ALA & AAP: the relationship between public libraries and publishers

ALA & AAP: the relationship between public libraries and publishers

recently reported about an open letter from the American Library Association’s President, Maureen Sullivan to American publishers.

The AAP (Association of American Publishers) has responded, as reported by Publishers Weekly:

PW article

The ALA letter did have some emotionally charged language:

  • “refused”
  • “no good”
  • “denying”
  • “not”
  • “cannot”
  • “lock out”
  • “doesn’t add up”
  • “discriminatory”

Interestingly, the AAP letter (which is shorter), does appear to be trying to play the “grown up”. They say:

“At a time when individual publishing houses are more actively engaged than ever in exploring viable solutions to e-lending, we are disappointed that the new leadership at ALA chose this path, with this particular timing, to criticize those efforts…”

When you hear that language, “I’m disappointed in you,” it usually comes from an authority figure: a parent, a teacher, a boss. It’s not something you usually hear peer to peer…does your Significant Other say, “I’m disappointed you didn’t call” or just say, “Why didn’t you call me?”

From the business perspective, libraries and publishers are currently negotiating new contracts. There’s an obvious question here: why did President Sullivan make this an open letter, which by definition is seen by the public?

Clearly, it’s to involve the public in some way. Either it’s to have them impact this negotiation, or to affect other interactions with the public. In either case, it suggests to me that the librarians do not think they are in a position of strength.  If you are having a disagreement at a restaurant table with your partner, and you are sure you are going to win, do you turn the room and say, “Am I right?” You don’t, because you are already doing okay…you don’t want to complicate the situation. If it does look like it is going your way, you look like a jerk by airing it publicly. If you think you are going to lose, then you might “rally the troops”, call for the cavalry.

It’s entirely possible that librarians (who I think are generally perceived by the public as a force for good) can bring pressure on the publishers (who, in recent years, have been painted as being greedy, corporate, and draconian by many) by customers to bring about a change.

However, it’s unclear that has worked in the past. Lots of people didn’t like the Agency Model, but it took legal action (not popular opinion) to get a change. There were actual public protests over the blocking of text-to-speech access, and that has changed somewhat, but some publishers seemed comfortable having the policy of blocking.

When the publishers controlled the pricing under the Agency Model, they didn’t seem to hesitate to raise prices for popular bestsellers past the $9.99 magic number, despite thousands of forum posts protesting that four digit price.

This may be different. I think that it may be that the vast section of the public which is not made up of serious readers will side with the librarians, bringing additional market pressure. It might parallel a bit with the recent lock out of refs in the NFL (National Football League). The anger over the substitute refs appeared to spread way beyond the group of people who actually watch the games, and a change happened.

So, while I would guess that the librarians’ letter genuinely reflects how the organization feels, making it public was a business move.

What’s the basic issue here?

Some publishers are not licensing e-books to libraries at all, and others have either restricted lending or raised the licensing fee.

When a library gets a book (e-book or p-book…paperbook), it doesn’t pay what you pay for it. There are different agreements involved…that’s one reason why, when you donate a book, you don’t see it on the shelf: it goes into a library sale, commonly.

The publishers are clear: the rules on e-books have to be different from those on p-books.


Well, for one thing, e-books never wear out. P-books do, and have to be replaced.

I also wonder if the publishers think the cycle of  “discover” and “purchase” is different for e-books. Are people less likely to read an e-book and then want to purchase it for themselves? I do think that’s possible. Having held a physical object in your hands can change your perception of its value. Some people don’t like to give a gift card for something…they prefer to give the item itself. I think part of that is this tangibility impact.

President Sullivan said:

“…recent research from the Pew Internet Project tells us that library users are more than twice as likely to have bought their most recent book as to have borrowed it from a library.”

That doesn’t really tell us what the publishers would want to know. The question is, does having borrowed an e-book from the library make it more or less likely that the person would purchase the book…and how does that compare to p-books?

I think the initial publisher reaction may have been out of fear. If there is a flood, and a wall of water is coming towards your house, you look around quickly and grab things that have personal meaning and/or that seem irreplaceable.

I think the “digital deluge” meant that publishers grabbed what they considered valuable, and held it tight.

