February 3, 2012

Random House makes history, says it will sell books to libraries with no restriction on number of loans


It’s one of those modern situations that no one in publishing ever imagined: Being at odds with librarians, the ultimate champions of literacy and literature. But that’s been the situation as publishers have tried to figure out how, exactly, to handle selling ebooks to libraries. I mean, the situation has always been perfectly straightforward: You sold a library a book and, when their patrons wore it out, you sold them another one. But no one foresaw books that wouldn’t wear out. How in the world do you price such a thing?

There have been, as we’ve noted before, some solutions that didn’t go over well. Take, for example, HarperCollins‘ announcement, back in March of last year, that it would only allow a library 26 circs — circulations — of its ebooks, then the library would have to pay for another copy.

That didn’t go over well.

As we reported last November, Penguin pulled its books from library distributor Overdrive because it distributed Penguin’s ebooks to Amazon’s Kindle Lending Library — which had no contract with Penguin allowing them to do so.  But that meant that most libraries in the country couldn’t get ebooks of Penguin titles. As a School Library Journal report notes, Penguin’s move proved temporary, but it had a “chilling effect” on libraries doing business with the company.

Meanwhile, of the remaining Big Six publishers, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan, simply don’t sell ebooks to libraries.

In short, none of them have been able to figure out a deal that struck them as fair and equitable. That, and/or they’re all waiting to see what the other guy does first.

But yesterday, the biggest of the Big Six, Random House, threw caution to the wind and announced they’d struck a deal with libraries: It was going to raise the price of its ebooks to library wholesalers, but once a library had bought the book, that was it. They could loan it out as many times as they wanted and never have to pay for it again.

“Never has a price increase been such good news for libraries,” trumpeted a Publishers Weekly report. According to PW,

While price increases may not be easy to swallow in tough economic times, it is well within normal practice. “Libraries are used to paying a bit more for library versions, whether it’s with a library cover on a book, like in the old days, or an institutional journal subscription, where libraries pay more than the cost of a personal subscription,” Internet Archive and Open Library founder Brewster Kahle [said] …

Of course, what hasn’t been said is how much more Random is going to charge for those books. What would make up for the tremendous loss in long-term income for those books? I.e., what constitutes an equitable pay-out to publishers and their authors, in return for lots of people sharing one copy of a book … forever? None of the coverage has speculated on that.

And indeed, it seems almost unsolvable, a depressing conundrum dividing natural allies … short of an arbitrary decision. Perhaps it was simple relief, then, that greeted that arbitrary decision. At any rate, a Library Journal report notes Random House made the announcement “After an ‘upbeat and productive’ meeting with leaders of the American Library Association.”

Interestingly, the announcement was rather unusual in its emotionality: “Our commitment to libraries, as imperative to our momentum, if not to our existence as publishers, is greater than ever,” said Random House spokesman Stuart Applebaum. He added, “The leadership of Random House grew up in large part loving libraries and we believe libraries are indispensable in bringing readers and books buyers to our authors’ works. It’s an emotional as well as a practical commitment in our support and our enthusiasm for libraries.”

In any event, thus is history made. Now we wait and see how long it takes the remaining Big Five to follow suit.



Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.