E-book Wars, Episode 10: Revenge of the Killer Librarians

Your local librarian

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.”


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12 Responses to “E-book Wars, Episode 10: Revenge of the Killer Librarians”

  1. Toby Says:

    (Warning: response from a librarian follows)
    I’ve been spending a lot of time this past week talking to authors, librarians, and readers alike, and I’m struggling to make sense of this idea that librarians are somehow cheating authors out of sales.

    Say it with me: Librarians buy books. Now say it again. My library spent nearly two million dollars last year on materials – not quite one-fifth of its annual operating budget. How many organizations do you know spend one dollar out of every five paying money for books?

    Furthermore, a significant part of our time and energy is spent getting people to read. Discussions. Storytimes. Booklists. Constant hand-selling of titles both popular and obscure. Be glad we don’t charge publishers for our marketing services.

    We are direct participants in a book culture that has a significant positive impact on book sales. This survey commissioned by ALA (http://www.ala.org/ala/research/librarystats/public/purchasing_after_use_omni_6_20.pdf) is a few years old, but the facts are clear: people who use libraries buy books.

    I’m all for a model that befits publishers, libraries, and authors alike. We’re eager to discuss these issues, provided we can get a seat at the table. I would even make a case for a royalty-based checkout model like the one implemented in the UK. We’re all part of an ecosystem that should be working together to drive home the value of the printed word. But the idea that libraries are freeloading off the industry or are threats to sales is pretty misguided, to say the least.

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Thanks for weighing in on this. I, of course, agree with everything you say. And I hope you will indulge me my gentle humor at your expense. Libraries are the most passionate carriers of book culture left alive. I admire their mission and the enormous committment of librarians. I did not intend to blame librarians for taking advantage of authors. That would have to rest with the publishers.

      • Jennifer Says:

        Andy, I obviously wrote my passionate defense of libraries before reading your reply to Andy’s note – thank you for qualifying your comments.

      • Jennifer Says:

        Arrrrgh. I meant to say “your reply to Toby’s note” and in my comment, I meant to say “Toby has already said …”. Oh well, you know who you are. 🙂

      • andyrossagency Says:

        That’s ok, Jennifer. Obviously the “killer librarians” are at my gate. I’ve been using the Overdrive Program with my Oakland Public Library. And yes, it is true that there are the usual obstacles of having to queue up to get the popular books. I am sure it is going to be awhile before the libraries kill the bookstores. Meanwhile god bless you for teaching our kids to love reading. (I still like the UK royalty system though). Andy

      • Toby Says:

        …walking back from the ledge…

        Thanks for your support, Andy. As you can imagine, it’s been a pretty hectic week, and my satire-radar is a bit on the fritz. I appreciate any efforts on the behalf of books – not libraries, not authors, but books. Keep fighting the good fight.

      • shinyinfo Says:

        Your attempt at humor touched a nerve with me and probably other librarians who are so very tired of battling this incorrect image of libraries and their services with the public. HA HA people think this way and that’s why I’m losing my job, HILARIOUS! If you actually support the mission of libraries and librarians than this is probably the absolute worst way to go about it. I award you no points and may god have mercy on your soul.

  2. Jennifer Says:

    I was getting all geared up to write a response to this, but Andy has already said what I would have said. Libraries buy books, librarians push books, people read books, libraries buy more books. Libraries have been part and parcel of the book ecosystem for more than a century and will continue to be, given the right mechanisms for creating ebook sharing systems that don’t cheat publishers. Overdrive itself is one such mechanism, and I am surprised that neither HarperCollins nor the author of this blog post seem aware of that. The OverDrive system limits how many people at a time can “check out” a given piece of content. Libraries (or, more usually, consortia) pay more for licenses that cover more readers. Ergo, readers have to get in line for ebooks, just like they do for physical books. This makes zero sense from the “information wants to be free” standpoint, because after all, limitless digital copies are theoretically possible – but it makes perfect sense for protecting publishers from the loss of profits, which is very likely why it was set up that way to begin with. People who have the means and inclination to skip the line by changing modes and buying the book will do so – on their Kindle, iPad, or in print. Publishers do not lose out in this model, far from it, and neither do authors.

  3. Kevin Arnold Says:

    An important part of this discussion is that the major publishers are only allowing authors and their agents 25% royalties on E-books. Except for the costs of suing libraries, etc., their distributioin costs are basically zero. As I understand it, that part of the contract is fairly non-negotiable. When Harper Collins declares war on libraries it isn’t for the good of the authors, it’s for the bottom line of the publshers, three to one.

  4. Abigail Samoun Says:

    I’ve been an editor in the children’s book industry for ten years and I’ve seen first-hand just how hard it is for authors to make a living. Picture book advances must be the tiniest in all of publishing. Visit any library and you can see picture books getting checked out ten or twelve at a time. What a difference it would make to those authors and illustrators if they received a small royalty each time a tyke took one of their books home. I truly believe that a civilized country is one that encourages and supports its artists. The U.S. is shamefully behind on this account.

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Thanks Abigail, as you can see by the comments on this post, I seem to have stirred up a bit of a hornet’s nest. Libraries, obviously do an enormous service to readers and to authors by cultivating the love of reading and creating readers for life. But yes, a small royalty for every checkout seems pretty fair to me. It’s an idea whose time has come in Europe. And I hope we won’t be far behind.

  5. Shawndra Russell Says:

    I guess I stupidly assumed authors got compensated for the number of times their book was checked out, or at least their publisher took note and factored it in somehow. Sigh. Stuff like this makes you wonder if it’s worth trying to be an author?

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