They grabbed audio, they grabbed the ability to lend to friends, they grabbed public library lending. They clutched them to their chests, uncertain what was going to happen next.

I don’t have the data to say whether publishers are right or not, in terms of the economics, to encourage library borrowing…but neither did they when they made the decision.

My intuition is that publishers allowing their books to be borrowed in public libraries would be a net positive for them, and certainly, I want books to be available to as many people as easily as possible. However, I also recognize the creative and production side: I’m a big supporter of copyright, and I see the legitimate role of publishers.

Outside of this business negotiation, there is a basic societal question: what is the role of the public library?

The public pays taxes to support libraries: should the books be available to everyone? Alternatively, are they there to make books available to people who otherwise couldn’t afford them? If it’s the latter, I do think we could see publishers loan e-books on a need-tested basis; if you could legitimately afford to buy them yourself, you don’t get them for free. In that scenario, it could be supported by tax incentives, rather than by taxpayers directly.

What do you think? If a publisher doesn’t support library borrowing, does that affect your decision to buy from them? Are you less likely to buy an e-book you’ve already read than a p-book you’ve already read?  Do you think President Sullivan’s letter was inflammatory…and will that work? Feel free to let me and my readers know by commenting on this post.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.


5 Responses to “ALA & AAP: the relationship between public libraries and publishers”

  1. Man in the Middle Says:

    The only way I notice library borrowing is when publishers ask above $3 for an Ebook. In such cases, I try instead to read the book at my local library. As for buying a book I’ve already read, the key is that it’s one I’m sure I’ll read or refer to again, and priced under $3. (I used to say under $10, but so many good books are now available for $1-3, that I rarely pay more. I’m very happy libraries exist as alternatives to buying books that are priced higher than seems fair to me.

  2. Edward Foster Says:

    Mr. Buffo, we, you and I, have discussed this before. 🙂 And I have been watching the latest wranglings quiet closely. In particular I found the response of Penguin V.P. Tim McCall to be quite interesting. I am not entirely sure what the motivation is behind the strong position taken by the big 6, fear or greed or any of the other motivations attributed to them. But I do attribute the ALA’s open letter to more than just a negotiation ploy.

    This is a big deal. Equitable access to information is not just an issue of business, but also a matter of justice. Given the chance e-books may be just as powerful a force for change and equality as print books were when Gutenberg invented his press. This is not a negotiation between libraries and publishers. It is a negotiation between the public those libraries and librarians represent and the publishers.

    I don’t know enough about their business models or about how electronic publishing has harmed the big publishers (if at all). And like you, I really do want the publishers to succeed. The service they provide in bringing high quality books to market, elevating the really exceptional, and providing expert editing so that they can be exceptional is truly a valuable commodity.

    While I am not entirely sure how much of an outcry or influence the public will put on publishers to reach a fair agreement with libraries, I would be very surprised that in the absence of such an agreement that legislation would be passed that would answer the questions for them.

    I hope that isn’t the case. Just as I wished that legal action would not be required to stop the collusion on prices that I believe they are guilty of, I hope that that they will recognize the public trust that they hold and will use that trust wisely.

    The next few months will surely be interesting. I will be watching them with you!

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Edward!

      I think equitable access is very important; that’s part of why the text-to-speech issue is such an important one to me.

      However, the reason I see this as a negotiating action (which does not inherently make it insincere) is that it was done in public, during the negotiation. If it was simply a matter of expressing a genuine concern to the publishers, it could have been done privately to them…rather than in an open letter.

      E-books are already making the changes you suggest, with public domain books being widely available for free. We’re not talking about classics here, though…we are talking about current books, which may be as valuable, but which are currently commercial in nature.

      If making all of the books available to the public for free is a matter of justice, then, as you suggest, a legal solution might be the answer. Publishing could become a publicly supported enterprise, paid for by taxes.

      Otherwise, I think it will be difficult to compel publishers to license e-books to libraries. They could be encouraged to do so with tax incentives (as they are with donating paperbooks, which they have done in large numbers).

      I still think that the possible solution is a needs-testing system. That would provide equal access to those who are economically disadvantaged.

      I appreciate your passion on this! I do think the open letter was a negotiating tactic, but that doesn’t make it a negotiating ploy. 🙂

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