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.)
Many who read books through libraries decide to give them as gifts or, when they can afford to, purchase a copy for their own collections. Many libraries offer a "buy it now" button on their catalog websites. For those titles that are by first-time authors or not destined to be bestsellers, libraries are often how those authors and titles are "discovered." Libraries have great opportunities to enhance discoverability with displays, author programs, and other means. Perhaps the most compelling advantage is that avid readers frequent libraries and bookstores on a very regular basis (often weekly, sometimes more) and always seem to be trolling for a new catch.
This may not sound like that much until we remember that there are 16,698 public library buildings (nearly as many as there are McDonald's), one located in or near virtually every community in the United States. (This number includes public libraries only. There are tens of thousands of school, academic and special libraries as well.) With the loss of bookstores, these are increasingly the only physical locations where readers can actually "see" titles. For e‑books, library website visitors will only see what the library can offer. Libraries develop ways of pushing those e‑book titles to potential customers, and librarians are known to be highly trusted, unbiased sources of information and recommendations.
What's the value of finding a solution from the libraries' point of view? Libraries are very responsive to local community interests. We know our customers, and not just from the aggregate data we collect. Librarians actually have very direct interactions with customers. We know them by name; we know what they like to read. Our "readers advisory" service is in great demand by those who are heavy library users as well as those who request occasional assistance. We build our inventory to meet that local demand. Then, we pay attention to what circulates and what does not. When we have robust book purchasing budgets (yes, there are many libraries that still do), we weed out some of those already-purchased books and replace them with new titles, always trying to anticipate our readers' interests.
The preceding paragraphs explain why the ALA leadership was so interested in meeting with several major publishers in New York. These meetings, which included CEOs and division presidents, were an important step toward both parties better understanding the other's world. Publishers and library leaders had misconceptions about each other. By openly discussing those areas, as well as developing mechanisms for further direct communication, we believe that we can help each other reach our common goal of connecting authors with readers.
In the short term, ALA will work to provide data and information to publishers about how libraries operate. In return, we hope that publishers will work expeditiously to find a business model that works from their perspectives with regard to selling e‑books to libraries. We recognize that this may be a time of many solutions; each publisher will have to find a solution that works for it. We want to hear from publishers about ideas for promoting their e‑books to our readers, but we will only promote what we are able to offer. We also are working with the intermediaries and distributors who offer e‑book services to libraries.
In the long run, we need enduring solutions. Libraries obviously want publishers to thrive. Publishers must want libraries to succeed, too, if they want a "marketing" location for publications (print and digital) in communities all across the country. Libraries contribute to literacy, technology training and marketing, all important elements to success for publishers. For those who cannot afford to buy books, libraries also provide the only access to information, an essential element for an informed democratic society.
Let's work together in the "Book Business"—which is exactly what we've been doing for such a very long time. It's essential for our futures. BB
Molly Raphael, president of the American Library Association, is the chief elected officer of the oldest and largest library association in the world. She is the former director of the Multnomah County Library (Portland, Ore.) and the District of Columbia Public Library.