Tuesday, July 30, 2019

How Publishers Continue To Be Wrong About Libraries and Ebooks

Dear Publishing Industry,

Why? Why must you make it so hard for me to actually like you? I love books. I love authors. Heck, I want to love publishers.  After all libraries + publishers should be a peaceful symbiotic relationship.  It shouldn't be this hard.  And yet?  You continue to willingly cast yourselves in a villainous role.  After spending the entirety of the annual Romance Writers America conference last week in a state of low-level, barely contained rage, I have decided I'm done being nice.

My current (or in their case, continued...) ire is with the news that Macmillan Publishing is expanding their "experimental" Tor/Forge imprint embargo to include all their imprints.  The details of the embargo are as follows:
  • Libraries will be allowed to purchase one (yes, one) copy of new Macmillan titles that will be perpetual access.  Libraries can only order one (yes, one) copy at this license level in the first eight-weeks from publication date. 
  • After eight weeks is up, libraries will no longer be able to purchase a perpetual access copy.  Instead, we can then purchase additional copies at metered access (52 check-outs or 2 years, whichever comes first) at full library digital list price (typically, $60)
This situation might be OK for small libraries (assuming they can afford to purchase ebooks in the first place...) but for larger libraries?  Like say, New York, Brooklyn, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Seattle and any other major metropolitan area?  That won't frustrate patrons at all.  Only one lonely copy in the digital collection for 2 months while wait lists get out of control and we can't do anything about it.  Like, say, purchasing more copies in a timely fashion.

Despite sharing zero data to support this move, Macmillan feels that libraries are undercutting their bottom line.  They're losing money because people aren't buying retail in favor of libraries.  Libraries are making it too easy. 
In the memo, Sargent asserted that 45% of Macmillan’s U.S. “e-book reads” were now “being borrowed for free” from libraries," a trend he attributed to a mix of factors, including the lack of "friction" in e-lending compared to physical book lending, the "active marketing by various parties to turn purchasers into borrowers," and unnamed apps "supporting e-book lending regardless of residence, including borrowing from libraries in different states and countries."
Libraries are funded by tax dollars.  Tax dollars paid by the constituents in the areas where we provide service.  I can assure you, we're pretty fanatical about making sure users meet the residency requirements.  And "lack of friction?" What does he consider long wait lists and charging libraries more for the same ebook file they're selling retail via Amazon?  Never mind our budgets have largely remained stagnant and we're buying multiple formats of the Exact. Same. Book. that they published (print, Large Print, audio on CD, e-audio, ebook, and a partridge in a pear tree...)

I hate to break it to Mr. Sargent, but libraries are not the reason why his bottom line has been undercut.  I'm not an economist (nor do I play one on TV) - but I can give you a few reasons why publishing is in the state it's in right now. It doesn't take a genius economic mastermind. It just takes a basic understanding of history and a willingness to pay attention.


  • Remember when ebooks first became "a thing?"  Remember when they really took off?  Remember how traditional publishing buried their heads in the sand, acted like cranky old men who feared change, were slow to adapt, and allowed Amazon to get a stranglehold on the market with the power to dictate pricing?  Which they, predictably, did. Yeah, that. The Big 5 refused to see the writing on the wall until it was too late and now we have the Monolithic Giant Amazon Elephant in the room. 
  • Writers realized that they now had options to get their stories out there and avoid the "gatekeepers" that stood in their way for too long.  Authors told for years that their stories wouldn't sell because "nobody will read that" or "we can't market it" turned to self-publishing and started doing well.  It can also not be dismissed that many, many, many POC tired of banging their heads against the wall of New York went this route. Readers desperate to see themselves represented in books have gravitated towards these writers and self-publishing - leaving New York behind and playing catch-up.
  • The Retail Apocalypse has not only meant the shrinking of physical retail spaces for books, but it also is signalling that we may be on the cusp of another potential economic downturn.  Fewer options has meant publishers are selling their souls to appease Amazon and Walmart.  Retail consumers have fewer places to buy books and, assuming we are headed towards another downturn, are already tightening their belts.  Books are awesome but so is being able to pay your rent and buy food.  
  • Consumers have realized that when they "buy" an ebook - they aren't buying that book.  They're buying a license to view the book, a license that, in theory, could be yanked at any moment.  There is no First Sale Doctrine for ebooks.  Some people don't want to pay $12.99 for an ebook that they don't own, can't do a darn thing with after they're done reading it or lose access to should their retailer of choice deem it so.  Also, publishers refuse to explain the logic of charging more (in some instances) for an ebook copy than a physical copy.  Physical copies mean cost of paper, printing, distribution, etc. while ebooks don't have any of that so why the heck are you charging us more?  I personally know some readers who have stopped buying any Big 5 published book unless it's on sale and the rest of their dollars?  Moving to self-published authors.
  • Rumors are circulating that Amazon is driving the narrative that libraries are the problem, although, predictably, Amazon is denying this.  Look, I don't know if they are or not - but publishers? Really?  If Amazon is telling you this...YOU'RE REALLY THAT STUPID TO BELIEVE THEM?  The same SkyNet monolith that has just signed Dean Koontz, Patricia Cornwell and Sylvia Day away from you?  AMAZON IS NOW YOUR DIRECT COMPETITION! THEY HAVE A VESTED INTEREST IN YOUR DOWNFALL!  And your answer?  Make things more difficult for those of us who aren't Amazon.  Smooth move.
Look, libraries are not unreasonable.  Most of us are agreeable to metered access.  We're not agreeable to price gouging and embargoes.  Ultimately what you are doing is cutting off your nose to spite your face.  Because what libraries are playing is the long game.  In a nutshell?  We frickin' build and create your consumer base.  Without us out here fostering the love of reading and giving access to people of all ages (especially children...), your business is not sustainable.

