Or get out at least until there is a better system?
I know what you are going to say, I can hear it already – “We can’t! Our patrons demand ebooks!” Except the truth is our patrons want a lot of things we can’t give them – to always be first on the waiting list for the new James Patterson, to not pay fines when their books are late, for the library to be open earlier or later, or to have a system besides Dewey because despite using it their entire lives they still cannot figure it out. When it comes to ebooks, we cannot give them what they want, not really, we cannot give them books from Simon and Schuster or MacMillian or new books from Penguin or Hatchet, and not more than 26 times from HarperCollins, and probably not many books from Random House. What we can do, what maybe we should do, is spend their tax money wisely, and I am no longer convinced that spending it on the current ebook system is a wise move.
First let’s look at the demand. As librarians we spend a great deal of time thinking and talking about books and subsequently ebooks. But the truth is we spend far more time focusing on ebooks than the population. Reports vary on the actual percentage of the population that own an ereader, but general consensus agrees that after the holiday season this year it is only about 19 percent of the population that owns an ereader, if you factor in tablets that number rises to 29%. Of course there is no guarantee that those tablet owners are reading ebooks on their device, but I’ll be generous and go with 29%. Ok, you say but we still have to serve that 29%.
But what are we serving them? One only has to look at Library Journal’s A Guide to Publishers in the Library Ebook Market to realize it’s pretty slim pickings. So we’re providing a mediocre access at best.
Plus if you have the fortune to be the person at your library who is responsible for helping patrons with ebooks and troubleshooting problems you know that the process is a nightmare. In order to borrow library ebooks a patrons must have a compatible device, a home computer capable of running Adobe Digital Editions, a high-speed internet connection, and enough tech savvy to set everything up and get it to work correctly. If all goes well, wonderful! But if one thing goes wrong, woe to the librarian providing support over the phone. Honestly the process is a nightmare. The most beautiful thing to happen to the ebook lending process was the partnership with Amazon that allowed it to happen wirelessly.
The whole thing is a hot mess. A hot mess that is consuming our time, our resources and a our money. We are in the midst of the ebook wars, just look at the number of proprietary systems and file formats.
Or look at the regular headlines about publishers fighting with Amazon over pricing, the latest being Amazon yanks 5,000 titles from Independent Publishers Group, a Chicago book distributor.
I can’t help but wonder if Guy LeCharles Gonzales is right when he writes:
Stop buying ebooks across the board, at any price, under any terms. Let publishers fight it out with Amazon, and when the dust finally settles (it will) and a viable business model appears (maybe), begin negotiating anew, on solid ground, with whomever’s left standing.
In the meantime, libraries can redirect those precious resources and finances being flagged for ebooks towards more tangible initiatives in their respective communities.
Surely every library has a service gap or three to fill that’s more valuable than overpaying for temporary licenses to files and platforms they don’t own, that may or may not work on their patrons’ devices of choice, and whose pricing can fluctuate more wildly than that of crude oil and Netflix stock.
Maybe libraries should just stop buying ebooks until there is a real, viable solution to the situation. Do not mistake me, I do not think we should stop looking for a solution or stop advocating on behalf of our patrons, but I do think perhaps we should stop throwing good money at a bad solution.
I am certainly not the only one thinking about this, Andy Woodworth offers a list of alternative uses for your ebook budgets. I have suggested it before and I will suggest it again, take a look a Library Renewal.
We need a solution to the library/ebook problem, we need a seat at the table in ebook discussions, but right now libraries (and our patrons) are just collateral damage in the ebooks war.
Karen Schneider points out in her recent post about publishers, ebooks, and libraries:
Note that publishers have had their eyes on libraries for a long time. A pioneering librarian, Marvin Scilken, led the charge to expose imbalance in bookstore/library pricing decades ago, which resulted in an agreement on library pricing that no doubt has stuck in publishers’ craws ever since. (See his Wikipedia bio, cf. the section “1966 Senate Hearing on the Price Fixing of Library Books.”) Depending on who is in office, there would have to be some similar sympathy these days. Studying those hearings and their arguments might be useful. (Just like studying librarians of yore is valuable. Definitely at least one entire week in my Fantasy Library Class.)
How Marvin proceeded, and succeeded, might be a very useful research question to pursue in the ALA library and ALA archives — and could be a great class project for that class I don’t have time to teach. But one thing’s for sure: the good work Marvin did in 1966 is now being upended. Then again, maybe, in its own way, it can be repeated.
I have been thinking for a while now that we will not find a solution by politely saying “please, sir, I want some more“. After all we (as a society not libraries) did not get the first sale doctrine out of the goodness of someone’s heart, it came from a court case. Maybe we need to stop asking. It wouldn’t be the first time.