerful bond that will drive us to find solutions that work for both of us.
What's the value for finding a solution from the publishers' point of view? I can tell you the case I would make. Library sales, while not a huge part of sales of bestsellers, are nevertheless significant as libraries respond to demand and often purchase multiple copies of popular titles. (I remember when my own library ordered 100 pre-pub copies of Alex Haley's "Roots" decades ago; now that kind of ordering is much more common, particularly for large urban/suburban library systems.)