Hello and welcome to Stacking Up, a blog for the "modern" librarian! The great thing about today's librarians is that we are so diverse: different ages, backgrounds, personalities, looks... this blog is here to share this diversity with ideas, insights, stories, experiences and opinions for anything and everything having to do with being a librarian!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Publishers vs. Libraries: Facing the E-Book Debacle

This is an article that  I just read.  I think it was very well-written and speaks to some of the major issues libraries are facing right now as they struggle to stay current and relevant in their respective communities-- while also looking to and planning for the future. The title of this article is a question I think we all ask ourselves, and there are so many different opinions that attempt to answer it...

One thing that stuck out to me was this whole HarperCollins policy of restricting the use of library e-books to 26 check-outs before the library has to pay more money to renew their license. This is clearly going against our values and even our raison d'etre of providing open, public access to information as freely and readily as possible. Josh Marshall, the president of sales for HarperCollins, says that the "26-use" model is supposed to make the cost-per-circulation of titles less than the cost for physical books. Well, that's great, but I'm pretty sure there is quite a BIG difference between renting and owning a book... Just like when you rent an apartment, you shovel lots of money into living someplace, and then when you move out, you're left with nothing. On the other hand, when you invest in buying a house to own, you can choose to do what you like with that house and in the future, you can sell your property. With this 26-use model proposed by HarperCollins, libraries will be left with exactly what the person renting an apartment is left with: NOTHING. There is an actual investment when a library buys a physical book-- and I'm not saying all books are worthy of long shelf-lives, but what do you do when a patron comes in looking for a book that long ago ran out of it's 26-use license? Do you shell out more moolah so that the patron can access the book he/she wants? Or are they out of luck?

I also dislike those saying that, once E-Books become the norm for all readers, libraries will go the way of the dinosaurs. First of all, not everyone likes reading from a screen, even a Kindle. Many readers like their old-fashioned ink on paper, and I don't think I'm being idealistic or sentimental when I say that  physical books will not soon be replaced by E-Books in any case. Second- as this article points out- these people are grossly misunderstanding the purpose of libraries- they are not simply peddlers of books. As Nora Daly, digital curator of the British Library so succinctly puts it, "[Libraries] exist to collect, sometimes create, but always preserve... knowledge, regardless of what format it is in and to help make it grow through advocating and assuring free and fruitful access to it." The increase in use of digital and digitally-born material is not threatening that purpose, it is simply redefining how that purpose is carried out.

The last point I want to highlight from this article is that made by author Cory Doctorow: How are publisher's bettering their relations with libraries and their users when they are pushing for policies that basically offend by insinuating suspicion and distrust? As Doctorow states:

"In an increasingly digital world, there is no way to coerce someone into paying for something if they want to take it for free... The only mechanism we have for convincing people to do the right thing, the legitimate thing or even the profitable thing is to appeal to their sense of ethics. I don't think you start doing that by saying that 'by the way, we don't trust you, we've developed this book that explodes after 26 uses and you can no longer own books anyway'." 

From a business standpoint, maybe HarperCollins thinks that this model of temporary access to digital content will be profitable. However, I don't know how profitable it will be when they have driven away the majority of their customers- namely, libraries- with such restrictive policies. 


  1. Nice piece. The idea of a book that "explodes after 26 uses" reminds me of the type of control that Monsanto wields with their GMO seeds which contain 'terminator technology', meaning the resultant crop does not produce viable seeds of their own and farmers are forced to buy more each year. Seems like just another way to monetize and financialize something that was once serving the public good without profiteering.
    As far as E-books becoming the standard, Nathan Bransford had a good point about this on his blog recently:

    Even as some publishers report e-book sales jumping to between 25% and 35% in January, the significant majority of sales are still in print. As I wrote in my recent post about record stores, over a decade after the rise of the mp3 the majority of revenue in music is still in CDs.

    I've noticed that with our book Ravenwild, numerous reviewers have told me that e-books hurt their eyes. They're on the computer all day at work and don't want to also be reading books on a computer at home, so they want the paperback.

  2. I'm all for technology and new digital mediums to communicate information to people, but that is exactly what they lack: viability. I really don't mind e-books (then again, I don't have an e-book reader-- yet) but find me a digital book that'll last for as long as the Gutenberg Bible has.

    The other night my husband and I were watching a movie on Netflix (Close Encounters of the Third Kind haha) and my laptop overheated and I freaked out because I thought my hard drive had crashed-- I've never bothered to backup any of my files onto a flashdrive so basically I would've lost everything from the past 2 1/2 years.

    I thought about the thousands of photos I've taken from various trips and family gatherings and thought, dang if I just had paper copies! Paper lasts. Not forever, but a heck of a lot longer than digital forms. That kind of material stability and permanency is what worries me about things like e-books-- I'm fine using them, but there had better be an old-fashioned paper copy to back them up!

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