Libraries buy books. We buy a lot of books.  Some of us have budgets in the millions of dollars that we allocate every year.  One would think that publishers would want a piece of that. You may think we're powerless in light of your maneuverings.  You may think you're safe from a boycott since our core mission is to provide access to information. You've got us on that one.  But never mistake that for libraries being powerless.  We're not.  We can hold you accountable in the court of public opinion and you've been enjoying the fruits of our free publicity machine for years.  When the chickens come home to roost, you'll have nobody to blame but yourselves.

9 comments:

azteclady said...

I am sitting here metaphorically standing up yelling "hear, hear!" while also pounding on the table in agreement.

I really, really hope libraries make it a policy to tell patrons on hold lists why exactly they have to wait.

Phyl said...

I'm curious to know if there's any attempt to get readers as a group to respond to this. It's easy to decide that I'm not buying another Macmillan imprint until they let go of this stupid thinking, but I'm one person.

Susan said...

Amen! I refuse to buy ebooks that are the price of a physical copy—it just doesn’t make sense in any way. I’d buy a lot more of them instead of waiting on a long library list if they were reasonably priced. And very recently, I read an ebook that I had checked out of the library and loved it so much, I bought my own physical copy later so that the rest of my family would read it.

Kristie (J) said...

Yes, yes, yes!!! Sing it Wendy. I loathe the big publishers for many of the reasons you listed. To me what they do best is screw the readers and screw the authors. I love that so many authors are turning more and more to self publishing.

Dorine said...

Sing it, Wendy. I love it when you say what the rest of us would be thinking if we knew what was going on!

I agree with Susan. I have bought so many books based on trying the same author at the library.

I had this happen to me recently - a newer release that had one eBook available. I was reading it for a book club - got an Amazon prime day deal and got it for less than half price. The sad thing is, I was one of two people who will get to read this beautiful book for our book club. Just think of all the people we could have told about this new-to-us author. If I had to pay full hard cover price, I would have never bought it, so they would have lost me too. (The ebook is $3 less than the hardcover - not low enough that I would buy it.).

Wendy said...

Well it's been over a week now and I'm still hovering in constant state of low-level rage. Over pretty much all of it. To Macmillan for continuing to be terrible and the Library Community for being reactive instead of proactive.

Thanks for your comments. Continue to support your local libraries, publishers and authors who don't enrage you. Although these days I feel like I kind of need a scorecard for the latter....

LibraryMaven said...

As a retired librarian I've watched this situation getting worse and worse. Publishers would outlaw libraries as against their copyright ---after all Librarians (those subversives) buy a few copies and actually share these books with everyone at THE LIBRARY even if they can't afford to buy them for themselves. How radical, how subversive. If you want to read something, learn how to repair your house, improve your mind or even take your mind off your troubles, you should have to pay....$24.99 or $27.99 or whatever. I mean if you want to learn something you should have to PAY for it, lots, and lots.

I hear Benjamin Franklin whirling in his grave. His lending library idea meant poor people could actually better themselves and rise in society. How radical! We forget what a privilege a free public library is to our peril as a nation and as individuals.

Wendy said...

LibraryMaven: It's doubly frustrating because the signs are there, but they have refused to read them. Once digital took off they dug in their heels and have been trying to catch-up ever since. And instead of playing hardball with Amazon and looking at other ways to diversify their business model - it's easier for them to point their finger at libraries being the problem. Which, hello - we have never been the problem. We weren't the problem before ebooks after all and we're still in the same business. It's just the formats are changing.

Sigh. Anyway. The other thing that really frustrates me about this whole debacle is how ableist AF it is. Disabled readers who utilize the public library aren't going to have the same level of access. And that blows.

azteclady said...

Wendy: yes! Ableist as. fuck.

The damage they are doing to the community (let alone their own business, the imbeciles) will ripple outwards and, as always, hurt the most vulnerable first, hardest, and longest.