Book publishers, take cover. The librarians are at the gate. The issue is, like almost everything else in publishing right now, e-books.
If you go to your library website, chances are that you will see that it has a new program where you can check out e-books. Cool! Right? Hey, I’ve done it. It’s free. All you have to do is select the book you want, hit the button, download the book, and voila!
And you can avoid the usual inconveniences that detract from the library experience. You don’t have to go into one of those shabby old buildings , filled up with shabby old people, and try to find one of those shabby old books. (Who knows what person may have been picking his nose while reading it last?) Furthermore the library rarely has a copy of the book you really want anyway, right? Sure, if you are looking for The Muncie Indiana Junior League Cookbook of 1954, you are likely to find one – or more than one. Maybe an old broken spine volume of Funk and Wagnall’s Desk Encyclopedia. But if you are looking for Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, get in line. You’re number 205 on the waiting list. And when you lose the book, or maybe your kid cuts it up and makes paper airplanes out of it, or when you just bring it back late (which you almost always do), ka-ching!
The new e-book checkout program gets around all that. You do it all from your home or maybe from the beach in Hawaii with your slick new iPad2 with 3G . Hit the button. Read the book. And if you forget about it, the book automatically gets checked back in after 14 days. No muss, no fuss. No lost books. No late fees.
I went to the e-book check out site for the Oakland Library. It wasn’t perfect. It is, after all, still a library. There were some of the usual library annoyances. The selection wasn’t great and half the titles available were in Chinese. And the books I really wanted were all on hold. But the list is growing, and it’s going to be pretty nifty.
Publishers have been concerned about this and with good reason. These new library e-book lending programs, which are all managed by a wholesaler called “Overdrive“, are so easy that it really is the same experience as buying one from a bookseller. It’s just like going to Amazon.com – except no charge.
This week, HarperCollins decided to put the brakes on this. They implemented a new policy where instead of just selling the library an e-book like they do to bookstores, they will only sell libraries a license to download the book 26 times. That is the estimated number of times that an ink-on-paper book would be checked out in a year. After that, the library would have to buy another copy. Harper would also impose rules that the libraries could only provide this service to members located in the communities they serve.
The librarians are pissed. They and their knuckle dragging goons are already planning to punish HarperCollins. They’ve even launched a boycott. Check out the website. Josh Marwell, Harper’s president for sales pointed out that with the millions of e-reading devices expected to be purchased by consumers in the coming year, HarperCollins decided that the terms of sale of e-books to libraries “if left unchanged, would undermine the emerging e-book ecosystem, hurt the growing e-book channel, place additional pressure on physical bookstores, and in the end lead to a decrease in book sales and royalties paid to authors.”
Look, I don’t want to say anything bad about libraries. Just like I don’t want to say anything bad about puppy shelters. But dammit! I’m tired of all these people who think that authors shouldn’t get paid for their work. “Ask the Agent” has previously written about the noxious idea that “information wants to be free.” It is a view espoused in books by Internet gurus who get paid quite well for promoting this idea.
The United Kingdom has a curious notion that authors should – well — get paid. In 1979 parliament passed the Public Lending Rights Act that mandated that authors receive a royalty every time their book is checked out of a public library. The royalty amount is 12 cents per check out with a yearly maximum of about $10,000 US. Other countries that offer some form of compensation to writers for library check outs are: Germany, Netherlands, Israel, Canada, Australia, and Denmark. Civilized societies who honor intellectual labor. And what countries do not pay royalties for library check outs? Libya, Yemen, North Korea, and The United States of America.
Librarians, listen up! It is written. “He who troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.”